Is There Such a Thing as a Modern South Asian?

We have been struggling to understand the nature of modernity in South Asia and in one of the posts on the topic (How Modern is Modern?) had left off with the following observation from a reader: “Even the small segment one might call modern has never experienced anything like the Enlightenment directly so that culturally we have remained pre-modern even in the most modern sectors.”

This prompted us to look up the literature on the Enlightenment in greater detail and our search could well leave us with the conclusion that there is really no such thing as a modern South Asian. We will follow up this heretical thread later in this post but let us first introduce an exceptionally illuminating book on the subject of the Enlightenment.

In Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (Oxford University Press, 2006), Jonathan Israel enumerates what he views as the enduring, core values of the Enlightenment:

1) Philosophical reason as the criterion of what is true; 2) rejection of supernatural agency (divine providence); 3) equality of all mankind (racial and sexual equality); 4) secular universalism in ethics anchored in equality and stressing equity, justice, and charity; 5) comprehensive toleration and freedom of thought; 6) personal liberty of lifestyle between consenting adults, safeguarding the dignity and freedom of the unmarried and homosexuals; 7) freedom of expression, political criticism, and the press in the public sphere; and 8) democratic republicanism.

Israel argues that the Enlightenment was responsible for the emergence of liberal modernity in the eighteenth century with its rejection of ecclesiastical authority and the superstitious interpretations of accepted religion, its strict differentiation between truth and belief, philosophy and religion, its rejection of authoritarianism and insistence on human equality regardless of race, gender, and class, and its demand for the absolute freedom of expression in the public sphere. This radical model of full equality and absolute freedom of expression – in which the unrelenting critique of existing church and political authority, sexual roles, gender differences, empire, and colonialism was first fully articulated – represents the cornerstone of modernity.

Thus a specific set of notions – toleration, personal freedom, democracy, equality racial and sexual, freedom of expression, sexual emancipation, and the universal right to knowledge – are at the heart of what can be described as the system of modern Western values.

With this background we can now ask: What is the corresponding set of values that describes the modern South Asian? Note that we are concerned here not with the facility with modern science and technology but with a certain set of values that are associated with a modern worldview. Was our reader right when he claimed that “culturally we have remained pre-modern even in the most modern sectors?”

Of course, the title of this post is rhetorical and we do not intend to take a Eurocentric perspective on modernity in South Asia. We are well aware of the excellent arguments made by Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provicializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press 2001) warning against the intellectual pitfalls in adopting such a simplistic stance. But while accepting that the values that describe a modern European need not be the same that describe a modern South Asian, we can still ask for an enumeration of the set of values that characterize a modern South Asian.

And it is from this perspective that we could conceivably argue that with no sharp break between old and new values in South Asia, it may be an intellectually defensible claim to say that there is no such thing as a modern South Asian. South Asians have become scientifically and technologically advanced but their core values have changed relatively little – South Asians have either always been modern or they remain pre-modern depending how one prefers to look upon the phenomenon.

Jonathan Israel’s primary purpose in writing his book was not to enumerate the values that characterize modernity and the values they replaced although he does an excellent job of that. He is more interested in explaining the events and the path that led to these changes. More importantly, he is interested in the sociology and history of ideas. It is the radical claim of the book that the credit for the Enlightenment belongs not to some of the greatest names traditionally associated with the Enlightenment – such as Locke, Newton, Leibniz, Wolff, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hume and Kant, all of whom Israel portrays as Enlightenment ‘moderates’ – but to the Enlightenment ‘radicals’ whose leadership belonged to Spinoza.

Israel’s book is worth reading if one is interested in ideas and in understanding how ideas help to shape history. It could inspire some of our young scholars to pursue a similar exploration of the critical ideas that have shaped, for better or for worse, the history of South Asia in our times.

Two excellent critical commentaries on Jonathan Israel’s book from which we have borrowed and benefited greatly can be found at the following links:

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  • Haris Gazdar
    Posted at 11:01h, 17 March Reply

    There are three mix-ups in this argument.

    1. Enlightenment = Modernity
    2. Philosophical systems = political arrangements
    3. Sum of individual cultural experiences = Societal

    Compounding three set of mix-ups you cannot but reach
    the conclusions you did. But throw a few
    counter-factuals in the picture and then ask if any
    group of people anywhere come up to the 7 golden tests
    of Jonathan Israel.

    Did European philosophy go through Enlightenment? Yes.
    Did European political arrangements pass the 7 tests?
    No. Colonialism, institutionalised racism, Nazism, war
    on Iraq etc etc. are sufficient testimony that most of
    the 7 rules were systematically violated by most
    European states most of the time. Ok, let me be candid
    and admit that the adverb “systematically” is my
    private interpretation. Even if you put down all of
    these counter-factuals as deviations rather than
    systemic, how do contemporary Americans measure up to
    the 7 rules to which you want to subject contemporary
    South Asians? Do most of them believe in God? Yes. Do
    most of them go to Church? Yes. Do many of them weigh
    up their attitudes to important social policy issues
    in the light of ‘revealed’ texts? Yes. So, if it is
    down to the empirics of how many South Asians have
    been touched by Enlightenment values, I wonder where
    such a test would leave most people in most places in
    the world?

    Now turn this thing around and ask the question about
    modernity in a more restricted sense. My restriction,
    I admit, but I am interested in politics. So the
    restriction is whether or not, or to what extent,
    South Asian societies accommodate, accept, adapt,
    develop, promote modern political arrangements?
    Arrangements that were upheld by some Enlightenment
    thinkers but not all, and have sources other than the
    European Enlightenment too.

    The answer, empirically, at least since 1857 onwards,
    is that mostly they do, to quite a large extent.
    Parochial pre-modern identities like families, castes
    and tribes are busy expressing themselves in terms of
    modern political groupings – citizens, voters, vote
    blocks, interest groups, political parties,
    minorities, disadvantaged groups, subsidy receivers,
    quota-demanders, quota-bashers, nations,
    nationalities, etc etc etc. I don’t think that there
    is a question that we are mostly modern, in the sense
    of political arrangements, even if we are mostly
    non-modern in terms of social arrangements.

  • Ali Sohail
    Posted at 19:07h, 18 March Reply

    I should commend on the clarity and conciseness of your writing, even if I may not agree with conclusion as a snap shot and the framework leading up to it. The reality is a lot more dynamic in practice.

    Firstly, the definition of modernity is dubious, as pointed out Mr. Gazdar.
    At one point you talk about evaluating modernity independent from the western interpretation of the ideology, however you draft the conclusion based on a western model.

    On a different note, let me try and talk you through my argument.

    Firstly, modernity for the perspective of values- I am wondering what a set of values has to do with modernity in reference. If values are the gut for modernity as u have described, then maybe being a non or pre-modern South Asian (which as described in your conclusion) is a blessing in disguise- based on divorce rates, feeling of individualism and alienation and much more subjective factors.

    As you would be more than aware, modernity has little to do with the superficial claims and arms of a person and is driven the mental stance an individual holds, specifically in the form of tolerance – openness to accept varied views, whether they be conservative or liberal.

    The term openness and tolerance includes all the other bi-products of equality, freedom of expression and so forth mentioned. However, it has very little to do with democracy and knowledge in practice- they are the outcome an ideology rather than a practice in its true form.

    For instance, knowledge is a subjective variable, although given the belief the west may have more knowledge intensive economies, driven by clusters, hubs or measurements made through scientific evaluation, patents etc, that certainly does not constitute to the large subjective version of unquantifiable knowledge beyond the scope of firms, human capital and the money market. Secondly, if democracy was the core practice in the west, the current stance of presence in Iraq and so forth would not hold and would be reversed, given the opinion polls. However, this may purely be based on the pure standing of the belief of the majority rather than what is the best way forward for the country in question. Therefore, democracy has very little to do with modernity, or if otherwise, it can be argued that the war running countries are not modern in themselves?

    Further, Democracy although ideologically ‘ideal’, as would the Marx definition of socialism would be relative to capitalism from a social perspective, it may not be so, in practice.

    For instance, 300 hundred years ago, Industrialisation did not have the popular vote of many Americans and most scholars advocated the persistence of the prevailing forms of agriculture, given the believe of absolute or comparative advantage then (although not developed as an ideology then, but based on hindsight). However, if industrialisation would not have taken place, driven by the prescription of the few scholars relative to the masses, our world today would be a very different place.

    Hence, in essence, democracy and knowledge as an ideology has very little to do with modernity.

    Finally, given the tolerance (open) definition of modernity, I would argue a middle class, moderate South Asian has the means to see the west and east in its prime and ill form. Hence given his exposure and general openness, associated with exposure, he should be classified as the most modern human being, exceptions apart (this is a generalisation, ofcourse).

    This is so, because living in a country such as India or Pakistan, being a middle class moderate, well to- do person, you get the opportunity of being exposed to the highest form of deprivation in terms of poverty on the one hand and elite practice on the other (utmost disparity) domestically. Standing on any traffic light on any street in Karachi, you get to witness insurmountable amount of disparity. Coupled with this, if you have sufficient resources, you get to live or experience parts of the west through vacations or schooling or work of such sorts- a factor strengthen by the seeds instilled in our minds by our former rulers. Hence, given such wide ranging exposure, I would argue such a South Asian by definition should be more open. Although, not necessarily.

    On the other hand, very few westerners (specifically from the developed world) get to experience such high levels of disparity in their home land and few travel beyond borders and live in such surroundings (poverty driven) beyond field or research work for an extended period of time, exceptions apart ofcourse. Hence, given my definition of modernity, they should have a lower probability of being categorized as modern, exceptions apart.

    Further, I wonder given the current mayhem, who is more open to conservative and liberal opinions in practice? a moderate South Asian or a moderate from the developed(western) world.

    However, due to the presence of exceptions all over the world, drawing generalisations for a wide spread community is a risky game.

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    Posted at 04:42h, 05 April Reply

    […] was the verdict given by an interesting article produced at the South Asian blog. In the following post, I would present my perspective on the […]

  • Vijay
    Posted at 11:36h, 27 November Reply

    I am not sure if I understood Ali’s comments in their entirety but I think he confuses political and cultural modernity with technical modernity. Of course, the Indian Subcontinent has quite readily embraced the latter as a necessary ingredient of national development. Nehru’s characterisation of dams as the “new temples of India” comes to mind.

    India is a paradox in the sense that it manages to entertain a rhetorical commitment to political modernity – i.e. democratic republicanism whilst continuing to have a subterranean will to political pre-modernism. Autocratic impulses are to be found in vast swathes of the middle and upper classes and pre-modern political attitudes abound in all sections. Even the ‘lower orders’ as Yogendra Yadav puts it.

    The liberal intelligentsia seem to be the only ones who perpetuate an intellectual commitment to political modernity.

    I am in agreement with Ali on the fact that political and cultural modernity i.e. the values outlined by Jonathan Israel are not a good in themselves, especially in our region.

    He made some anti-democratic argument in his intervention that I am particularly happy with. For example, the one on industrialisation in the United States. The premise that an unenlightened mass can have a say in matters of government is flawed and deserves to be challenged with vigour.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:03h, 27 November

      Vijay: There is an article today by Pankaj Mishra (Beyond Boundaries) in which he uses Dalrymple’s latest book (In Search of the Sacred in Modern India) to ruminate on the nature of modernity in the subcontinent. Perhaps this could provide a peg to start a discussion on the topic.

  • Vijay
    Posted at 02:49h, 28 November Reply

    This is a beautiful piece of writing. Mishra should be proud.

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