(Lecture Delivered at the Rotary Club of Bengaluru on 12-05-09)
Let me at the outset thank the Rotary Club of Bengaluru for inviting me. I am returning to a Rotary event after almost a decade. I had occasions to address the District Conferences of the Club twice before when I was at Hyderabad. I further thank the organisers for asking me to speak on a topic that is ‘hot’ all over India and especially hotter here in Karnataka – “Politicisation of Indian Culture”.
There has been a serious debate over this topic in India in the last few months. There was name-calling, blame-games and high-pitch allegations galore over this question of Indian culture. Sadly, most of it remained ill-informed and rhetorical.
I don’t mean to say that there was no issue. There are genuine issues relating to what is happening in India in the name of culture. It is a cause for concern when someone comes and attacks a pub or a group of people try to disturb a fashion show calling it anti-Indian culture or some groups go berserk attacking gift shops or boys and girls in parks on Valentine’s Day in the name of protecting Indian culture.
We are all concerned about such violence. There should be no place for it in a democratic set up. If it is anti-Indian culture for young boys and girls to go to pubs it is equally very un-Indian culture-like to beat up young girls by unknown hooligans on the streets. I call it Semitisation and Talibanisation of our culture. We all must stand united to condemn such violence. We in the RSS have done it whenever such incidents happened.
But most of the times, the response of the rest of the society is also a cause for equal concern. We assume pink chaddies (underwear) are an answer to pub attacks. In our eagerness to respond to one type of radicalism we inadvertently resort to another form of fundamentalism. Then we have our ‘progressives’ for whom these issues have become bread and butter issues. They provide them an opportunity to shout and scream and get a few tele-bytes space on popular channels.
The violence stems from our refusal to engage groups in a civilised dialogue. We are living in a democracy. Every viewpoint calls for respect. But most of the times we resort to downright condemnation calling the protagonists names. They are branded Hindu fundamentalists/Hindu Taliban and what not. Actually this Fascist response of the progressives is what lends more ammunition to the ‘culture crusaders’ like Muthaliks .
Hence while condemning this violence in the name of culture we must not forget that politics of culture involves larger issues and it is not just Indian but a global phenomenon today. We are living in an era of what is called ‘Identity Politics’. Globally there is a new kind of awakening where nations and peoples are trying to reinvent themselves on the basis of their historic and cultural identities.
‘Who are we?’ asked Samuel Huntington in 2003, highlighting the serious question of the American identity. America cannot remain a ‘melting pot’ forever; it must create an identity for itself failing which it will disintegrate, he insisted in his path-breaking work. He used Max Weber’s expression ‘Protestant Ethic’ as the identity of America only adding ‘Minus Church’. In other words, Protestant value system, not the organised Church, should be the pan-American identity according to Huntington.
Huntington’s book generated great debate all over the world. When I met him in 2006 at the beautiful Martha’s Vineyard off Boston coast I asked him whether he still believed that the real identity of a nation should be the historic-cultural identity and not the politico-geographic identity. He was categorical and insisted that his later research showed that very soon several European nations too are going to raise these questions about their identity beyond Nation-State. That is what we witness in several parts of the world today.
These incidents are symptoms of a malice that has been introduced into the global body politic by the Western nations. The collapse of Communism and Socialism has removed the Marxist explanations concerning economic development. The Marxists attempted to create a global economic identity in the name of Communism. They tried to destroy cultures and create a new global culture based on economic principles. They did it wherever they became powerful. They did it in Russia; they did it to the great Tibetan culture; and they tried to impose their material interpretations even in India trying to re-write history and essentially negate the true one. But the Cultural Determinist School of scholars never let their designs succeed whether in Russia or in India.
The global capitalist order is now attempting to create what they describe as a ‘Global Popular Culture’. It attempts to commoditise culture; sells it aggressively through market; and attempts to destroy all other forms of culture in order for the giant multi-lateral corporations – the neo-evangelicals – to flourish. The whole world is expected to eat, dress, behave and live according to the standards set by these global neo-evangelicals. They do not deny the primacy of culture; they only want to change it; and they think they can do that.
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself”, declared Daniel Patrick Moynihan succinctly summing up the grand design.
Culture of a nation is the manifestation of the sum total of the cumulative wisdom compiled by a people over millennia-old historic experiences and experiments. Thus every culture has its own beauty and uniqueness. Our culture, which we call as Indian or Hindu, is pluralist at its core, catholic in its content and progressive in its vision.
The global popular culture seeks to annihilate this very essential pluralist ethic. The West is clear in its agenda. It tries to project this global culture as an epitome of development and progress. All other cultures are considered inferior.
Under this scheme pubs become ‘popular culture’ and our very own Bharata Natyam becomes ‘Folk Art’. What is ‘Folk Art’ if not popular culture? Who are the ‘Folks’?
Richard A.Shweder in “Moral Maps, ‘First World Conceits, and the New Evangelists” asserts that these judgmental views are frequently the “ethnocentric misunderstanding and moral arrogance” of “cultural developmentalism.” He criticises that it is a return to the “White Man’s Burden” beliefs of the Western imperial era.
The developmental standards against which cultures are currently judged are slippery, he points out with ample examples. There is much in Western culture that is questionable, and much in third world culture that is laudable. He is sceptical about current views on the causation of economic development. He notes that different cultures have been wealthy and powerful at different historic times.
As the capitalist economy has grown in influence and power, much of other cultures have been expropriated and commoditised, warns Shweder. Their use value increasingly takes second place to their exchange value. As he very aptly points out, nowadays we create less of our culture and buy more of it, until it really is no longer our culture.
“A far greater part of our culture is now aptly designated as “mass culture,” “popular culture,” and even “media culture,” owned and operated mostly by giant corporations whose major concern is to accumulate wealth and make the world safe for their owners, the goal being exchange value rather than use value, social control rather than social creativity. Much of mass culture is organized to distract us from thinking too much about larger realities. The fluff and puffery of entertainment culture crowds out more urgent and nourishing things. By constantly appealing to the lowest common denominator, a sensationalist popular culture lowers the common denominator still further. Public tastes become still more attuned to cultural junk food, the big hype, the trashy, flashy, wildly violent, instantly stimulating, and desperately superficial offerings” he bemoans.
The commoditisation of culture can be seen quite starkly in the decline of children’s culture. This process, whereby a profit-driven mass culture pre-empts people’s culture, is extending all over the world, as third-world critics of cultural imperialism repeatedly remind us.
Hence while condemning what Muthaliks do, let us not lose sight of the larger question of threats to cultural pluralism. Do we want our own distinct cultural identity to remain intact or want to just become a minor partner in the giant global popular culture which is essentially market-driven and multi-national corporations-guided?
If there are any negative aspects in our culture Gandhiji’s approach is the right approach for us. Don’t blame our religion for all the faults you find in our lives today, cautioned Gandhiji. Blames yourselves that you have brought in all that ruin through your actions and have become unworthy inheritors of that great culture. We have to try and reform it, not negate and annihilate it.
Every culture has its own great values and weak points. Protestant nations are said to have lower levels of corruption because the Protestant sects emphasize personal responsibility for avoidance of sin, whereas Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox doctrine accepts inherent human weakness and the need for the intervention of a forgiving Church.
We have to learn from the experience of Japan. Landes provides an account of the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Japanese culture – work ethic, effective government, self discipline, nationalism – made the difference. The Japanese determined to learn and adopt the best practices in the European world and the U.S. They were spectacularly successful.
“Other countries imported foreign technicians to teach their own people; the Japanese largely taught themselves. Other countries imported foreign equipment and did their best to use it; the Japanese modified it, made it better, and made it themselves.
“The difference was cultural – a deep sense of national responsibility. The new imperial state and its educational system brought the Japanese people a strong sense of nationalism and duty to the nation. It was a Japanese version of the ‘Protestant ethic’ of work and responsibility described by Max Weber in ‘Economy and Society’”. That is the basis for the explosive growth of Japanese human capital.
In conclusion, I would like to clarify that I am not advocating protectionism and close-mindedness. Indian culture always believed in the dictum:
‘Aano bhadrah kratavo yantu vishwatah’ – Rigveda
“Let noble thoughts come from all sides of the world”.
I quote Gandhiji to end my speech.
“Let my windows and doors be open for the outside world. Let the cool and soft winds blow from all sides into my house. But I should not be blown off or uprooted’.