A burka-clad woman with a cellphone, a bearded militant with an RPG – in the Western world, these images are dubbed as mixtures of tradition and modernity, past and present, or “West and East.” These worn out phrases are meant to create an “exotic” flavor and artificial contradictions.
If a person with a cellphone wears jeans and a T-shirt, she is “modern” but if she wears a burka while talking on the same phone she is “half-modern, half-traditional.” Is it really so simple? By the same logic, should we start checking whether the burka is hand-woven or factory-made?
Such misguided perceptions often equate modern technology with modernity and modernization with Westernization. Technology is usually much more quickly accepted in a society than new ideologies. Adapting technology does not mean that the ideas and customs of the country that produced the technology are also accepted. Moreover, technology is usually – but not always – neutral in the sense that while it can be connected to certain ideas and customs, it can be applied in various other ways to support different ideas and customs. Do computers carry democracy? They can help spread democratization in a profound way, but they can also be used to spread other ideologies. A picture of a religious radical who is using the internet shows no contradictions.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Equating technology with modernity and modernization with Westernization is a distant echo of colonial thinking. I assume it is connected to a 19th century idea that the “Eastern mind” (although there is no such thing) is somehow more spiritual and less open to technological changes; thus, the “Eastern mind” must become more Western while adapting technology.
But the West was not always technologically dominant. When Europeans learned the use of paper and gunpowder from the Chinese, did the Chinese claim that Europe had become more Eastern? Had history been different we would not have been influenced by such misperceptions (to be sure, we would probably suffer from others).
Technological changes do influence customs and culture but they often do so incidentally. Some authors claim that in Indian villages the floor after a meal was wiped with dry cow dung (as the cow is considered sacred by a majority of Hindus); these customs, the claim goes, where wiped out with the arrival of modern furniture. Public transportation means that people travel in large groups in the same vehicles and can’t avert incidentally touching each other; this went against the grain of the caste system, in which certain castes do not want to come in physical contact with castes they consider impure. The arrival of cars, especially affordable ones, strengthened the sexual revolution. The youth could rather quickly and secretly travel beyond the limits of their immediate community and thus indulge in physical pleasure without being seen by their kin. This started in the United States but spread (even if to lesser degrees) to other regions. I once encountered an Indian couple who came from two different castes and had initially faced stiff opposition from their families. Their first meetings were held far from their homes, but in places which they could reach by car.
None of this means that tables were invented to destroy the custom of wiping the floor with cow dung, that public transportation was introduced to weaken the caste system, or that affordable cars were sold to support the sexual revolution. These cultural changes were by-products of the technological revolution, not its goals.
I refer to the free flow of technology here, as the controlled flow of technology is quite often a cultural weapon. Some technologies are deliberately promoted to spread certain customs and ideas. And it is also true that certain technologies can be resisted or banned because they are seen as dangerous to existing customs, even if that was not their purpose. The Orthodox Church in Russia still vehemently opposes the custom of body cremation. But sooner or later, technology has its way. The Catholic Church of medieval Europe resisted the introduction of the crossbow, a weapon it considered too deadly in comparison to the bow. In the 20th century, the same Church helplessly faced the use of nuclear bombs.
Technology may be neutral, but its blade can cut both ways. In rare instances, certain conservative village councils of northern India (khaps or panchayats) have banned the use of cellphones by women to restrict their liberty, but the same cellphones are also very useful to locate youths who have eloped to intercaste relationships. Cars can be very useful in eloping but they can be as useful in brutally bringing young lovers back. This is perhaps the biggest reason while sooner or later the truly effective technologies (not the failed ones) have to prevail at some point. The choice of adapting them is pragmatic: if we don’t do this, our rivals and foes will have an edge over us.
A part of the West seems to think that the people of the East and South want to live like the Amish: deliberately resisting technology. Moreover, even some of the people of the East think about their brethren this way. The truth is that most of the people of the global East and South are as open to technology as anybody else, but they cannot always afford it.
Moreover, these simplified East-West, past-present, tradition-modernity dichotomies fail to understand that change is constant. The past was always in flux and the present traditions were once innovations. “Wasn’t the world always modern?” was a clever question asked four years ago by India’s eminent historian, Harbans Mukhia.
Nowadays, one cannot imagine Indian cuisine without chili or tea, but they were introduced in South Asia only in the course of the past few centuries. Some priests of South India still do not partake of chili during the rituals commemorating the dead – which, perhaps, is a legacy of times when chili was initially perceived as an ingredient which was foreign and hence not pure. Like new ingredients and new ideas, new technology was always being introduced. Sooner or later it just ceased to be “new.”
The idea to write this article was born after I read A malnourished Bismarck astride the Indo-Pacific, a text by renowned Indian intellectualist, Rahul Sagar. What I have written so far is of much more general nature and does not refer to the matter which Sagar covered in this article; yet, I have wrestled with one of his underlying ideas.
Sagar is of the opinion that one of the challenges faced by current India Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the battle to convince his own milieu, the Hindu nationalists, to accept modernization. “The Sangh Parivar remains hostile to the modernization and rationalism required to make India materially strong,” writes Sagar. Sangh Parivar is the “family” of suborganizations created by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization to which Narendra Modi belongs. Most of the politicians of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are also members of the RSS.
Sagar claims that within the Hindu nationalist movement there are two strands when it comes to answering “why India’s glorious civilization was overrun.” One focuses on the lack of “material strength.” If I understand Sagar’s argument correctly, the nationalists in this strand were more pragmatic and ready to accept changes in customs if they could give Hindus more strength. The other group took the view that Hindus “lacked unity and self-confidence.” This group focused much more on society and culture. The proponents of this idea embarked on a “quest to decolonize the Hindu mind” which “prompted suspicion of foreign influences.”
I accept this dichotomy if it refers to loosely defined pragmatists and idealists; at a closer look, however, it is not just simple and clear-cut. Those who spoke of the lack of “material strength” also spoke of “lack of unity” – and the other way round as well. More importantly, foreign influences were and are resisted by Hindu nationalists when it comes to culture and religion (and even this is not so simple), but not when it comes to modernization.
A part of the more ideological wing of the RSS does resist certain technological innovations such as genetically modified organisms, but such resistance is being continuously sidelined. Sagar claims that “a few decades ago when the Asian Tigers were growing rapidly – the BJP was fiercely opposing computerization and championing village industries.” Maybe so (I must have missed evidence of their resistance to computers), but when was that and what importance does it have now? At least since 1990s, the Hindu nationalists have used a slogan: “Potato chips, no; Computer chips, yes!” This denoted their openness to technology and resistance to foreign customs (like food).
As of now, there hardly seems to be any evidence that radical idealists among the Hindu nationalists managed to wreck any of the Modi government’s modernization mission. The current government’s flagship program is Make in India, which envisions foreign direct investment to create jobs but also transfer technology to India. The Make in India campaign is aimed at finding foreign investors who would establish their factories in India but also would share their – yes, foreign – technologies. To be sure, there is resistance within the RSS against such plans but it has been partially tackled. Moreover, the opposing group stresses the need of developing swadeshi (“of one’s country,” i.e. indigenous) technologies – but not resisting technology as such.
No, the RSS does not resist modernization. What it claims to resist is Westernization. As I have tried to prove earlier, the two trends should not be confused. The motto Hindu nationalists use nowadays is “Be modern, not Western.” I found this phrase, among others, written above a basketball court in a middle-class school ran by Hindu nationalists in Delhi.
The Hindu nationalists are ready to accept the technologies that will make India stronger, provided that this will not threaten Hindu customs. Sagar himself referred to a BJP politician and an influential Hindu nationalist leader, Deendayal Upadhyaya, and his ideology, Integral Humanism. Let me point out that Upadhyaya in his book — also titled Integral Humanism — wrote that Western science is universal and should be adapted in India, but the same does not apply to the Western lifestyle.
More broadly speaking, Hindu nationalism itself is a product of modernization and partially a child of Western influences, though at the same time it draws a lot from the past Hindu religious traditions and customs. It is thus even not always true that Hindu nationalists reject Westernization. They often adapt it by claiming they are only reviving the glorious Indian past, which is said to have invented what the West is now offering. After the RSS was created, the organization introduced uniforms that had nothing to do with traditional Indian attire while being very closely modeled on the clothes of the Boy Scouts.
Nationalism is not conservatism, either. The two can share certain views but at the same time differ on many other accounts. Nationalism can at the same time protect many traditions and usher in many reforms on other fronts. Even while conservatives resist changes of tradition, they do not necessarily resist technological change. In 1952, a member of the Indian Parliament, a member of the priestly caste by the name Nand Lal Sharma, claimed that India’s problem was that it continuously looked at the Soviet Union, the United States and the United Kingdom as role models. India wanted more tractors and more (chemical) fertilizers – bemoaned Sharma, who went on to say: “Are not bullocks the tractor of the poor man? We do not care to develop the breed of our bullocks, and, on the contrary, send millions of rupees to foreign countries by way of tractors’ price.” Now this perhaps is conservatism proper. To be sure, Sharma was not a Hindu nationalist and belonged to a marginal, forgotten party of Hindu conservatives who usually denounced Hindu nationalists as progressives who breached traditions. At the same time, however, the views such as the one once shared by Sharma as this are extremely rare in contemporary India.
Another person – and a much more popular one – who deeply distrusted modern technology, Westernization, and modernization was Gandhi. His views were much more genuine in this regard than those of Hindu nationalists. Yet again, Gandhi was influential in a number of ways, but when it came to his opposition to modern technology – for instance, to industrialization – his views were also completely sidelined. (Let’s face it – the fact that the Indian government had decided to protect the industry of hand-woven khadi, once so dear to Gandhi, was a token sign of respect to Gandhi’s legacy; a symbol but not much more than this)
If the current Indian government fails in its modernization drive, it may happen for a number of reasons, such as lack of funds, poor management, the unwillingness of foreign companies to invest in India or share technology, or, most likely, a combination of these factors. But the modernization drive will not be arrested by a group of technology-opposing radicals, because one can hardly find such people among even Hindu nationalists. If modernization fails, it will not mean that there is some mythical, spiritual “Indian mind” which is in some inherent way resistant to modern technologies.