Andre Beteille: How modern are we?

How modern are we? This, I believe, is a question which preoccupies a large number of educated Indians. I am not thinking now merely of certain economic arrangements, but of a whole conceptions of social and cultural life whose connections with the former are at best only vaguely understood.

The concern for the kind of programmes and policies which are likely to lead to greater economic prosperity is entirely commendable. Again, if in order to attain this prosperity we have to discard certain social habits and institutions which are dispensable, it would be well worth our while to know what the latter are. But very little will be gained by pretending that these habits and institutions do not exist, or that they have already become so attenuated that they will disappear in their natural course while we attend to the more urgent tasks of economic and political development.

Much as we may like to think otherwise, it will be hard to deny that many spheres of social life in India are still governed by traditional norms and values. Even the most modern among Indians marry in traditional way, have deep and widespread attachments to their family and kin group, and at times display a concern for status and hierarchy which might shame an orthodox Brahmin. Yet there are remarkable inhibitation on their part to talk or even think of their own personal lives in terms of these institutions and values. Undoubtedly the inhibitions derive from the fact that they are still too closely involved in a pattern of social life whose existence they would like to wish away.

It is often said that Indian intellectuals, or more generally, the Indian middle classes, are cut off from the people at large. I think the situation is a little more complex. It is not that there are no links between the two but the attitude of the former towards these links are highly ambivalent. Most Indians, intellectuals or otherwise, have in fact close links with their society through the ties of kinship, caste and community. But this is often accompanied by an uneasy feeling that to recognise this fact would be to admit that one is traditional or even backward.

This probably is the reason why so many educated Indians suffer from peculiar form of myopia when it comes to an understanding of their own society. They will assert that caste has become obsolete when even a casual examination of their own social circles should convince them of the rarity of inter-caste marriage. They will argue that urban Indians are becoming increasingly secular when there are many indications on the contrary. It is amazing how many educated Indians are convinced that the ‘joint family system’ is breaking down in spite of an almost complete absence of any firm evidence that this is indeed what is happening.

Any proper understanding of the problems of contemporary India will have to come to term with the fact that India is still largely a traditional society. To take one example, the relations between the sexes (or between the generations) are very different here from what we consider such relations to be in advanced industrial societies of West. It is possible that when economic change comes, these also will change in India. But this is at best a piece of speculation. In the meantime we look at the statistical table which tell us how many women are studying in universities or working in offices, and feel that a completely new pattern of relation is just round the corner.

Educated Indians are very sensitive on the question of caste, particularly when it is discussed in the presence of foreigners. Most of them believe, understandably, that caste is an unmixed evil (I am, of course, not suggesting that it is good). Many of them would like to think that it has ceased to exist at least as far as they themselves are concerned. Any discussion of caste with educated Indians is likely to reveal a certain amount of embarrassment and a great deal of ignorance. For most of them caste is something which belongs to India’s shameful and backward past and to be preoccupied with it today is perhaps to indicate a morbid or obscurantist temperament.

Very recently a certain interest has been created in caste because of its widely-reported role in politics. This role again is evaluated in different ways. For one thing it is viewed as representing only one aspect of Indian society, its more traditional and backward aspect. For another it is believed to be something purely transitional, to be replaced by a more ‘rational’ pattern of politics.

But caste plays a part in many sphere of Indian life, and not just in politics or in rural areas. It still restricts marriage and other form of social interchange. More important, the conceptions of hierarchy, on which the traditional caste system was based, are carried over into many areas of modern social life. The real significance of caste in modern India may well be that it provides a model for hierarchy in terms of which many of the newly emerging relations are ordered.

Indian is not only a traditional society, it is one in which more the 20 per cent of the population is officially classified as backward (If we include the other backward classes the proportion will be considerably higher). There is widespread tendency to simplify the problem of Harijans (and also of Adivasis) and to view in direct economic terms. Actually their position in Indian society owes as much to the ritual values of purity and pollution as to economic factors. Economic disparities in India are tied to religious values as both cause and consequences.

Kinship, caste and religion — these are among the major areas of life studied by sociologists in India. They are problems which directly concern the vast body of Indian who live in some 550,000 village spread throughout the country. They concern particularly the scheduled castes, the scheduled tribes, and other the other backward classes who together constitute about half of the total population. They concern also, though perhaps less manifestly, the urban middle class including the top sections among them whose numbers are responsible for shaping the country’s policies.

Much of the conventional wisdom about Indian society derives from the experiences and above all, the aspirations of its middle class. The Indian middle class has long been under the spell of western civilization not only in its technically efficient aspects, but also in other regards. It is natural that under western influence, educated Indians should have developed a critical attitude towards their traditional culture. But they generally go beyound that; they often become self-conciously virtous about their own emancipation from tradition and develop psychological blocks towards those aspect of their culture which are likely to appear backward or ridiculous in western eyes.

The image of Indian society that has emerged from this naturally suffers from a number of distortions. But which aspects of society should be accorded priority in discussion and analysis will itself depend upon the image of it. I have noticed that educated Indians often regard sociologist’s preoccupation with kinship, caste and ritual as obscurantist and even reactionary. Perhaps they feel a little of same moral indignation with which a Nayar informant told a British anthropologists: ‘We have no customs.’ After all it is only too human to feel that if we do have customs which appear odd in relation to our explicit ideals, it is best not to talk too much about them.

The task of sociologist is to study values and institutions of every kind, including the ones which appear odd by certain standards. In any society, sociologist may play  a conservative or radical role. In India they are usually viewed as playing a conservative part. This is largely because of their preoccupation with problems which are considered remote and therefore trivial from the viewpoint of upper-middle class aspirations. People who study kinship, caste and rituals are regarded as backward looking, as being obsessed with institutions which have become or are becoming defunct. But a wider perspective may well show that these are the institutions of the great majority of Indians and that they probably have far greater staying power than is commonly believed.

There is a good deal of mystification in the conventional wisdom purveyed by middle-class intellectuals in India. This mystification is so deep and far reaching that one fails to notice it. One of its principal sources seems to be the urge to appear modern and consequently to shy away from anything that might appear as a reminder of the essentially traditional and backward nature of one’s own society. It is in this context that the sociologist should strive for the ‘demystification’ of widely held notions regarding what is basic and what is superficial in our contemporary society.


Andre Beteiile,
The Times of India, July 4, 1968

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About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
This entry was posted in Andre Beteille and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Andre Beteille: How modern are we?

  1. Vaibhav Bhatnagar says:

    I agree with you, but don’t you think caste system was not what it has evolved now. I mean from division of labor to division of bloodlines to Weapon of Mass Control. Just a thought.

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