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HindustanTimes Thu,17 Apr 2014

Perils of yoking a plural civilization to a linear model of governance

Vikas Pathak, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, October 05, 2013
First Published: 00:41 IST(5/10/2013) | Last Updated: 00:43 IST(5/10/2013)

Plural Cultures and Monolithic Structures
Kapila Vatsyayan
Primus Books
Rs 850, PP232

For those who seek to understand the causes of social conflict and tension in India, Plural Cultures and Monolithic Structures', the collected lectures of veteran bureaucrat and scholar Kapila Vatsyayan, present an alternative explanation. That India's plural cultures don't lend themselves easily to 'monolithic' structures of governance first imposed by the British is the central theme of this book. Accordingly, Vatsyayan addresses issues to do with the environment, education, caste and religion, among others, to argue that the tensions in these spheres are a result of a mismatch between a plural and interconnected civilization and a colonial, linear model of governance.

She discusses the adverse effects of industrial development on the environment, attributing this to an uncritical acceptance of a modern worldview emanating from Europe that sees Man as the centre of the universe. On the contrary, she argues, societies in India and Africa saw man as "one amongst all life forms". Man thus protected nature within these cultures. She sees sacred groves - this brings the Niyamgiri issue to mind - as ways of conserving biodiversity. Thus, for Vatsyayan, India had a sustainable development model that has now been disrupted by a monolithic model of industrial development.

Talking of caste politics, she argues that varna was never a static concept historically. However, modern physical anthropology that classified human beings according to race - and character - and the colonial census classification that divided India into castes, gave them fixity and hierarchy. The argument is reminiscent of academic Nicholas Dirks' claim that the centrality of caste in India was a colonial creation. Vatsyayan says that even the Rig Veda's Purush Sukta hymn is an argument for interdependence rather than exclusivity.

Significantly, scholars like Christophe Jaffrelot have pointed out that this "interdependence" is a hierarchical one. Vatsyayan believes the creation of this classification and the imposition of an education system that privileges written over oral knowledge and the arts and crafts of the Dalit, backward and tribal communities has rendered them inferior to modern, literacy-based knowledge.

She contends too that though there are cultural overlaps among Indian religions, the modern classification of institutionalized religions has led to tensions. Modern linguistic identities in India have also ignored interconnections among Indian languages and led to exclusivity.

The lectures in this book cover issues ranging from history and art to culture and science and celebrate India's plural cultures that structures of governance should accommodate. However, they also border on painting a picture of a pristine India disrupted from without. The truth is there were tensions even within Indian traditional models. In fact, the very idea of India as one nation is modern, as there is a huge diversity in our linkages. Moreover, while modern classifications did create static identities, they have also provided tools for contesting them.


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