Andre Beteille on Hazards of multi-cultarism

Multi-culturalism is an attractive social and political programme, although it is not without its hazards. Since most people who speak of multi-culturalism speak in its praise, I will in what follows also say something about its hazards.

Multi-culturalism is based on the recognition and appreciation of the diversity of practices, customs and institutions among the various communities that exist within the larger social order. It advocates the accommodation of such practices instead of seeking their assimilation within one single dominant way of life.

The accommodation of diversity comes naturally to Indians as it has been a part of the Indian social tradition since time immemorial. Anthropologists of an earlier generation, such as N.K. Bose and Irawati Karve, never tired of pointing to India’s rich diversity in material culture, social organization and religious practice. After pointing to the endless variety of practices relating to food, dress and habitation, Karve wrote, “The variety of family organizations is equally great. Polygamy and polyandry are both found. There are groups which are matrilineal, others which are patrilineal.” In peninsular India, the patrilineal extended family or okka of the Coorgs co-existed with the taravad or matrilineal extended family of the Nairs.

Karve noted that Indian society had evolved over the ages through a distinctive process which she called the process of accretion. “The historical process is one of continuous accretion. There does not seem to be a stage where a choice was made between alternatives, a choice involving acceptance of one alternative and a definite, final rejection of the others.”

The diversity that was accommodated in the past was organized hierarchically and not democratically. The principal bases of the traditional hierarchy were caste and gender. The contemporary advocates of multi-culturalism are strict in their scrutiny of any bias against disadvantaged castes and communities, but they tend to remain silent on the question of gender. Some of the very castes and communities whose ways of life they seek to protect are associated with the most odious forms of gender bias. Should they be allowed to continue in the name of multi-culturalism?

When people speak of multi-culturalism, they do not generally have in mind the entire range of cultures present in a complex and changing society. They do not have in mind variations springing from education and employment. After all, the medical profession has a culture of its own which is different from the culture of the legal profession. And the culture of the Communist Party of India is evidently different from that of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry. If one makes a distinction between communities of birth and fellowships of choice, it is with the former and not the latter that the advocates of multi-culturalism are concerned. In that sense, they look to a society’s past rather than to its present or future. In the modern world, both types of association are present, each in many different forms, and it is hard to find a justification for favouring the one type at the expense of the other.

The accommodation of diverse, even divergent, customs, practices and institutions has its advantages, but it also has limitations. It works well in a society that changes little and changes so slowly that the change is hardly noticed by its individual members. It is not able to cope easily with rapid and consciously designed social change. An exaggerated respect for one’s own social customs or for those of others acts as a brake on social reform. The makers of modern India were faced with serious political and moral dilemmas at the time of India’s independence. On the one hand, they wanted to carry forward the spirit of tolerance and forbearance that they had inherited from the past. On the other, they were appalled by the multitude of archaic, obsolete and retrograde customs entrenched among many, if not most, of India’s numberless communities.

Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar were broadly of the same mind on the need for social reform. They both wanted to sweep away the cobwebs of the past. But, whereas Ambedkar wanted to push ahead, Nehru was inclined to vacillate. He fulminated in speech but equivocated in practice, out of real or imagined regard for immemorial tradition. It did not take long for Ambedkar to be eased out of Nehru’s cabinet.

Multi-culturalism becomes a problem when it is used as a shield for the protection of retrograde customs. It is doubtful that anybody in this day and age will seek to defend or justify cannibalism and head-hunting in the name of multi-culturalism. But what about child marriage? And what about polygamy? Until the time of Independence, polygamy was allowed by both Hindu and Muslim law. Shortly after Independence, Hindu law was reformed to make polygamy illegal. But Muslim law was not reformed in the same way, presumably out of respect for the sentiments of the community, but to the detriment of the long-term interests of all Muslims, both women and men.

The zeal for safeguarding the established practices of a community often acts against the interests of the individual members of the same community. This is seen most clearly in regard to practices relating to family and marriage where some decide what others will be required to do in the name of social tradition. Where women are denied choice in these matters, that denial is invariably justified by invoking the traditions of the community: others may do as they wish, but in our community we arrange marriages according to our own customs.

In the countryside around Delhi, local councils, known as khap panchayats act as custodians of the traditions of the community. They are dominated by men and they are strict about the regulation of marriage practices. Even though marriages outside the caste or jati and inside the clan or gotra are now permitted by Hindu law, the khap panchayats condemn them as being contrary to the customs of the community. They are both strict and swift in imposing penalties on transgressors and their families. The families generally fall in line with the elders either from conviction or from fear of ostracism.

In many communities the easiest way of maintaining order and safeguarding tradition is to impose restrictions on the movements of women, particularly young women. As they grow older, the women themselves lend their support to such restrictions. Not long ago, a local council in a village near Delhi issued a directive prohibiting women below the age of 40 from carrying cell phones. They did not have the resources to monitor such conversations. When the ban came up for criticism in the national papers, a member of the Union cabinet sought to justify it on the ground that the elders of each community have a duty to protect the integrity of its traditional way of life.

It will be naïve to believe that the diversity of cultures reproduces itself automatically without any regulation from within or outside. The regulatory mechanisms in use become obstacles to progress when they forbid choices that the law allows to individuals as citizens. Multi-culturalism will contribute to the general good only if it can build the freedom of choice, for women as much as for men, into its appreciation of diversity.

Andre Beteille, The Telegraph, August 23, 2012

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Andre Beteille: A Right for Every Season

Fifty year after Independence, India’s record as shown by some of  basic social indicators of development is dismally poor. The spotlight is now on failures on the front for elementary education, and there has been much public recrimination. Educationists have blamed the politicians, and politicians have blamed each other. There is something odd about all this. Every time the advocates of universal elementary education seem to argue as if it is the first time its great significance for the health and well-being of the nation has been discovered.

It has rarely been doubted that the spread of education is a good thing for both individual and collective well-being. At least the makers of the Constitution were free from such doubt. Article 45 in the Directive Principles of State Policy urged the state to provide ‘within a period of ten years from the commencement of  this Constitution for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age for fourteen years’. The Constitution has been in force for nearly fifty years, yet elementary education is even now far from being universal.

Would it have been better if elementary education had been made a fundamental right instead of being made a matter of state policy? There would be no doubt be some difference. There would be a greater sense of urgency, at least in some quarters, though perhaps not in all. There would be also a greater pressure on the courts to enforce the right created by the law. Some judges would welcome this as an opportunity to enhance the social well-being, but other would probably be alarmed by the prospect of the courts having to cope with unresolved and perhaps unresolvable litigation. Judges now appear to be less alarmed by the arrears of pending cases than they might have been a few decades ago.

It is simply not true that the people of India or even the ruling classes are opposed to all changes. There is widespread desire for change and betterment among all sections of society, all communities and all professions. Everybody wants to get to the end of the rainbow, but not many worry about how to get there. Economists seek to create their utopias through planning, politicians by legislations, and social activists through empowerment. They all can give detailed and eloquent accounts of that the utopia will be like once it has been created. But they find it tiresome to dwell too closely on the obstacles the lie on the way. Perhaps in our social environment these obstacles are so pervasive and so oppressive that the mind naturally turns away from them. In the event, people tend to alternate between being utopian and being fatalistic, or fluctuate between a moralizing and a cynical perception of the world.

India has a complex, divided and hierarchal society in which life chances are very unevenly distributed among individuals and groups. Although there are many currents of change, they do not all flow in the same direction or work towards the same end. Societies are governed by their own laws of change; they do not change simply because change seems desirable; and they cannot be changed according to mere will and pleasures of individuals. This is not to argue against conscious or directed change, without which no society can move forward in modern world. It is only to draw attention to the obvious fact that human intervention in social processes and institutions has unintended consequences. By their nature, these consequences — of economic planning, of social legislation or of political mobilization —  can never been fully foreseen. But more thought can be given to them than is usually done by the advocates of radical break with the past.

The first two of three decades following Independence were marked by an enormous enthusiasm for the transformation of society through economic planning. If economics was the imperial science anywhere, it was in India in fifties and sixties. In Delhi, the economists maintained a high-profile, and they were to be seen everywhere: in the universities, in research institutes, and in the government. They were brilliant, articulate and highly skilled technically, but they also overestimated their own capacities as brilliant intellectuals sometimes do when they are gripped by a social mission. Some of the best among them became victim of their own fantasies about the transformative powers of economic models.

Planning models are still important and useful, but the days of their glory are over. Now the spotlight is on ‘rights’ rather than on ‘models’, and judges, advocates and jurists are joined by social scientists and social activists who all demand the creation and expansion of rights: the right to education, the right to health care and the right to work. But the belief in transformative power of rights may turn out to be no less delusive than the belief in the potency of planning models.

When people do not have schools and the school teachers to give them a decent education — or, for that matter, any kind of educationn — it will be a small consolation for them to have right to education. The government can not doubt take satisfaction from giving people at least something: the right, if not the real thing. It is like the French queen Marie-Antoinette’s observation on a clamouring Paris mob. When told that the mob was clamouring for bread, she is reported to have said: ‘The don’t have bread? Well, let them eat cake.’

Responsible judges and jurists should surely tell our legislators and our public that rights must not be created unless they can be enforced. It is not enough to create rights that can be enforced only in some cases or even in many cases. Conditions must exists for their enforceability in most if not all cases. Let it be not said about the Indian legal system that it has the most rights and the fewest sanctions. Nothing can be more corrosive of the laws and Constitutions than to take rights lightly.

Political theorists since the time of de Tocqueville have known that what contributes even more than the laws of nation to the working of democracy are its customs. It is vastly easier to replace old laws by new ones that to replace malign customs by benign ones. Good laws certainly help to change customs, but the creation of laws that can not be enforced, that are disparaged and disregarded, does more harm than good to society.

— Andre Beteille, January 28, 1999, Times of India

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The importance of Rights

From “Democracy in America”, by Alexis de Tocqueville. Chapter 16.

After the idea of virtue, I know no higher principle than that of right; or, to speak more accurately, these two ideas are commingled in one. The idea of right is simply that of virtue introduced into the political world. It is the idea of right which enabled men to define anarchy and tyranny; and which taught them to remain independent without arrogance, as well as to obey without servility. The man who submits to violence is debased by his compliance; but when he obeys the mandate of one who possesses that right of authority which he acknowledges in a fellow-creature, he rises in some measure above the person who delivers the command. There are no great men without virtue, and there are no great nations – it may almost be added that there would be no society – without the notion of rights; for what is the condition of a mass of rational and intelligent beings who are only united together by the bond of force?

I am persuaded that the only means which we possess at the present time of inculcating the notion of rights, and of rendering it, as it were, palpable to the senses, is to invest all the members of the community with the peaceful exercise of certain rights: this is very clearly seen in children, who are men without the strength and the experience of manhood. When a child begins to move in the midst of the objects which surround him, he is instinctively led to turn everything which he can lay his hands upon to his own purposes; he has no notion of the property of others; but as he gradually learns the value of things, and begins to perceive that he may in his turn be deprived of his possessions, he becomes more circumspect, and he observes those rights in others which he wishes to have respected in himself. The principle which the child derives from the possession of his toys is taught to the man by the objects which he may call his own. In America those complaints against property in general which are so frequent in Europe are never heard, because in America there are no paupers; and as everyone has property of his own to defend, everyone recognizes the principle upon which he holds it.

The same thing occurs in the political world. In America the lowest classes have conceived a very high notion of political rights, because they exercise those rights; and they refrain from attacking those of other people, in order to ensure their own from attack. Whilst in Europe the same classes sometimes recalcitrate even against the supreme power, the American submits without a murmur to the authority of the pettiest magistrate.

This truth is exemplified by the most trivial details of national peculiarities. In France very few pleasures are exclusively reserved for the higher classes; the poor are admitted wherever the rich are received, and they consequently behave with propriety, and respect whatever contributes to the enjoyments in which they themselves participate. In England, where wealth has a monopoly of amusement as well as of power, complaints are made that whenever the poor happen to steal into the enclosures which are reserved for the pleasures of the rich, they commit acts of wanton mischief: can this be wondered at, since care has been taken that they should have nothing to lose? [16b]

The government of democracy brings the notion of political rights to the level of the humblest citizens, just as the dissemination of wealth brings the notion of property within the reach of all the members of the community; and I confess that, to my mind, this is one of its greatest advantages. I do not assert that it is easy to teach men to exercise political rights; but I maintain that, when it is possible, the effects which result from it are highly important; and I add that, if there ever was a time at which such an attempt ought to be made, that time is our own. It is clear that the influence of religious belief is shaken, and that the notion of divine rights is declining; it is evident that public morality is vitiated, and the notion of moral rights is also disappearing: these are general symptoms of the substitution of argument for faith, and of calculation for the impulses of sentiment. If, in the midst of this general disruption, you do not succeed in connecting the notion of rights with that of personal interest, which is the only immutable point in the human heart, what means will you have of governing the world except by fear? When I am told that, since the laws are weak and the populace is wild, since passions are excited and the authority of virtue is paralyzed, no measures must be taken to increase the rights of the democracy, I reply, that it is for these very reasons that some measures of the kind must be taken; and I am persuaded that governments are still more interested in taking them than society at large, because governments are liable to be destroyed and society cannot perish.

I am not, however, inclined to exaggerate the example which America furnishes. In those States the people are invested with political rights at a time when they could scarcely be abused, for the citizens were few in number and simple in their manners. As they have increased, the Americans have not augmented the power of the democracy, but they have, if I may use the expression, extended its dominions. It cannot be doubted that the moment at which political rights are granted to a people that had before been without them is a very critical, though it be a necessary one. A child may kill before he is aware of the value of life; and he may deprive another person of his property before he is aware that his own may be taken away from him. The lower orders, when first they are invested with political rights, stand, in relation to those rights, in the same position as the child does to the whole of nature, and the celebrated adage may then be applied to them, Homo puer robustus. This truth may even be perceived in America. The States in which the citizens have enjoyed their rights longest are those in which they make the best use of them.

It cannot be repeated too often that nothing is more fertile in prodigies than the art of being free; but there is nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty. Such is not the case with despotic institutions: despotism often promises to make amends for a thousand previous ills; it supports the right, it protects the oppressed, and it maintains public order. The nation is lulled by the temporary prosperity which accrues to it, until it is roused to a sense of its own misery. Liberty, on the contrary, is generally established in the midst of agitation, it is perfected by civil discord, and its benefits cannot be appreciated until it is already old.

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Andre Beteille : Macaulay, Marx and Madrasas

There is nothing new in the proposal to create an educational system and a cultural environment that will be given an authentically Indian character by being purged of foreign elements and other impurities. What is new is the determination of the party in power and in the government in New Delhi to promote such a project. Xenophobia existed in the past, but it was not officially encouraged. Today there are cabinet ministers, senior civil servants and highly placed educationists who are prepared to give it their open support.

The advocates of an educational system attuned to India’s cultural heritage have picked upon Macaulay, Marx and madrasas as the targets of their attack. The selection of targets show a facility of alliteration more than any capacity for deep or serious thoughts. Neither Macaulay nor Marx would have shown much sympathy for the revival of madrsas or for that mater Vedic schools or institute of astrology. However, in a secular democracy which values the plurality of traditions, it would be wrong to ban either madrasas of Vedic school, although neither should be favored with state patronage.

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Amartya Sen: India through its calender

Because of these associations, the nature, form and usage of calendars in a particular society can teach us a great deal about its politics, culture and religion as well as its science and mathematics. This applies even to as diverse a country as India, and it is in this sense that there will be an attempt in this essay to try to understand India through its calendars.

Read full article at Little Magazine

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Suicides : Durkhiem Types

Egoistic Suicide

The cause for lower rates of suicide [among Catholics, Jews compared to Protestant] is to be found within the nature of the religious confession itself. But such an explanation, Durkheim insisted, cannot refer to the religious percepts of the confession. for there Catholics and Protestants prohibit suicide with equal emphasis; rather, the explanation must proceed from one of the more general characteristics differentiating them, and that characteristic — indeed, “the only essential difference between Catholicism and Protestantism” — is that the latter permits free inquiry to a greater degree than the former.

But if the proclivity of Protestantism for suicide must thus be related to its spirit of free inquiry, this “free inquiry” itself requires explanation, for it brings as much sorrow as happiness, and thus is not “intrinsically desirable.” Why, then, do men seek and even demand such freedom? Durkheim’s answer: “Reflection develops only if its development becomes imperative, that is, if certain ideas and instinctive sentiments which have hitherto adequately guided conduct are found to have lost their efficacy. Then reflection intervenes to fill the gap that has appeared, but which it has not created.” In other words, Protestantism concedes greater freedom of thought to the individual because it has fewer commonly accepted beliefs and practices. Indeed, it was this possession of a common, collective credo that, for Durkheim, was the essence of religious society itself, and that distinguished it from those merely temporal bonds which unite men through the exchange and reciprocity of services, yet permit and even presuppose differences; and, precisely to the extent that Protestantism lacked such a credo, it was a less strongly integrated church than its Roman Catholic counterpart.

Durkheim then suggested that this explanation is consistent with at least three other observations. First, it would account for the still lower suicide rates of Jews who, in response to the hostilitydirected against them, established strong community ties of thought and action, virtually eliminated individual divergences, and thus achieved a high degree of unity, solidarity, and integration. Second, of all the great Protestant countries England has the lowest suicide rate; and it also has the most “integrated” of Protestant churches. And third since knowledge is the natural consequence of free inquiry, we should expect that suicide increases with its acquisition, and Durkheim had little trouble demonstrating that this was the case.

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EPW: Modernity and godmen

To the well-off sections of the society, where the followers come from higher echelons of caste and class, it is not so much about the need for faith but the dire need to protect their self-image of being distinguished and exceptional. The logic could be one where you follow a guru who is great and larger-than-life, and in following him, or realising that greatness one reassures one`s self that he or she is also unique and exceptional. As modernity propels a process of homogenisation of social roles, while all along demanding uniqueness and laying premium on individuality, one might realise this in following a sect that is different from the run-of-the-mill religiosity. Reflected glory becomes a compulsive mode for ego-gratification, and recognising that the guru could be fallible also raises doubts about ones own exceptionality. It is also these sections of society that are looking for reasons and causation in ones life without locating them within a larger society; they need explanations and solutions that begin and end with themselves….

While leading spiritual gurus like Sri Sri Ravishankar reiterate the need to privatise education so that people realise its importance and thereby a meritocratic order is restored, sacred pilgrim sites such as Tirupathi work through given notions of social capital and connections. A visit to Tirupathi will allow one to realise how its daily operations are based on connections with ministers (VIP darshan is made possible through the recommendation of the minister of endowment or the chief minister’s office), and there is a self-evident display of social status and money. These everyday practices in the psycho-cultural domain reinforce the dominant notions of power in the political domain. It is therefore not surprising why Narendra Modi, with his aggressive posturing and masculine image looks powerful, and why the likes of Rahul Gandhi look uninitiated and lethargic. The dominant and the dominated, governed and those governing, the elite and the subaltern are inextricably linked through the same socio-cultural practices, disallowing not only claims to an “autonomous domain” but also making it difficult to unabashedly celebrate the cult of the subaltern.

Vol – XLIX No. 3, January 18, 2014 | Modernity and god man

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