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Medievalism in practice and theory

Print edition : Sep 20, 1997 T+T-

TEN years ago this month, a young woman burned alive on the funeral pyre of her husband in Deorala, Rajasthan. This act of murder - or, at the very least, abetted suicide - has been virtually condoned by many who should be concerned with the protection of human life and dignity in our country. The local and State government authorities did not prevent the act then, nor did they move particularly quickly to arrest or to lodge cases against those responsible. Subsequent large gatherings of people at Deorala and elsewhere, which were explicitly arranged to celebrate the sati of Roop Kanwar, have been allowed to take place and there have been representatives of the establishment present at more than one of these functions. The legal case against those involved was of course subject to the usual long delays of the Indian judicial system but, more significantly, it led to the acquittal of all the accused for lack of witnesses in court. And now, there is even talk of a film being produced that will effectively glorify both Roop Kanwar and the act of sati.

There was a time when condemnation of such an incident would have been widespread, at least among the intelligentsia, and the whole grisly episode would rightly have been seen as a barbarous relic of medievalism, which symbolised so much that has been wrong in society's attitude to women. But such is the confusion of these supposedly "postmodern" times that it is possible to find several intellectuals who will declare themselves unable to condemn this act on the basis of any universal principle of human rights, and who have sought to find in it more transcendent meanings which end up justifying it. Thus, soon after the Deorala incident, there were at least two prominent Delhi-based intellectuals who objected to the feminist condemnation of sati by defending the philosophy underlying this act and speaking of the need to understand the self-actualisation of the subject - that is, the unfortunate Roop Kanwar.

This is part of a more general movement in the social sciences, directed against ideas of progress which stem from a modernist approach, and emphasising subjectivity in all matters. This tendency is particularly popular in universities in the United States at the moment, which gives it a much greater international power because of the dominance of these universities in research funding, publications and other areas that matter to our own intellectuals. In its extreme form, some of the literature express ideas that would be laughable if they were not so dangerous - in terms of the wholesale rejection of "western" science or medicine, for example, or the positing of this as simply one of the many other imperfect traditions of humanity without giving any precedence to rationality. There have been more balanced and reflective arguments, however, which may be more seductive because of their apparent sensitivity, but which remain just as dangerous because of the particular social context in which they are made.

It is certainly valid to argue against the arrogance of a universalising modernism that does not question itself or give sufficient space to cultural plurality. But to move from that to a complete rejection of the universality of certain fundamental human rights, or even to a rejection of the modernist project of providing these rights and better material conditions for most of humanity, is far more problematic. It is wrong in historical terms because it fails to recognise historical processes and posits an ahistorical and imagined ideal as the non-modern alternative. As Achin Vanaik has recently argued in his perceptive and thoughtful book Communalism Contested: Religion, Modernity and Seculiarisation (Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 1997), this is "not just a lost cause, but a non-existent one. The only feasible choices are either an arrogant, overbearing modernity, or a critical and modest one." (page 177)

This position is also wrong in ethical terms, for it can deny basic human rights to a large chunk of humanity on spurious grounds of cultural relativism and the equality of competing traditions. Thus, sati is a crime against humanity in general - and certainly against one woman in particular -regardless of the victim's own feelings in the matter and whatever be others' perceptions of the "nobility" of the act . Similarly, traditionalist positions that glorify various forms of injustice or inequality on the grounds that the victims themselves are subjectively happy about it are equally undesirable.

It is significant that many of the votaries of these anti-modern positions have tended to underplay patriarchy. One of the important contributions of modernist thought - and modernist politics - has been the growing recognition of the human rights of women and the need to change social perceptions of gender roles from those typical of traditional societies.

When anti-modern social theorists challenge these modernist premises, they also threaten the move towards greater democratisation of society that has come about through much struggle. And when they decry notions of progress, they also undermine the chances of the greater access of all the people to the conditions that they themselves have benefited from. This is what makes these ideas - which appear superficially to be more egalitarian - dangerously undemocratic.