The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Modernity examines the world with an open and a sceptical mind

When decolonization began more than fifty years ago, it was widely believed that the world was divided into two types of society, the traditional and the modern. This division corresponded almost exactly with the division between under-developed and developed countries. The optimists believed that, with appropriate policy interventions, the under-developed countries would cease to be under-developed; and a well-known study of the Fifties recorded, with evident satisfaction, what it called “the passing of traditional society”. The modernization of society became an important objective in many, if not most, of the newly independent countries. Soon it became evident that modernization has costs as well as benefits, and sometimes the costs might outweigh the benefits. The decline of tradition takes many things of value away with it, and the enthusiasm for modernization brings in unforeseen problems.

Is there any society in the world which is wholly traditional without any trace of modernity' Is there any which is so modern that it is now wholly free from tradition' France is by any account a modern society, but the French are proud, not to say jealous, of their traditions. Indian society is steeped in tradition, but that does not mean that Indians care nothing for modernity and modernization. Indeed, the hunger for modernization is very widespread in India, even in the rural areas, although intellectuals with refined sensibilities might find the peasant’s appetite for it somewhat disconcerting.

The enthusiasm for modernization may be seen in combination with a regard for tradition in the speeches and writings of independent India’s first prime minister. Jawaharlal Nehru was a committed modernizer, yet he placed a high value on the heritage of India. But when he spoke and wrote about tradition, what he chiefly had in mind were art, architecture, music, literature and philosophy, rather than the customs that form the basis of everyday social life. A society can modernize and still carry forward its traditions of art, literature and philosophy; how far it can do so while retaining its archaic and oppressive social customs is a different question.

It is in fact very easy to combine the pursuit of modernity with a nostalgia for tradition. The person who had little nostalgia for tradition was B.R. Ambedkar, who played a leading part in drafting the Constitution of India and piloting it through the Constituent Assembly. For him, tradition stood not so much for high culture and art as for oppressive social custom. Ambedkar was a democrat who put his trust in equality and individual freedom, and he saw little of either in the Indian social tradition. “Democracy in India”, he said in the Constituent Assembly, “is a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic”. By the “Indian soil”, he meant mainly the substratum of the traditional social structure and life as it was lived in the Indian village.

It is a mistake to think of tradition as a unitary phenomenon or to believe that modernization follows a uniform course that leads to the same outcome everywhere. Not all “traditional societies” have social and cultural traditions of the same kind, and not all “modern societies” are modern in the same way. Traditional ways change all the time, and what appear as technical or institutional innovations become established as traditions in course of time.

Although it may be misleading to characterize whole societies as either traditional or modern, certain attitudes and orientations are distinctive of modernity and modernization. The modern world seeks innovation and change actively and continuously; it is in that sense a restless world. It is not that societies never changed in the past, but change did not generally come from the conscious and deliberate effort at technical, organizational and institutional innovation. It is another matter that the innovations of today do not always bear fruit, or bear fruits that are very different from those envisaged.

What do modernity and modernization stand for' Nothing could be more tendentious than the view that modernity calls for the eradication of tradition. No society can survive, let alone prosper, if it turns its back on tradition as such. The modern man values tradition, but he does not place an absolute value on it. The traditionalist attaches overwhelming importance to what he believes to have existed since time immemorial. For him the past has an intrinsic value that it does not have for others.

The distinctive feature of modernity, as I understand it, is that it examines the world with an open and a sceptical mind. As I have said, no society can escape from its past; but a society should not remain tied inexorably to that past. No doubt, traditionalists believe that society can and should be improved. But they also believe that the ingredients for that improvement are to be found mainly, if not wholly, in their own social and cultural tradition. Tradition for them is a vast and inexhaustible storehouse having hidden, even unknown, treasures. One has only to dig deep enough to find all the ingredients for the regeneration of society at the present time. The traditionalist is averse to looking outwards among other contemporary societies for ingredients to rebuild society; he would rather look back again and again into his own past for that purpose.

The modernist is outward rather than backward-looking. His primary engagement is with the contemporary world which includes not just his own society but other societies as well. His engagement with his own society is with its living traditions, good as well as bad, but not necessarily with everything that lies hidden and buried in the past. Modernity entails not just openness to innovation but also openness to the outside world. Every living tradition has, without exception, accommodated ingredients from other traditions. The present world allows this to be done openly and consciously to an unprecedented degree. The boundaries between different traditions were never water-tight at any time, but they are far more porous now than ever before.

Not everything that appears attractive in other societies which have been active in technical or institutional innovation can be easily accommodated in one’s own society. It is often the case in the contemporary world that countries that are less advanced economically imitate those that are more advanced blindly and mechanically without consideration of their needs or their capacity to absorb or integrate what they borrow. The pressures to catch up are continuous and relentless in our time. They often impel the leaders of society to act thoughtlessly and against its long-term interests. But blind and mechanical imitation is not an aid to modernization; it is an impediment to it.

Modernity calls for a sceptical attitude not only towards what has come down from the past but also towards what appears attractive at a distance. It does not accept without question that what prevails must be preserved because it is and has been for generations a part of our own way of life. Nor does it accept without question the view that success somewhere is a guarantee of success in every society, including one’s own. It does not put a premium on other ways of life over one’s own, but it recognizes that the ways of the past are also other ways of life, and not necessarily one’s own way.

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