Cultures in conflict

Published : Aug 09, 1997 00:00 IST

Every nation has at any given time not one culture but several, and not only as unity in diversity but also as unity of opposites.

INDIA is one of the few countries of the world, certainly the only country of considerable size and claim to world distinction, that will enter the 21st century with half of its people illiterate and its women facing a dowry death every one hour and 42 minutes, a rape every 54 minutes, a molestation every 26 minutes. India also produces an impressive cross-section of the world's technical personnel and some of the world's most celebrated novelists in the English language; exhibits and auctions organised by such illustrious agencies as Christie's would suggest that an increasing number of Indian painters and other artists are now selling at very good prices in the global art market. How are these contrasting facts related to the state of culture in India half a century after Independence?

'CULTURE' is a difficult word. In one range of meanings, 'Culture' refers to the cultivation of superior intellectual abilities and spiritual refinements, as reflected, for example, in institutions of higher learning and the arts. Novelists, painters, professors, theologians, scientists, filmmakers, and specialists of various kinds are crucial for this sense of 'Culture'. But 'Culture' also means 'a whole way of life' as it is sedimented historically and lived in concrete material practice by a people, whether organised in units of nationality or not. Third, however, it is often presumed that culture as 'a whole way of life' is crystallised in a 'High Culture' of superior learning and finer perception. A country that has a large number of litterateurs, scientists, sculptors and so on is presumed to have attained a high level of culture. Finally, 'Culture' may also refer to aggregate patterns of civic life: a 'culture of civility' may be distinguished from a 'culture of cruelty' and the one may give way, in conditions of social transition, to the other, as is happening in large parts of India today.

The definition of 'Culture' as a 'whole way of life' is perhaps the most arresting, since this can be read in a great many ways. For instance, references are often made to 'Indian culture' or 'Hindu culture' or, more plausibly, to 'Brahminical culture' or 'upper class culture'. The latter two claims are more plausible because members of the same consolidated caste or class do tend to share broad parameters of a certain culture. But usages where culture is identified with a nation-state or a religion tend to obfuscate matters considerably, and they often conceal a demonstrable degree of aggressivity behind benign-sounding cultural invocation. For example, the Hindutva ideologues claim that there is what they call the 'Indian cultural mainstream' to which Hindus seem to belong by birth and all the rest - Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists - are urged to swim into. Similarly, 'Hindu culture' can only be the culture of caste Hindus. No one is ever urged to join the 'Culture' of the casteless who are generally presumed to be culture-less as well. The penetration of some odd habits of the caste-ridden into the cultures of some of the casteless is what Indian cultural anthropology quaintly calls 'Sanskritisation', of which too independent India has witnessed a good deal.

Social conflicts of various kinds, along lines of class, caste, gender, ethnicity and so on actually leave very little room for a 'whole way of life' to be shared by 'a people' or a whole nation to any significant extent. Compared, for example, to the number of illiterates in the country, the number of those who get science degrees or those who read Salman Rushdie or Anita Desai is minuscule. This is a fair index of the cultural situation in India at the present time, since depriving the vast majority of people any access to modern cultural goods is itself 'a whole way of life' in India and thus a 'national culture' in its own very material way, which requires that cultural capital, like money-capital, be not re-distributed but greatly concentrated.

Culture in the sense of 'High Culture' (for example, techno-managerial strata, Midnight's Children, Christie's auctions, and now The God of Small Things), and culture in the sense of 'a whole way of life' (for example, illiteracy, violence against women, child labour) have not been mutually unrelated in independent India, and the latter is not on the way to being eradicated by the former. These patterns within a single national culture have been but two aspects of our specific kind of embourgeoisment. Culture, in other words, is not an arena for the harmonious unfolding of the Nationalist Spirit, nor merely a zone of the aesthetic. It is, rather, a field of very material contentions and conflicts. Every nation has at any given time not one culture but several, and not only as unity in diversity but also as unity of opposites.

Ayodhya on August 14-15, 1993, when the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) organised a cultural show, Mukt Naad, on the banks of the Sarayu in celebration of India's cultural pluralism.

LOOKED at this way, it is really quite astonishing how closely culture is connected with politics and economy, and how much it has to do with pedagogical functions of the state. The organisation of the cultural field in independent India, which has concentrated cultural resources in the main cities, notably Delhi and secondarily some State capitals, while making little effort to eradicate illiteracy, provide mass education or develop peri-urban townships as centres of modern creativity, was entirely in keeping with the Mahalonobis mode of economic growth, in which development of industry, especially the capital goods industry, was to lay the foundation for a much-postponed modernisation of agriculture. The emphasis was on higher education rather than on primary and secondary education; on Culture as refinement of Spirit rather than Culture as a mode of collectively shared civic values. Hence, for example, the magisterial Academies (of Arts, Letters, Dance and Music), the Research Councils (for History, Social Science), the Institutes of Technology, the Central Universities, the state-sponsored scientific establishment. In its own curious way, the model has worked. At the upper end of the scale, India has an intelligentsia that aspires to, and can and does rub shoulders with the best and the brightest in the metropoles of capital and culture in the North. The bottom half of India does not read or write, and another 30 per cent or so does but barely.

This, then, is reflected in linguistic cultures, which too rest on a three-part system of English education, vernacular literacy and a wide variety of oral cultures without benefits of literacy. Compared to the colonial period, English now has a broader social reach and the English-speaking intelligentsia is now more numerous and confident than ever before. Even though perhaps not much more than five per cent of the population actually reads it with any degree of fluency, English alone accounts for roughly 40 per cent of all Indian publishing, thanks partly no doubt to textbook consumption and government printing. Though spoken by relatively few, English performs four key functions: it plays an integrative role in trans-regional cultural contacts; it signifies deepening penetration of society by the national state and the national economy; it serves as one of the barriers against imposition of Hindi on the rest of Indian society; and it serves as the medium for transactions between the Indian intelligentsia and currents in world culture. In production of scientific and social-scientific knowledges, the role of English is predominant. In the world of literary creativity, Indian writers of English command high visibility and disproportionate power but remain a minority current. All in all, English is the language of a small minority. Among the rest of the literate, however, knowledge of English is reduced to a bare smattering, while knowledge of regional languages has greatly advanced. The upper layers of the Indian intelligentsia are thus more integrated than before through the English language, electronic and print media, government presence and market forces, but the bulk of this intelligentsia is also more regionally based in daily routines of culture, literacy and communication. These contradictory trends then raise a significant question.

The historic trajectory of nation-states and industrial societies, as these developed in Western Europe and North America, has been toward mono-linguistic cultures. This trend will probably succeed in East Asian zones as well. The socialist countries in Europe, notably the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, attempted to create multi-lingual societies in the course of brisk industrialisation, but the experiment collapsed with the collapse of socialism; the one seemed to have presumed the other. Within this historical perspective, then, India is unique in that it has sought to create an industrial capitalist society out of a notably backward socio-economic structure, more or less hothouse-fashion, but one that would also be multi-lingual. Whether or not these twin projects, of industrialised society and multi-lingual culture, can be completed simultaneously, and whether this combination of industrialisation and multi-lingual culture is possible without the creation of a socialist society, shall be one of the more exacting questions over the next half century.

This question remains open in India thanks to what has been our principal achievement in arenas of politics and culture alike, namely the creation of a broad culture of democratic values and secular civilities through stable mechanisms of universal suffrage and constitutional governance. This culture of democratic values is indispensable in the struggle against linguistic or cultural hegemonism of particular groups and against onslaughts of religio-cultural fascism, which presents itself in the garb of 'national culture'. The survival of secular democracy and the survival of India as a multi-lingual, multi-denominational, multi-cultural society are thus irrevocably linked. This is the specific form, the central expression, of our modernity.

THE past decade has witnessed three fundamental shifts in the cultural field. First, the Hindutva forces, which used to be marginal to national culture in the days of the national movement and in the opening decades of the Republic, are now the main contenders for political dominance and cultural hegemony, especially in North India. Secondly, economic liberalisation has vastly accelerated the creation of a pan-Indian culture of commodity fetishism which the electronic media is carrying far beyond the urban habitats of the bourgeoisie, fairly deep into the countryside. Together, these far-reaching attacks on the founding principles of the Republic have led to an immense brutalisation of day-to-day cultural life, certainly of the affluent but with far-reaching consequences for society at large, as spectres of greed satisfied and greed unsatisfied stalk the land. Thirdly, the lack of a national project for social justice and the acceptance of the supremacy of the market as the final arbiter of the social good, combined with full commodification of competing religiosities, has led to a new eruption of the savage identities of caste and denomination, which gets intellectual respectability from the indigenist scholars for whom secularism is the sin of modernity while savage identities of religion and community are the very essence of what they call 'tradition'. Of these, indigenism is arising as a particular pathology of 'high culture', and Hindutva poses the most immediate danger to the culture of secular civility, but the greatest long-term danger comes from that worship of the market that goes currently under the name of 'liberalisation'. For, unleashing an uncontrolled market in a multi-cultural society that rests on such concentration of wealth and magnitudes of deprivation promises to create a culture so brutish, so much at odds with itself, so devoid of any sense of culture as a 'common way of life', that neither political democracy nor the compact of a united nation may survive this brutalisation of a Republic that was born, some 50 years ago, in dreams of radical equality.

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