More on the Modern South Asian – 2

The bottom line in our last post on this subject was the conclusion that there is no distinct event in South Asia quite like the Enlightenment in Europe that can be used to distinguish between pre- and post-event values in terms of ways of thinking about the world.

The 1857 Mutiny and the 1947 Partition are both major events in recent South Asian history but they do not mark a profound break in ways of thinking or of comprehending the world. Thus the defining characteristic of South Asian values is their continuity. This was the reason why in an earlier post we had remarked that “South Asians have either always been modern or they remain pre-modern depending how one prefers to look upon the phenomenon.”

Subsequently we have dropped the use of the term “modern” because of its various distracting connotations. Our inference is that South Asian values have been evolutionary – they have certainly changed over time but slowly and the core values have remained remarkably stable. While South Asians have advanced rapidly in scientific, technological and political arenas as the region has integrated into the global economy their way of understanding the world has changed relatively little. One way to put it would be to say that the external world has changed but the filter through which that world is interpreted has remained the same. We should reiterate that we are not interested in whether this is good or bad in itself.

An illustration of this phenomenon is provided by how the above-mentioned advances have been indigenized or incorporated into South Asian life. We had given an example in an earlier post of how a new practice finds root in alien soil quoting from Ramachandra Guha’s ethnographic accounts of the 1967 elections in India: “These show that elections were no longer a top dressing on inhospitable soil; they had been fully internalized, made part of Indian life. An election was a festival with its own unique set of rituals, enacted every five years.”

So, finally we have arrived at the question we want to answer: What is the core set of South Asian values that have been evolving over time and how have they changed?

This is not a new question and it is appropriate to pause with a quote from Jawaharlal Nehru (The Discovery of India, Calcutta, 1946, pp. 30-31):

India was in my blood… And yet I approached her almost as an alien critic, full of dislike for the present as well as for many of the relics of the past that I saw. To some extent I came to her via the West and looked at her as a friendly westerner might have done. I was eager and anxious to change her outlook and appearance and give her a garb of modernity. And yet doubts rose within me.

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1 Comment
  • johng
    Posted at 16:42h, 19 July Reply

    There are some interesting reflections on this question in “Indian Culture: A Sociological Study” by D P Mukerji, originally published in 1948 but recently republished with a charecteristically witty and insightful introduction by Ashok Mitra (Rupa & Co 2002). Certainly Mukerji would have seen colonialism as a decisive break, but recognised that this particular way of becoming modern introduced complexities and difficulties for any conventional sociological theory of modernity. Its interesting how much supposedly novel theorising about these difficulties is anticipated in this work, whatever criticisms one may have of it. A must read.

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