Modernity in South Asia (part 2)

(continued from part 1)

To this day, Marxist anthropologists (Thorner 1982; Patanaik 1990) have described India as neither capitalist nor feudal, but having elements from both, i.e. ‘semi-capitalism’ or‘semi-feudalism’.  Likewise, European historians, from the advent of the British Raj, saw Indian history between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries in a global perspective, thereby insinuating that India had to ‘modernise’ and break away from its medieval past, characterised by a religiously-dominated feudal economy characterised by agrarianism, to a ‘modern’ one characterised by industry.  The historian Rosalind O’Hanlon states
‘This reorientation severed the ties linking Northern India to Central and West Asia, and southern India to the Indian Ocean world… It replaced those ties with a subordinate place for a unitary ‘India’ in Britain’s global empire.’ (O’Hanlon 2013)

This was the start of what European historians called ‘early-modernity’. India has been studied extensively by Europeans since 1760, and its traditions and culture were nothing new to European scholarship. Furthermore, Deshpande points out that ‘India’s colonial inheritance of a viable nucleus of western-style academic institutions was unusual, possibly even unique.’ (Deshpande, 2004)

Conversely Indian scholars had a separate idea of their history, as ‘measuring and valuing time was central to political practice in India’s imperial traditions.’ (O’Hanlon 2013) The emperors were seen as commanding time, and scribes, scholars and other contemporaries were accustomed to thinking anachronistically – that is, simultaneously within calendars of different eras.  This clashed with British Orientalist scholars’ perceptions of time, as for them there was the ‘Classical Hindu’ era and the ‘Medieval Muslim’ era.  O’Hanlon’s criticism of early-modernity address this, in that to even suggest a notion of ‘modernity’ is to talk about history from a Western point of view (O’Hanlon 2013).  Here we can see the foreign nature of ‘modernity’ as an ideology.

Conversely, on the ground, modernity carried the weight of an ideology with pragmatic ramifications, rather than simply being an epoch in the European perception of history. Western Indian Brahmins had a reactionary response to so called Early Modernity, following the ‘medieval era’, upon the migration of non-Brahmin scribes and the arrival of the Portuguese in Maharashtra, on top of already heated tensions with the Mughals:
‘The centuries of the ‘Early Modern’ thus saw western India opened out in new ways to the wider world, both to networks of trade and migration within India, and to the commerce of the Indian Ocean world, with its new European protagonists.’ (O’Hanlon 2013)

Early Modernity can be seen as a distinct period in South Asian history characterised by this change.  Moreover, O’Hanlon says Hinduism itself is a result of this reactionary movement in Early Modernity, and was ‘clearly a novel formation’ to imbue within it their reformist agendas to make it more appealing (O’Hanlon 2013).  In this context, Hinduism became a political vehicle – the result of a pan-Indian struggle against alien oppressors, which was exactly the idea exemplified in the thought of V.D. Savarkar, prominent Hindu nationalist and coiner of the term ‘Hindutva’.  This conforms to Hefner’s assertion (1998) that the rise of modernity, and its secular nature, has led not to the decline of religion but rather intensified it, since in the ‘modern’ paradigm religion was an entity separate from the state, and religious forces competed with each other for dominance.  Hence modernity gave rise not only to a ‘Hinduism’, but also to Hindu Nationalism.

Nonetheless, historical issues bring to the fore problems with a conception of ‘modernity’ within the academic world.  One can only speak of an entity called ‘modernity’ at its highest level of abstraction.  Chandavarkar’s work has pointed out that no sharp division, in the long term, can be made between modernity and tradition, as Robert Redfield puts it, ‘tradition’ connotes the passing down from one generation to another, therefore means both process and product’ (Singer 1975).  Kaviraj addresses the indigenisation of modernity:
‘Its diffusion through many parts of the world did not produce homogeneity or convergence; rather, it created new diversities as it indigenised itself in non-western societies, their preexisiting histories shaping the ‘modernity’ of the West to a new local and multiform purposes that cannot simply be traced back to a European original’(quoted from O’Hanlon 2013).
India’s caste system is an example. Although British censuses and their obsession with categorising people was certainly no deterrent, this obsession imbued itself within a ‘modern’ paradigm and was therefore one of the ramifications of the grounding of this paradigm, resulting in a system of concrete Jati’s, the rudimentary elements of which were already present, such as the four Varna’s.

Eisenstadt consequently speaks of the development of ‘multiple modernities’.
‘Modernity has indeed spread to most of the world, but did not give rise to a single civilisation, or to one institutional pattern, but to the development of several modern civilisations, or at least civilisational patterns, i.e. of civilisations which share common characteristics, but which yet tend to develop different even if cognate ideological and institutional dynamics.’ (Eisensttadt 1999)
Eisenstadt argues that non-European civilisations already found the ideas of modernity attractive before they were popular in Europe.  Europe was only the first coincidentally. Furthermore the themes and ‘civilisational patterns’ of modernity were not adopted in the entirety of their original ‘European’ form; rather it was a continuous process, as Kaviraj has pointed out, of the crystallisation of new indigenous paradigms.  In Eisenstadt’s view, ‘modernisation’ is not the same as ‘westernisation’.

We can consider two interpretations of modernity.  One is that of Francis Fukuyama (1992), which refers to ‘the end of history’ and the homogenisation of the liberal individualist worldview and spreading of the market economy.  The other is that of Samuel P. Huntington (1992), the ‘clash of civilisations’ view ‘in which the western civilisation is compared often in hostile terms with other civilisations’ (Huntington 1992, quoted from Eisenstadt 1999).  South Asia can be seen as embodying both perspectives.  But as an indigenous South Asian myself, I personally lean towards the latter view, as, although both these formulations were conceived over 24 years ago at the time of writing, contrary to Fukuyama, there has been change since then.  South Asia, namely India has seen considerable backlash and reaction to attitudes such as individual agency and formal caste reservations, albeit while continuing to embrace the free market, and even neo-feudal tendencies can be seen.  Here we can see a ‘post-modernity’ taking root.

I’ve mentioned that South Asians are ambivalent towards modernity. In the same way there’s a degree of ambivalence towards tradition.  On the one hand it enshrines high moral standards and teaches values such as respect.  On the other, it is sometimes seen as the bringer of ‘backwardness’, and social evils.  It is not uncommon to find such a view not only at the societal level but also in the individual, and therefore in answering whether South Asia is modern, ‘yes’ is as good of an answer as ‘no’.



Chandavarkar, T. Workers’ Politics and the Mill Districts in Bombay between the Wars in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 15, No. 3, Power, Profit and Politics: Essays on Imperialism, Natiuonalism and Change in Twentieth-Century India (1981), pp. 603-647. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1981.

Deshpande, S. Modernisation in Das, V. Handbook of Indian Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

Eisenstadt, S.N. Multiple Modernities in an Age of Globalisation in The Canadian Journal of Sociology/Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, Vol. 24. No. 2 (Spring, 1999), pp. 283-295. Canadian Journal of Sociology. 1999.

Hefner, R. W, Multiple Modernities: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in a Globalising Age in Annual Review of Anthropology Vol 27: 83-104. Boston: Boston University Press. 1998.

O’Hanlon, Rosalind. Contested Conjunctures: Brahman Comunities and ‘Early Modernity’ in India in American Historical Review June 2013, pp. 765-787. Oxford: Oxford University Press/USA. 2013



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