The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 29, 2003

Blending modernity with tradition
Ashutosh Kumar

Contemporary India: A sociological view.
by Satish Deshpande. Viking, Penguin, New Delhi, Pages 213. Rs 350.

Contemporary India: A sociological viewIN the book, Satish Deshpande, a sociologist with the Institute of Economic Growth undertakes the task of examining critically what common sense tells us about the transformation of the social and economic landscape in contemporary India. These are: "the strange mixture of anxiety and ambivalence that modernity provokes in India; the shaping of the nation by the ideologies of Hindutva and development; the pivotal role of the middle class in independent India; and the relative invisibility of caste inequality despite the public prominence of caste inequality."

While "mapping a distinctive modernity" Deshpande observes that the themes of modernity and tradition are firmly embedded in our psyche. We not only believe that there are many ways to be modern, but also claim that our "distinct" way involves "blending modernity with tradition" to get "the best of both worlds."

The concept of "nation as an imagined economy" comes up for rigorous scrutiny. Deshpande observes that in the beginning Indian nationalism mainly had an economic focus, even though Hindu communalism exerted an equally powerful influence. The change came in the seventies due to the failure of the development model to fulfill the promises it made. After two decades of "a protracted transition", India has been witness to "the resurgence of Hindu communalism in an overall context dominated by globalisation."


The Hindutva way of imagining the nation has coincided with its "new ways of thinking about the social aspects of space." He refers to three distinct spatial strategies that contemporary Hindutva has employed in recent history. These centre around sacred sites (like the campaign for the liberation of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi in Aydhoya), areas (the ‘Idgah maidan flag hoisting’ controversy at Hubli), routes (Advani’s rathyatra to Ayodhya, Joshi’s Kanyakumari to Kashmir yatra, and Narendra Modi’s Gaurav Yatra in Gujarat; also processions like the Ganesh utsav in Hyderabad and Shiv jayanti procession in Bhiwandi).

Reflecting on the sudden visibility of caste among the supposedly ‘casteless’, homogenised urban middle classes in the aftermath of the agitation against reservation, Deshpande examines the four elements of the popular view on the subject: First, caste inequality has lessened considerably over a period of time as a result of the reservation policy though only a minority within the SC-ST-OBC group has cornered most of the benefits.

Second, the concept of caste has undergone a process of politicisation with the numerically stronger backward and middle castes dominating the electoral politics. This implies reverse discrimination against upper castes.

Third, given the great degree of variation in the economic and social status of members of every caste group, it is misleading to use caste per se as an objective criterion to decide backwardness or forwardness of individual members.

Fourth, the main aspect of caste discrimination, namely untouchability, has been outlawed and adequate legislative measures have been undertaken to remove caste inequalities. Ironically, it is the middle castes and not the upper castes that are the main perpetrators of the caste system.

Deshpande agrees that the conditions of the marginal caste groups have improved but then asks whether this improvement has been sufficient. Drawing upon the data collected by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) the author holds that "caste continues to be a major fault line of economic inequality in contemporary India." He concludes that, contrary to what commonsense holds, even after more than half century of independence "caste inequality has been and is being reproduced in independent India."

Then Deshpande moves to the "centrality of the middle class`85a product of the developmental regime." Deshpande, however, sarcastically remarks that with the gradual eclipse of the idea of development "one could no longer be confident that the middle class, the developmental state, and the nation were marching in step." The middle classes have since then gradually distanced themselves from the idea of nation state and its development.

The processes of globalisation and localisation have seen the emergence of subnational loyalties as well as the lure of transnational identities among the ‘new’ middle classes seeking ‘adjustment’. Thus having consolidated its social, economic and political standing, this new class, especially its upper segment, is all set to corner the benefits of globalisation. All the issues like modernity, the nation, Hindutva, or the middle class, seem to veer around to the overarching theme of "globalisation and the geography of cultural regions." Deshpande suggests that the processes of globalisation that produce "a sort of identity anxiety" should be accompanied by the growth of "particularistic cultural identities of all kinds."

The book is extremely readable and reflects a refreshing approach. It succeeds in its endeavour to persuade the readers to go "beyond commonsense" to understand the critical issues relating to contemporary India. Drawing liberally from the recent literature on relevant themes it comes across as an original work that can easily be hailed as among the best in its genre.