Multiple transitions

Print edition : January 20, 2001

Contemporary India - transitions, edited by Peter Ronald deSouza, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2000; pages 388, Rs.475.

THE golden jubilee of the country's Independence in 1997 led to many professional evaluations of the first 50 years of Independence. Several publications, including the book under review, based on such evaluations have appeared during the past few years. Contemporary India has two distinctive features. First, it is based on papers presented at a conference in Lisbon in June 1998, as the beginning of "a new conversation, after nearly four decades of sullen silence, between Goa and Portugal" as the editor of the volume mentions in the Introduction. He goes on to say: "India was needed to anchor the conversation. Europe was needed to be the site of invitation." For, if the Portuguese had launched a discovery of Goa some 500 years ago, Goa had to take the initiative for the rediscovery now.

Consequently, the thrust of the essays presented at the conference and brought together in this volume is on the process of transformation that contemporary Indian society has been experiencing. More accurately, the accent is on the multiple transitions that have been going on that need to be explained in terms of multiple perspectives.

Romila Thapar's essay, "Interpretations of Indian History," makes the point that history is not unbiased information, but involves interpretation from different perspectives. This accent on diverse perspectives is seen in U.R. Ananthamurthy's piece on In dia's new nationhood as reflected through languages and literatures. A significant point that Ananthamurthy makes is that it is not one common language that will keep India united, but the ability to speak many languages, which many ordinary Indians poss ess, but which seems to disappear as one becomes "educated". It is a plea not to force uniformity in language and literature. The creativity that has emerged in Indian literature, says Ananthamurthy, "is marked by the negotiation of the necessary heterog eneity, using a concept of identity that lives through difference and hybridity".

Writing specifically about the cultural transitions, Rustom Bharucha is more emphatic about respect for differences. But if the differences are "marked, sealed, bordered, hierarchised and regionalised" they do not become pluralistic. What is needed is an interactive, cognitive acceptance of diversity as the essence of life in society. Whether this was the case with India in the past has to be examined. In contemporary India, the sheer struggle for survival, which compels wide cross-sections of the popul ation to live and fight together through their differences, is giving rise to a new form of cultural plurality. The struggle of Dalits, which Gopal Guru describes, must be seen in this context. It is the struggle of a group of people completely and profo undly excluded from an old social order to find their own identity in an emerging new social order.

The three pieces on the economy in transition, one by S.S. Bhandare on the evolution of economic policy with special reference to industry and the reforms started in 1991, the second by Bhupat M. Desai on agriculture and agri-business and the third on po verty alleviation programmes, by Ghan-shyam Shah, are informative, the one on agriculture being particularly insightful. But in a volume devoted to the multiplicity of transitions, they fail to deal with a central problem. During the four decades since I ndependence, India's economic policy was a conscious attempt to develop the modern sector of the economy while preserving and protecting the traditional sector, which provides employment and livelihood to the vast majority of the population. The economic strategy was, therefore, one of multiple transitions. Under the influence of globalisation and liberalisation, is the attempt now to have a single track for the economy? Is it wise? Will it work?

There is some overlap between the four chapters on political transition and the four on social transition. Hence I deal with them together. A key chapter is by Rajeev Bhargava, which considers whether personal laws of particular communities, especially M uslims, violate the principle of equality in law enshrined in the Constitution. Bhargava's position in a carefully argued piece is that "we require an egalitarian communitarianism to which group rights are central", a point totally missed in Soli Sorabje e's legal appraisal of the constitutional order in India, where he emphasises the right of individual equality and the guarantee of non-discrimination. Bhargava's argument is that social individuals, presumably not just legal individuals, are members of groups and hence recognition of group rights are just as necessary as individual rights in a democratic polity. But Bhargava is quite explicit that group rights that violate basic and universal individual human rights must be set aside. Peter deSouza's p iece on parties and democracy in India echoes the same view when he says "the revolutionary promise of democracy in India is to create an egalitarian community" which calls for a transformation that seeks to invert and replace the earlier principles of s ocial organisation based on hierarchical segmentation. D.L. Sheth in the chapter on caste suggests that such a transformation is taking place in respect of caste consciousness also. He says: "The feeling of belonging to a caste is now expressed more in t he nature of community consciousness rather than in hierarchical terms" (emphasis as in the original) and that "the rise of such consciousness of caste has led to a disruption of hierarchical relations and to increase in competition and conflict a mong them." That is too tall a claim, I think, and even granting that such change may be happening selectively among the higher castes, Gopal Guru's paper on Dalits already referred to shows that nothing of the kind is happening in terms of the relations hip between Dalits and others.

Seemanthini Niranjana's chapters on the women's movement and Zoya Hasan's on the uniform civil code deal with women's rights. The former points out the phenomenal new space that political decentralisation has opened up for women, especially in the rural areas. The latter recalls that the demand for a uniform civil code was first aired by the All India Women's Conference in 1937 and traces the legal struggles for gender justice. Nawaz B. Mody's account of the human rights agenda also argues that if the t hrust of the human rights agenda is the protection of the most vulnerable sections of the population, the rights of women and children will have a prominent place in it. B.G. Verghese's chapter on the media deals with the significance of the media in a m odern society as communication is the basis of community.

The three chapters on Goa in transition by Errol D'Souza, Maria Ligia Noronha and Peter deSouza deserve attention partly because studies on Goa are rare, but mainly because they present a fascinating account of the interaction between Goa's changing patt ern of economic "development", increasingly influenced by tourism, and its rather unique political profile. The small State provides an excellent site to study the interplay of cultural, environmental, economic, social and political factors, which togeth er constitute the complex processes of social transformation. The three scholars have done a commendable job in tracing, documenting and interpreting them.

The editor of the volume and his colleagues deserve to be complimented for making available to the reading public a multi-dimensional account of the multiple transitions that contemporary India has been experiencing.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor