The Debate

A Changing India: Caught Between Illiberalism and Social Revolution

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The Debate

A Changing India: Caught Between Illiberalism and Social Revolution

Is India on the cusp of a social revolution?

A Changing India: Caught Between Illiberalism and Social Revolution
Credit: Akhilesh Pillalamarri

When I was younger, I used to travel frequently to India with my parents, who emigrated from there to the United States, where I was born and raised. The hardest part of those trips was reconciling the developmental differences between middle class life in the United States and India: squat toilets were hard to get used to, there was hardly any internet, there were slums on airport runways, and abject poverty was everywhere.

But that was 20 years ago. Today, extreme poverty is almost a relic of the past, and people everywhere seem busier, and more business-like; those who would have begged in those times now try to hawk goods instead. Even manual laborers mostly seemed to have smartphones, and everyone came off as generally happy and optimistic, knowing that the lives of their children would likely be better than theirs. People were more confident speaking to me in their mother-tongues rather than just English, long the language of status in India, and took a certain pride in doing so.

While in Delhi, I visited the Akshardham Temple, where I met with Sadhu Gnanamunidas, an American-born swami, who explained to me that while two decades ago, Indians would eagerly await the hand-me-downs their relatives in the United States would bring them upon visiting,  this is no longer the case, because Indians now have the ability to conduct their own research (from their phones) and make their own newly consumer-influenced, individualized choices.

The internet is changing India and its social mores, not only because it allows people to sidestep India’s bureaucracy and infrastructure, but because now even the poorest members of rural society can see what’s going on in the rest of the world on WhatsApp and YouTube. It is hard for a society to not be influenced by global trends when that is the case: in the past, much of the barriers to social change in India was social, the result of time-honed mores, not governmental. India’s ancient “guru culture,” where people accept, on faith, practices handed down in full from “masters,” is rapidly eroding.

As a result, Indian society is becoming more liberal in its social mores: inter-caste relationships and marriages, social drinking, and the public mixing between genders for example, are widely accepted among India’s urban youth because that is what is seen as normal behavior by those who watch Bollywood and Hollywood productions. These trends are a function of modernity and capitalism; no matter what political and economic form they take, these are phenomena that have transformed every society in the world over the past two hundred years by creating an ecosystem that prizes economic efficiency and rationalization, as well as a consumerist culture.

As the father of the Indian constitution, B.R. Ambedkar predicted, the aggregate result of this is the liberation of the individual from the shackles of tradition, village, and agriculture, no matter what governing ideology is in power or what religious or social customs are prevalent. There is, in the air, the vibe that must have characterized the West when it transitioned from the 1950s to the 1960s: a place where social norms are at the cusp of an explosive transformation.

Nationalism and Liberalism

Yet, this transformation will not likely lead to more political liberalism: it is hard to imagine young Indians—who are rather apathetic about politics—protesting in the streets against breaches of civil liberties. This brings to mind the question: how does an increasingly liberal society square with another rising trend in India, that of increasing nationalism and cultural homogenization?

It is my view that while this trend may have the effect of consolidating an ethnoreligious majoritarian state in India, it will not in itself make people more traditional or religious because of the nature of modernity. After all, nationalism in India is driven by technology and the internet to a large extent, which are the same phenomenon driving individualism, global connectivity, and lifestyles of choice.

Because of this fact, India’s illiberalism will primarily take on political and nationalistic forms, rather then being personally intrusive, à la Iran (India felt like a free country during my trip; however, social and political pressures are more manifest in rural areas, among some communities, and in some regions). In India, a large section of the population supports the nationalistic idea, seeing it as a restoration of India’s ancient greatness, while simultaneously wanting to pursue their own personal dreams and lifestyle choices.

But this trend is not unique to India; in fact, there may well be a convergence of all major global societies toward some sort of illiberal, consumerist democracy. And it is important to note that this populism and nationalism is not just something that people put up with, or the sole result of government marketing: it is a nationalism deeply felt by most sections of society, even among the poorest and more isolated village and tribal communities, and percolates upward as much as it does downward.

People in India should take care to not only be open-minded on social issues such as LGBT+ rights, but to consider that while their own cultures have much to offer, there is much to learn and profit from other nations. I hope that Indians do not fall into the manner of thinking that the Central Asian polymath and traveler Al-Biruni found in that country a thousand years ago when he wrote that “the Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs.”

In their arrogance, Indians of antiquity had come to think they knew everything, and so failed to keep pace with the rest of the world, and spent much of the last millennium being invaded, impoverished, and conquered. However, the good news is that there is a flip-side of the coin: India for the millennia and a half between 1000 CE was a dynamic, economically vibrant, and culturally magnetic society admired around the world, and there is much of that spirit that can be channeled into contemporary India. India’s newfound prosperity and love of its ancient past have led to a modern-day intellectual renaissance in the way Indians approach their past, because for the first time in its history, ancient texts are widely available and published for anyone to read and interpret.