South Asia: In Search of Roots

By Anjum Altaf

There are two theses about South Asia that I keep returning to often and feel strongly about – that democracy is alien to South Asia and that the British period was epiphenomenal. But I haven’t been able to bring the two together to my satisfaction. Oddly enough, it was a column on mathematics (Finding Your Roots) that suggested a way out of the quandary. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem all that odd; what I needed was a different paradigm, a new way of looking at my problem.

Let me first lay out the two theses. The claim that democracy is alien to South Asia was articulated clearly and early by Dr. Ambedkar and I have quoted him frequently to that effect: “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” and “In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value.”

The claim that the British period was epiphenomenal (an epiphenomenon being a secondary phenomenon that occurs alongside or in parallel to a primary phenomenon) is supported by the evidence. In Dr. Ambedkar’s analogy, one could say the Indian soil is reclaiming its place and the top-dressing is becoming thinner by the day.

In order to push my understanding of South Asia, I have kept resorting to a thought experiment. Suppose an interlocutor, with no prior knowledge of the region but familiar with European history, were to ask me to convey the essence or capture the ethos of the region in one or two descriptors, what descriptors would I choose?

Let me restrict the discussion to India for the moment simply to retain the focus on the issue of interest. Would I say ‘India is a democracy’ and assume that the interlocutor would be able to imagine a fair picture? Or would I choose the descriptor ‘secular’ and hope that the image that would form after passing through the interlocutor’s mental filter would be an accurate one?

I believe there would be agreement that these would not be the best descriptors.  If I said instead that ‘India is hierarchical’ the interlocutor might infer a better sense of the foundations of Indian society. This would capture Dr. Ambedkar’s description that “by reason of our social and economic structure, [we] continue to deny the principle of one man one value.”

If I added to that by saying that ‘India is religious’ and ‘India is dynastic,’ the interlocutor’s overlays on the foundation would also be accurate. Caste and religion based elections would corroborate the first claim and he/she could crosscheck the second by looking up a research site that showed, among other interesting facts, that every member of the lower house of the Indian parliament under the age of 30 has inherited his or her seat.

So far there is not much new in what I have said. All I have done is to buttress my claim that one would get the most accurate conception of India (indeed of South Asia as a whole) if one were to use the image of a religious hereditary monarchy as one’s starting point. The situation has evolved, of course, but this still remains the best starting point for the kind of interlocutor I introduced in the thought experiment. He/she would be able to refer to the knowledge of the religious hereditary monarchies of Europe and understand South Asia better than if the starting point had been a secular and democratic republic.

Anyone who knows South Asia well knows that the people’s representatives think of themselves as monarchs; that bureaucrats fawn over the representatives much as courtiers would fawn over monarchs; that well-off citizens respond to any attempt at accountability with the retort ‘Do you know who I am?’; and that the rest, the vast majority, think of themselves as subjects in a mai-baap culture, leaving their fate to the benevolence of the lords and at the mercy of a transcendent power.

The insight that is new to me, and that I credit to the article on mathematics, relates to an understanding of the path that we have followed since the departure of the British. For example, the database on dynastic politics mentioned above shows that only 18 percent of the members of parliament over 50 years in age had inherited their seats. The percentage rises to 47 for those below the age of 50 and to 100 percent for those below 30. So it is clear that the aristocratic system based on heredity that the British had displaced is reasserting itself – the Indian soil is pushing aside the British top-dressing; the primary phenomenon is reasserting its primacy over the epiphenomenon.

How do we understand this trajectory? In the paradigm suggested by the article on mathematics, we can think of India as a very complex system of equations. But every system of equations, no matter how complex, has a solution – in mathematical terms, a ‘root’ (of which there can be more than one). In the context of our discussion, the ‘root’ we are looking for is the true ethos, the best descriptor, of Indian society.

Let me illustrate this idea with the simplest of examples. Take the equation 3y = 21. This is easy to solve analytically; we know that the value of the unknown variable y that ‘solves’ this equation is 7.  In mathematical terms 7 is the root of the equation.

Now there are other, brute force, methods of solving equations because most equations are not this simple and are solved by machines using algorithms which are iterative processes following simple rules. Let me illustrate a brute force method for this simple equation to be employed by a dumb machine that had no prior idea of what the true root might be.

The machine can begin the solution process by choosing an arbitrary root, say 1. It will substitute 1 for y in the equation and derive the result 3 = 21. This is clearly not true. Next, the machine will note that 3 is less than 21 and infer that the value of y needs to be increased to make the two sides equal. In the next iteration, it will increment y by a fixed amount (say 0.5) and repeat the process. After a certain number of iterations the two sides of the equation would balance (21 = 21) and the machine would (triumphantly) flash the message that the true root of the equation was 7.

Now here is how I employ this paradigm. Let us keep thinking of India as the simple equation 3y = 21 (in reality it is better thought of as a complex system of non-linear equations but we don’t need to venture there). Before the British arrived everyone knew what the system was like (it was what Dr. Ambedkar characterized as the Indian ‘soil’). The ‘root’ of this system was 7. The British didn’t think much of this system; they wished it to be in the image of their ‘superior’ system – they wished to create an Indian system whose root were 1.

Now two things could have happened following the British transplant. Either the graft would have been so attractive that the system would have realigned around it and transformed into one whose  root was truly 1 (the top-dressing would take root); or the newly imposed solution would trend inevitably towards the true root (the soil would reassert itself and reject the graft). Clearly, the British had hoped for the first outcome. This was what Macaulay had in mind when he had said: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” The outcome was less certain in Dr. Ambedkar’s mind – he finished his thought, quoted above, with the question: “How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”

The ‘life of contradictions’ had to resolve itself one way or the other. With the benefit of hindsight we should know quite clearly the direction in which it has evolved – the drift has been towards the status quo ante, most clearly in the smaller countries in South Asia and least obviously in India which has retained the form while shedding the content.

Needless to say, things never go back to exactly where they were after a system is subjected to a shock – this we know from another concept (hysteresis) in physics. The different countries in South Asia have all followed varying trajectories and moved at different speeds in the drift towards their roots depending upon intervening events, rates of economic growth, and the quality of leadership, etc.

But notwithstanding these variations, the fact remains that a ‘religious hereditary monarchy’ remains a better descriptor of a country in South Asia than a ‘secular democratic republic’ – the reality is different from the appearance. This conclusion is not a value judgment, just a statement of fact. There is nothing inherently wrong with a religious hereditary hierarchy. In fact an argument could be made that the British epiphenomenon was harmful for South Asia; without it South Asia would have tended faster towards a political configuration that would have been much more organically rooted in its soil. Now we can only speculate on what that solution might have been like.

Postscript: A concrete example might make the argument clearer. In 1947, Mr. Jinnah said: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” Clearly his hope was that Pakistani society would realign itself around this secular, democratic core. Instead, it moved back fairly rapidly to its anti-secular, anti-democratic ethos. The type of liberal, secular gentlemen epitomized by Jinnah are now a dying breed and on the endangered list in Pakistan.

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  • Hasan
    Posted at 02:08h, 22 January Reply

    Two questions:

    1. Is the implication that India is gravitating towards a Pakistan style dictatorial pattern in its politics?
    2. Is it too far-fetched to discuss what happens (or could happen) after the more organic root is eventually found?

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 02:55h, 22 January Reply

    While I share some of this pessimism, I think things are changing in a positive direction with respect to hierarchy, albeit much too slowly. Since 1991, new energies have been unleashed with a tendency to subvert many of the old hierarchies. As new groups become more prosperous and middle class, some of the old groups based on caste and other factors increasingly lose their power. Of course, hierarchy has been a part of India’s makeup since the Stone Age so it will take time for it to be dissolved. And hierarchy is more basic than things like dynasty. So once hierarchy goes, other things will follow.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:39h, 22 January

      Arun: This is just an attempt to find a new way of looking at what is going on and to see if we can discern some sense of trajectory. I keep being impressed by how lucid the perception of Dr. Ambedkar was and how it captured the entire scenario in a nutshell – the foreign top-dressing, the Indian soil, the contradictions, and the length of time to resolution. With hindsight we can broaden the question because implicit in Dr. Ambedkar’s formulation is the expectation that we will get to the desired end state; it is only a question of how long it would take. I think we can now legitimately speculate about the nature of the end state towards which we are headed and whether it would be different from the one envisaged by the leaders in 1947.

      What we can say is that from the chosen initial value, or starting point, there is a process of Indianization underway (using Indianization in a civilizational and not nation-state sense) and we are not fully certain where that is taking us. The main drivers of the Indianization are religiosity, hierarchy, and dynasty. They may or not not move together. As you say, hierarchy is declining by some measures while, at the same time, dynastic inheritance of political power is increasing if the database cited in the post is to be believed. I recall one illustration of this Indianization where Ramachandra Guha had remarked that elections in India were being transformed into the equivalent of five-year religious melas.

      Given that the composite culture of Hindustan has been sundered, it is natural to expect that the trajectories in different countries would vary in their details. At a very broad level, one can argue that in India the process is Indianization not Hinduization while in Pakistan the process is Islamization not Pakistanization. Thus in Pakistan elections are more like battles (if not jihads) and less like melas. And, of course, the varying patterns of economic growth would leave their impacts on the trajectories.

      These are just some loose thoughts offered as a starting point. I am curious to see the trajectory of this discussion and whether it would have a stable end-state or not.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 14:29h, 22 January Reply


    I think there is a strong countervailing trend of modernization. Partly it is expressed through the spread of technology (e.g. cell phones) and partly through increasing prosperity. These things do change the individual’s consciousness and culture in unexpected ways. So maybe there are two simultaneous trends, Indianization and modernization. This reminds me of the sociologist M. N. Srinivas though I no longer remember what his main thesis was.

    For me, Indianization constitutes many different tendencies of which the most pernicious and basic is hierarchy, the tendency to see human beings as greater or lesser in every interaction. Most of the other tendencies – such as dynastic succession in professions – stem from that. What seems to have happened is that the hierarchies of caste have been slowly displaced into a generalized notion of hierarchy measured by wealth, achievement, etc. So caste has been replaced by status in urban areas of India. The old stratification has given way to a new stratification based more on merit although some of the old criteria also persist. So this is a mix of Indianization and modernization.

    In the US, there are hierarchies of status as well but the whole human being is not subsumed under them. There is a measure of dignity available to everyone even in the presence of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. I don’t know how to characterize this difference between status in India and status in the US. It is as if in the US it is possible to acknowledge the achievement of a Steve Jobs and yet say there are other dimensions of life where there is no comparison. In India, somehow the whole person is engulfed by his status.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:09h, 22 January

      Arun: We have had over a dozen articles on modernity on the blog exploring the phenomenon from different aspects. The conclusion was that Indianization and modernization should not be looked upon as two distinct phenomena. Rather, the process of modernization was itself mediated through the filter of Indianization. I think Sunil Khilnani describes it well in The Idea of India: “For many in India modernity has been adopted through the conservative filters of religious piety, moralism and domestic virtue.” The series on modernity can be found here:

      Some of the posts in the series also try and address the issue you have posed at the end related to the difference between status in India and the US.

      Just by way of interest there is an article in today’s NYT about the Indianization of democracy. It doesn’t say anything that is new but documents the trajectory that is being charted. A relevant excerpt:

      India may be the world’s largest democracy, but it remains dogged by the twin legacies of feudalism and colonialism, which have often meant that citizens are treated like subjects. Officials who are meant to serve them often act more like feudal lords than representatives of the people.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:14h, 24 January

      To understand how economic forces can possibly change social hierarchies I think it would be useful to consider the fundamental social value at play as materialism. Social hierarchies get fashioned around the need of the rich and powerful to preserve their positions through the passage of time and generations. If the economic forces in India continue to give the disadvantaged people a chance to climb up the social ladder despite the hierarchical pressures on them, then those very pressures are bound to weaken and give way to new hierarchies. What those new hierarchies could be has already been suggested by Arun in an earlier post. I believe that there is another source of change in hierarchy – inspired social activism. But this is the miracle card. It occurs very rarely and remains unpredictable. At times a single inspired individual may lead it. At other times a group of inspired idealists may just manage to move one rock from the mountain of hierarchy. The issue with this card is that its sustainability through time remains highly uncertain. Human societies are largely made of pragmatist cowards.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 02:34h, 24 January Reply

    Manifestation of hierarchy in Singapore –

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 03:48h, 24 January Reply

    One of my questions about hierarchy is whether hierarchy itself is weakening or whether one type of hierarchy is giving way to another (e.g. caste to wealth). Is the basic need for hierarchy in Indian culture constant through these changes?

    Also, I do not recall any analysis of status in India vis-a-vis status in the US.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:18h, 24 January

      Arun: I went back into the archives and this issue is addressed better in a post on democracy in India. The following is a relevant excerpt:

      Equality of course meant political equality by definition because every man would have an equal vote. But more than that, de Tocqueville kept referring to the growing “equality of condition” which was not the same thing as economic equality. It meant that men had started viewing each other as social equals and wished to be treated as such irrespective of the differences in their income levels. To translate that into our frame, there were no longer any institutions or places (including the kitchen table) to which an individual could be denied access because of his birth or level of income.

      The post also argues how the processes leading to social equality might be polar opposites in Europe and in India. Increase of wealth by itself would only morph into a different type of hierarchy as is very clear from the link about Singapore posted by Vinod. In this context, I recall an op-ed by Aakar Patel (there probably was a link to that somewhere on this blog) in which he argued that the caste hierarchy remained unchanged in the domain of economic power but had changed radically in that of political power. So, one could expect political power to be used to alter the economic dominance via reservations etc. This is in line with the thesis in the post on democracy.–-7/

  • talha
    Posted at 10:42h, 03 February Reply

    it seems pretty evident from your analysis that ‘religious hereditary monarchy’ is indeed a better descriptor of a country in South Asia, but hopefully that doesn’t mean that it will remain so. Maybe we need to face the same demons the western nations faced and eventually arrive at the conclusions(secularism and liberalism) they got and were trying to force on us. If this is true then we would have been definitely better off left to our own designs rather than have relatively radical ideas like liberalism, secularism and democracy forced down our throats.

    But i also feel economics had a large part to play in the west’s acceptance of these notions. And the main reason for our inability to progress from the old social structure is the lack of a fully industrialized economy and the environment where anybody can achieve financial success.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:28h, 03 February

      Talha: I am encouraged that you find ‘religious hereditary monarchy’ a better descriptor for South Asia. The issue is not really whether the societies would continue in this configuration. Rather, it is to point out that when the institutions selected for governance are not matched to the social reality, there are bound to be distortions, sometimes severe ones. (At this time one can see these very vividly in the case of Egypt.) These distortions affect the prospects of economic development as well so that the future trajectory becomes complicated and unpredictable.

      The comparison with the trajectory of Europe is problematic because the European evolution was organic in that the changes in institutions matched the changes in the social and economic structures. On the contrary, many of the borrowed institutions in South Asia are stifling the changes. (Once again, Egypt provides a good illustration of this phenomenon.) Take Pakistan for example: it is less secular and liberal than it was in 1947 even though, it can be argued, there have been advances in both literacy and industrialization.

  • Mohammad Waseem
    Posted at 09:17h, 01 February Reply

    This is an amazingly rich debate about certain themes that attracted the attention of early nationalists in our countries. Gradually though, Islamization in Pakistan and to a limited extent Hindutva in India have expanded the frontiers of the discussion. The parameters of the debate have accordingly stretched out to revisiting the secularist ideas and norms in the postcolonial context in the mode of interaction with the changing nature of the patterns of world domination. Going back to history is often enriching, but it can be sometimes misleading in terms of focus and the explanatory potential of the past. This is not a comment on the overall thrust of the argument developed in these paragraphs, but only a cursory observation about the limitations of our respective disciplines that constantly make and shape our opinions.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:39h, 01 February

      Waseem Sahib: The advantage of a blog is that people from very different disciplines can join the debate and enrich it. I would be eager to learn more about your reservations regarding the reading of history in this argument. It would be great if you could also encourage others to join the discussion. This is a format in which people can contribute at leisure and can perhaps serve to overcome the reluctance to show up at seminars.

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