Modernity in South Asia (part 1)

It is perhaps unremarkable to say ‘South Asia is modern’, for it certainly exists in modern times…  If we refer to the conception of a geographic region that is South Asia, the fact that we can speak about it is proof enough of the current existence of the conception, therefore the conception is modern.  However, can we speak of ‘modernity’, as a conception in and of itself, in the same way?  ‘Modern’ can mean anything, for we can also say that South Asia is ‘ancient’, as it has been home to a civilisation ancient enough to rival that of Egypt, and therefore it is not modern.  Or perhaps we can say that it is modern, because English is widely used and wearing jeans is common.  Therefore I will say that the conception of ‘modernity’, and what it means to be ‘modern’, is a layman’s conception, and asking whether South Asia is modern is a layman’s question, akin to asking whether South Asia is, for instance, interesting.

In the same way, South Asia can be perceived as modern, in that ‘modernity’, namely the social conception of modernity, is a powerful ideological force in the social, political and economic realms.  However the inhabitants of South Asia are ambivalent.  Depending on the context, modernity is either favoured or frowned upon.  Depending on the institution, it is either prevailing or failing.  This essay will explore the situations and contexts in which the social conception of modernity succeeds, and where it falters, within the region.

It is first necessary to define the social conception of modernity. Deshpande gives the
following definition:
Modernity ‘assumes that local ties and parochial perspectives give way to
universal commitments and cosmopolitan attitudes; that the truths of utility,
calculation, and science take precedence over those of the emotions, the sacred,
and the non-rational; that the individual rather than the group be the primary unit
of society and politics; that the associations in which men live and work be based
on choice not birth; that mastery rather than fatalism orient their attitude toward
the material and human environment; that identity be chosen and achieved, not
ascribed and affirmed; that work be separated from family, residence, and
community in bureaucratic organisations.’ (Deshpande 2004)
Deshpande’s definition suggests Modernity is an incredibly detailed and hybridised idea.  I
argue that such intricacy is not created by chance, at least not in the short amount of time
modernity has encompassed the history of civilisation.  Modernisation theory owes its roots to the deep-seated belief that the newly decolonised (and other) societies of Asia, Africa and South America should, and eventually will, become ‘modern’.  That it was not created by chance implies that modernity is a functional and coherent belief, which spread as if it were a religion (Eisenstadt 1999); that it is an ideology rather than just an idea.

Although the seeds of modernity were planted in these regions, the first plants grew in
the post-enlightenment ‘West’. After infesting Europe, so to speak, the ideology emerged and spread globally during the Cold War, which, Deshpande points out, was quite a coincidence considering this was also the era of decolonisation. He further associates modernity with the hegemony of the United States over the Western world, and beyond, after the collapse of the USSR.  Eisenstadt agrees that modernity’s impact on societies was more intense than precedented cases of change throughout history, indicating its ideological nature.  But on the other hand, he claims that although the social conception of modernity emerged from a single civilisation, it certainly did not create one – a matter I will return to later in this article.

Alex Inkeles and David Smith (1966) examined how the populace adopted modernity on the ground.  They conducted a survey with a stratified sample of 1000 males, in each of six developing countries, two of which were India and Bangladesh (which at the time was East Pakistan), and measured their responses on a composite attitudinal scale.  They found the most important factor to be ‘education, followed by occupation and exposure to mass media; urbanisation was found to be unimportant.’ (Deshpande 2004)

This is significant in that it points to a coherent conceptualisation and ideological origin of ‘modernity’.  Urbanisation being unimportant implies that the economic ramifications of modernity which accompany urbanisation, such as a jobs revolving around the free market or heavy industry, take a backseat.  Conversely mass media and education are directly related to the ideological sphere.  It is whence, for instance, the ideological influence of favouring rationality over ritual and superstition arise.  Therefore Deshpande writes: ‘The main findings confirmed the existence of a ‘psycho-social syndrome’ of modernity as internalised values and attitudes, and manifested in behaviour demonstrating a feeling of personal efficacy, autonomy from ‘traditional sources of influence’, and openness towards ‘new experiences and ideas’ (Deshpande 2004)

In South Asia, namely in India, this can be seen in a kind of ‘schizophrenic attitude’, embodying the ideological dialectic between tradition and modernity.  In other words, there is an inclination to keep the two spheres completely separate and unscathed by each other’s influence.  Milton Singer examined methods used by Indians in urban areas to manage this juxtaposition, embodied in the insistence of keeping the modern workplace, where industry and free market reign, separate from the domestic realm, an informal place of kinship and social life.  He coins the terms Compartmentalisation, Ritual Neutralisation and Vicarious Ritualisation.  Compartmentalisation refers to the spatial and temporal separation of modernity and tradition in terms of contexts and institutions.  Ritual Neutralisation refers to neutralising traditional ‘leaks’, so to speak, into modern contexts, such as the workplace.  Vicarious Ritualisation is when, because of so called ‘modern’ obligations, householders get someone else to perform rituals on their behalf, usually their wives or hired priests.

On the other hand, Chandavarkar, through his account of mill workers in Bombay which suggests otherwise, addresses historians who assert that the traditional views of the working class hindered their acceptance of trade unions which emerged with industrialisation in inter-war colonial India.
‘To understand the development of the perceptions and actions of Bombay’s workers…we need to examine not only the social relationships of the workplace but particularly the context in which workers lived outside it.’ (Chandavarkar 1981)
Here Chandavarkar refers to the implications that ‘neighbourhood life’ have in the sphere of the workplace.  In his account of Girangaon, literally ‘mill-village’, a congregation of working class migrants in the north of Bombay, he illustrates exactly this.  Girangaon eventually suffered from overcrowding and people started living on the streets, creating a distinct ‘street life’.  Although this phenomenon can be identified with the domestic realm, Chandavarkar asserts it is not separate from the sphere of the workplace.

That the two spheres are ‘inextricably connected’ (Chandavarkar 1981), is evident when we consider badli’s and dada’s.  Badli’s (derived from New Indo Aryan badalna, ‘to change’) are substitute workers, who can be replaced at any time by the mill owners, who often hired on a daily basis.  This made it essential for workers to maintain connections outside the workplace, as having substitutes at the ready makes one more hireable.  Dada’s have been described as don-like hooligans, who were essentially trade union bosses.  Chandavarkar notes that dada was more of a reputation than a status.  These informal neighbourhood ties are at odds with the formal connections that modernity and industrialisation espouses, characteristic of the workplace; yet they cannot be considered separate from this context.  In this context there is no evidence of Singer’s Compartmentalisation, Ritual Neutralisation or Vicarious Ritualisation.  Chandavarkar’s account shows how modernity is ‘indigenised’; that we cannot consider the ‘modern’ and the ‘traditional’ as two separate spheres (at least within academia).
‘Social relationships in the neighbourhood increasingly impinged upon industrial politics… partly because material conditions limited the possibility of organisation at the workplace.’ (Chandavarkar 1981)
Because of an overstocked labour market, workers could be excluded and trade unions were not potent. If workers were to have any chance of having their demands met, they had no choice but to organise the neighbourhood. Connections influenced the possibilities of strike action; in extreme cases they often hired badmaash’s (hooligans) to intimidate chokidaar’s (watchmen). Likewise the mill-owners were also able to mobilise their own brigades for political action.

(continued in part 2)



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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