Modernising Modernity

Modernity has connoted in the minds of people many socially progressive things. However, what we have today is an Indian version of European capitalism and the Westminster style parliamentary system, both of which stand greatly discredited. So where do we look next to solve Indian problems, asks Shivanand Kanavi.

Modernity has connoted in the minds of people many socially progressive things. However, what we have today is an Indian version of European capitalism and the Westminster style parliamentary system, both of which stand greatly discredited. So where do we look next to solve Indian problems, asks Shivanand Kanavi.

What does being modern mean, or what is modernity, is a question worth investigating, because the word ‘modern’ is used very often to characterise the political, social and economic system we have today.  Here we are not looking into the esoteric and often contradictory sense in which the word ‘modern’ is used in literary, artistic and architectural contexts. In these areas it is difficult to find a reasonably coherent, agreed upon definition of the term ‘modern’. In this essay we are concerned with the way the term ‘modern’ is used in social, political and economic fields.

First of all, we see that ‘modern’ is not used in a purely chronological  sense. In almost all cases ‘modern’ is used as a value judgement; something ‘modern’ is to be aspired for and even fought for. It is mostly used to signify something that would be more socially progressive, less hierarchical, less discriminatory, more democratic, more equitable, something that would reduce human drudgery so that the mind and body can be free to pursue more intellectually and physically satisfying pursuits than merely the struggle for roti, kapada and makaan.

Soon after independence, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru called for ushering India into the modern era. He called the large industrial complexes, dams and other technological complexes as ‘temples of modern India’. The underlying sentiment was that the traditional temples of India were places where faith was primary. However, in these new temples of modern India, rationality, science and technology would be primary. Heavy industry, IITs, IIMs, space and nuclear programmes, state funded industrial research laboratories, were all started. We are seeing the results in this century.

Nehru and his colleagues in the Congress led the new elite into going along with the installation of Westminster style parliamentary democracy in India by British colonialism. To some it appeared promising compared to the quality of governance under crony Maharajas under British rule. After the transfer of power in 1947, the Indian elite developed the present-day Indian multi-party democracy with a new republican constitution and elections based on universal adult franchise, which is repeatedly hailed as the world’s largest, modern, vibrant democracy.

In India, we may not have reached the heights and speeds of Chinese construction, but we have created the Indian big businessman. He is becoming known all over the world for his appetite to build global corporations through mergers and acquisitions, cut mega financial deals in global stock markets and grow in personal wealth.

The Nehruvian project of ‘modernisation’ in the socio-economic and political sense thus seems to have succeeded. Then one may ask, why is there a need to redefine modernity?

In satellite remote sensing technology, one gets an image of the earth from the skies but before one interprets the picture based on certain assumptions, one needs to go to the areas photographed by the satellite and check the condition on the ground. In space technology jargon this is called finding the “ground truth”. Thus as we come down from the macro picture of GDP growth, and shining examples of technology and industry to the ground truth, we are struck by the fact that nearly 66 percent of people in India, that is 70 crores have the capacity to spend less than Rs 20 a day. At the same time, according to the Financial Express, the total wealth of India’s billionaires stands at $334.6 billion (Rs 14,38,780 crore).

India is planning to send a rocket to the moon next year. Named Chandrayaan-1, it is a great achievement by our space scientists, who work with shoe string budgets. At the same time, a large number of India’s children are malnourished and have no decent education. Millions of our people cannot afford good health care even though Indian doctors are dazzling the world with their brilliance in dealing with stem cells, genetics and so on.
These facts are known to grounded Indians and do not need belabouring.

In short, the progress and modernisation achieved in India during the 20th century and especially after independence, have been significant but highly iniquitous. One could argue that not only have they fallen far short of expectations and promises but have actually created an unprecedented gulf and polarisation. They have been achieved by a small section that has cornered both the natural resources and the treasury of the government.

This necessitates a re-examination of the paradigm of modernity.

The concept of modernity adopted by India’s elite is European in origin. There were many attempts in Europe to make a radical departure from the clutches of the dark Middle Ages. The Europe of those days was characterised by religious wars, religious persecution, persecution of dissenters, inquisition, witch hunts, oppression of the mass of peasants and artisans by feudal lords, the church and the monarchy and so on. The rise of Humanism, the Protestant Reformation, the counter reformation within Catholics, Deism, demands for the separation of church and state, the rise of national churches instead of an imperial Papacy, the demand for religious freedom, agnosticism, mechanistic views of the universe, the rise of modern French materialism, the empirical and experimental approach to science and so on, were different aspects of this struggle.

This represented the ‘new’, the renaissance (rebirth), the modern. This entire course of events took several centuries to develop.  At the end of this tortuous process, full of twists and turns, one saw the emergence of capitalism and colonialism as preponderant symbiotic systems. The foundations of capitalism and colonialism were the new property relations which held private ownership rights of individuals as sacrosanct and envisaged a society based on social contract between individuals and the state.  The state itself was a ruthless defender of capitalist private property and at the same time a mediator and mitigator of conflict between the owners of these property rights. This was also termed the “civil society” and the “rule of law”.

The 17th and 18th century also saw the increasing use of machinery and technology in production along with division of labour and purely wage based relationships between owners and workers. The great land grab in the Americas and Australia, along with the straight forward loot and plunder of riches from India and other places, not to forget the slave trade from Africa, funded the European industrialisation. It was also accompanied by evictions and pauperisation of millions of peasants and artisans in Europe. They were left to fend for themselves. Later, legends were fabricated on how thrift, merit and hard work led various families to become great property owners, so that the dispossessed would emulate their example instead of taking to rebellion.

This is how capitalism took birth and slowly came to dominate the economy and society.

In India, the British administrators saw that clear private property rights did not exist. The king had the right to collect taxes, while the village communities and adivasi communities managed a portion of the lands and forests. The British conqueror proceeded to claim ‘the power of eminent domain’, which did not have a precedent in India, and established colonial ownership of land and forests. They also privatised cultivated land and extracted exorbitant revenues through Zamindari and other systems. Cornwallis and his colleagues claimed that the introduction of private ownership would ‘modernise’ and stimulate the Indian economy.

The situation was summed up very well by Titumir and Dudu Mian of East Bengal in the first half of the 19th century. They organised a large peasant rebellion against the East India Company and its Zamindars.  They claimed, “the land belongs to God, we peasants are all children of God. It is our privilege to enjoy its fruits and it is our duty to look after it. Who are the Firangis and these Zamindars to appear on the scene now and claim ownership of the same?”

It is said by some that Capitalism with its individualism brought in the concept of individual ‘rights’. However, what is forgotten is a small detail that capitalism is founded on private property rights and hence treats all those without property as outlaws or at least outcastes. If you are a landless peasant in a village or a landless villager who migrates to the city in search of livelihood and builds a jhuggi to protect his family from the elements, only to be treated as an illegal encroacher of land, then you would understand the place of the propertyless in this ‘civil society’ governed by ‘the rule of law’. The only right that is given as a palliative to cover up the rule of the oligarchs is the highly circumscribed right to vote. The rest of the rights are not within your reach unless you become at least a petty proprietor. The petty proprietor himself sees the real limit of his rights whenever he raises any ‘lawful’ or just demand that might slightly inconvenience the oligarchs. 

All this is done within very rational and noble frameworks of ‘fundamental rights’, and ‘natural law’, which then rub salt in the wound by declaring that all human beings are born equal. A society claiming to give universal rights has no obligation to enable its members to live and work as human beings. Each one is supposed to fend for himself. If a dispossessed person finds others like himself and forms a brotherhood to claim his share of the social product, then attempts are made to suppress them or, if that fails, to co-opt a few ‘representatives’ of the dispossessed into the establishment.

Of course the use of division of labour and machinery leads to greater mass production for the market place. All are welcome to partake of these products, provided they pay the price set by the market. They are also told that now they have a ‘choice’! If at any time the profits of the oligarchs are under a squeeze, then the state wakes up to its primary duty. It comes to the oligarchy’s rescue, at the cost of further misery to the millions.

Science, technology and reason are all harnessed to maximise the profits of the oligarchs. Thus, you end up with 53 billionaires in India owning Rs 14,38,780 crore while 70 crore Indians cannot spend more than Rs 20 a day. This is where modernity based on capitalism, imposed on India through British colonialism and further developed by Indian oligarchs, has led us.

How can this be accepted as social progress?  And if it is not, can it be called modern?

The same Europe which gave birth to capitalism, and which tried to establish private property all over the globe through colonialism, also gave rise to its negation in the form of socialism. It took the most powerful concrete shape in Russia as Bolshevism. After October 1917, a new experiment began which brought forth a new alternative to capitalist modernity. It built a society based on abolition of private property and the development of collective property and societal property. It also built a political system which was based on recognising rights on the basis of one’s contribution to social labour, with “no room here for the shirk!”  Egalitarianism, equal opportunity for all, education, health care and jobs for all, reduction of drudgery using technology, mass participation in cultural and sports activities and all other attributes that are associated with the word ‘modernity’ were achieved in this socialist society. This new socialist modernity inspired many a struggle all over the world.

After about two decades of this ‘dictatorship of the disenfranchised’, it was realised that the time had come to rise above a class based definition of democracy. There were attempts to remove one-sidedness by introducing equal political rights for all, through a new constitution in 1936 that gave a greater role to the people directly in making public policy decisions, instead of the communist party arrogating to itself this right as its prerogative.
However, before these innovations could take deep root,  a retrogression set in both in the internal and external policies of the Soviet Union. Eventually the system collapsed and the new elite embraced the old capitalist modernity. This was visible in its most naked form when the ‘new oligarchs’ grabbed huge chunks of Russia’s state-owned industry and natural resources, with the rise of Yeltsin.

Today, Russia is home to 7 of the 25 richest people in the world, and 12 of the 25 richest in Europe. There are more billionaires living in Moscow, than in any other city in the world, with an average wealth of $5.9 billion (Rs 25,370 crore each). Russia ranks second in the world in number of billionaires, with 87, behind America’s 469, according to Forbes magazine.

At the end of the Cold War, the US, Western Europe and Gorbachev’s USSR along with several other countries of Eastern Europe got together in Paris in November, 1990 and redefined modernity, which they described as a simple admixture of market economics and multi-party democracy. Signatories of the Paris Charter soon made their belligerence known to anyone who did not fully fall into line with this and who tried to experiment with their own sui generis systems!

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the debate on modernity has taken a new form. Now it is claimed that if you talk of socialism and collective property you are a fossil, but if you believe in neo-liberal market economics and say puerile things like ‘the business of the government is to not be in business’ and so on, then you are a ‘modern’ individual.

What we are seeing in India after the Paris Charter is an Indian version of the same recipe of multi-party democracy and market economics in full bloom. In fact, on July 21 and 22 this year, the Indian parliament once again demonstrated on 24×7 TV, that market economics operates inside a multi-party parliament as well!
How do we get out of this cul-de-sac and truly modernise India?

I would argue that one needs to dispassionately study the experience of socialism and why it collapsed, in order to modernise the theory underlying a superior democracy and economic order.  Here I do not at all mean ‘socialist market economics’ as some are proposing, since I think that would not be very different from neo-liberal market economics in the final analysis. What needs to be done is to study why socialism got alienated from the people whom it was supposed to belong to.  How to unleash the human factor in governance and economic management, and in all aspects of life? How to harmonise the individual, collective and societal interests?  How do we achieve this in the present rancorous and highly polarised, sectarian atmosphere? Here it is worth examining our own traditions and learning from the rest of the world.

The traditional Indian ethos, according to some, did not talk about rights explicitly.  Nevertheless, it integrated individual rights and duties and societal rights and duties in the concept of dharma, which is often narrowly and wrongly translated as religion. Moreover, the right to conscience and a mechanism to harmonise different viewpoints through anekantavada was upheld long ago, through beautiful philosophical and methodological constructs.

The right to conscience was upheld as the right to find one’s own salvation through a self chosen belief system and a way of life that goes with it. This was not confined to spiritual matters, as expressed splendidly by the Bhakti movement, but included temporal matters as well. For example, a reading of the Svetashvatara Upanishad shows that in those days there were many theories about the origin of the universe: 1) kala (time), 2) svabhava (inherent nature), 3) niyati (fate), 4) ydrachha (accident), 5) bhoota (elements of matter), 6) prakruti (female principle, primeval matter), 7) purusa (male principle, spirit). The author is in favour of the seventh theory but he does not condemn or ridicule the other six. Similarly, Kautilya in Arthashastra states in the very beginning the views of Manu’s followers, Brihaspati’s followers and then enunciates his own. There is respect for tradition but there is also assertion of his individuality.

The Indian method of discourse too was highly respectful of the ‘other’ view. A proponent would first put forward in the strongest possible terms the opponent’s case, (purva paksha) and then go on to posit his views, (siddhanta) without rancour, ridicule and demagogy.

Liberal tolerance in the ‘modern civil society’ of the “other” is not even a shadow of the Indian approach. Tolerance hides animosity and condescension just below the surface and too often erupts in majority-minority polarisation. At best, it signifies a temporary co-existence due to circumstances, without mutual respect and necessarily without the basis for long term harmony.

The Indian ethos was steeped in humility and respect. Indians posited that truth reveals itself to the seeker and no seeker can claim to have a complete grasp of the truth. Thus, there would be many points of view which need to be integrated to get a total understanding of a phenomenon. The blind men and the elephant is an oft quoted parable in the Indian ‘marga’ (high brow) as well as ‘desi’ (folk) traditions. This was articulated in anekantavada and shyadvada. That is, truth has many facets and no one can claim a monopoly over it.

Anekantavada goes against absolutism and Aristotlean certainty and yes/no binary logic. Divisions like ‘them and us’, ‘with us or against us’, right or left, belong to capitalist modernity and the Cold War. Clearly the Indian approach leads to harmony,  leads to an inclusive society and absorbs cultural and philosophical influences. It leads to a possibility of coming up with non partisan solutions to today’s complex problems.

The state’s dharma was to look after education, health care, tank and canal irrigation etc. In short, the Rajadharma was to provide sukh (prosperity) and suraksha (security from internal and external destabilisers). Even in the architecture of Harappan excavations, one sees that as early as 3000 BC, Indians thought of individuals as born to society and not in a vacuum. That is expressed in well planned sanitation, grain storage silos, storm water drains etc – in short a societal level planning and execution and that too in all parts of the town, in elite quarters as well as the quarters of the commoners.

The right to conscience, in traditional India, thus becomes a natural reflection of reality, which can be viewed in many ways, unlike in Europe where it became a privilege granted by a sovereign. In the Indian approach to the right to conscience, the state has no role to play. Right to conscience is not a part of political balancing act but is a reflection of multifaceted nature of truth itself.

In modern India, a product of the colonial legacy, we have forgotten all this. The state grants the right to conscience through the Constitution and takes it away when it deems fit. Not only are anti-conversion laws passed in various states, but thousands have been incarcerated in the North East and Kashmir because they question the involuntary union of India or because they are considered fundamentalists in the ongoing ‘War against Terror’. Has this led to harmony and less strife?

Modern India has followed capitalist footsteps and increasingly believes in ‘each one for himself’ and ‘markets will decide’. It thereby abdicates societal dharma that an individual is born to society and society has an obligation to look after the individual and provide him opportunities to contribute productively.

The caste system was a negation of the right to conscience and the right to knowledge, as well as of the duty of the state to provide sukh and suraksha to all. That is why the caste system constantly provoked rebellion against itself from the very beginning. When it predominated, society stagnated and when the caste system was shaken up and overthrown, even if temporarily or locally, the society was rejuvenated.

Along with the summing up of the experience of socialism in the former Soviet Union, Indians would greatly benefit by also getting rid of Macaulayan Eurocentric prejudices and studying our own tradition. This is not to say that pre-British and pre-capitalist India is where we should be heading in the future. But we need to develop an alternative paradigm of modernity that not only promises an equitable, just, non hierarchical and caring society, but that also harmonises the relationship between mankind and the rest of nature as well as the individual, collective and the societal interests. In one word, there is a burning need to build a truly modern alternative to the highly unsatisfactory present, instead of being bound by various versions of capitalist modernity.                                               

Shivanand Kanavi is a senior journalist and author of “Sand to Silicon: The amazing story of digital technology"

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