Character, Culture and Nation
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
Can we determine the character of a Nation? Is it possible to generalize about the values, behavior and attitudes of a people? Could we draw a cause-effect relationship between attitudes and behaviors of people and the material and social conditions in a society? Old questions without really any new answers! But we try anyway and we do it because we observe patterns, we follow the news and we experience events in our times that gall us, that excite us and that flummox us. Thus we have periodic calls for changes in society by people who wish to see their society more equitable, successful and hospitable. Prof Kak, in his essay titled "Our Seamy Side", on Sulekha eloquently commented on what he considers are some of the weaknesses and troublesome aspects in Indian society and of Indians in general. Some readers were inspired by his call for change, some were skeptical about such generalizations and some were clearly angry and disappointed at what they considered was a disparagement of India and Indians. Some others asked for specific suggestions for bringing about changes in Indian society.
So, can we generalize? If so, how much and on what scale? And based on those generalizations what can we suggest that could bring about changes in society? Some academics have proclaimed that grand theories are dead. Marxism was the last grand theory and we saw the demise of most Marxist societies in the past ten years. It does not, however, mean that Marxism is dead, at least not in India, where Jyoti Basu, Harkishen Singh Surjeet and the editor of Front line, N Ram do their daily prayers in front of their edition of Das Kapital. More to the point, what the many "Quantitative" social scientists are saying is that we should be careful about generalizations. Most of the studies therefore that appear in journals that publish "Hard" social scientific research make sure that the hypotheses are framed in a very careful manner, where the methodology followed bears scrutiny for validity and reliability and where the results are clearly explained. Not for you the mushy, high-falutin, fashionable nonsense that Foucauldians, Derrida-ists, Lacanians, Marxists and Bakhtin-bhaktas produce in such profuse manner and where theory and 'Style' score over substance and evidence.
I have had some friends tell me that they get to know another person in a completely different light when they travel together: they get to know this person's eating and living habits, the way they spend their money, the way they tell stories and the way they deal with little accidents and major crises. Sociologists and anthropologists, in their field work, do a bit of "Traveling" with the natives. They study the habits and customs of people, of the tribal leader's abilities and conduct, of the celebration of birth and the mourning of death. They also study conflict rules and management in societies across the world and try to generalize about those peoples and societies.
A number of intercultural communication scholars have looked at communication behaviors of people and tried to group nations and societies according to communication styles. I will allude briefly to some of that research and by so doing I hope to give you a slightly better handle on the nature and culture of societies.
On Thursday, February 3rd, 2000 the Supreme Court of India commented on corruption in India. Ordering prosecution of three Madhya Pradesh excise officials accused of amassing wealth, the justices feared that the socio-economic-political system would crumble if corruption was not nipped in the bud and that corruption was likely to "Cause turbulence in an otherwise healthy, wealthy, effective and vibrant society". Subhash Kak mentioned corruption in India and how it was a reflection of the people's attitudes towards fellow citizens and to the public weal. The Supreme Court judges said "Corruption in a civilized society is a disease like cancer". They also compared corruption to a plague, which is not only "Contagious but, if not controlled, spreads like fire in a jungle". They may have been mixing metaphors a little, but you get the point! Providing a little bit of historical context, they said that the "Menace of corruption was found to have enormously increased by the First and Second World War conditions. Corruption, at the initial stages, was confined to the bureaucracy which had the opportunities to deal with a variety of State largesse in the form of contracts, licences and grants. Even after the war the opportunities for corruption continued as large amounts of government surplus stores were required to be disposed of by public servants". The question we have to ask is if corruption is a characteristic of a society with certain values or lack of them or if it is merely a phenomenon to be observed when certain economic conditions are present. The justices seem to look at it in the context of a "Period" rather than in the context of a "People". Some readers responding to Kak's article have expressed similar sentiments. I will take the middle of the road position and say it is a combination of "Nature" and "Nurture". If it is just "Nature" then we can just all lie down and die, for there will be no hope for change. If it is merely "Nurture" then we will ignore certain tendencies in individuals and groups that make them more prone to take advantage of a situation or abuse or misuse societal rules. Let us see what kinds of behavior or personality traits that can make a people more prone to do one thing instead of another.
Cultural dimensions that affect behavior
Hofstede (1980, 1984) defined culture as the "Collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or society from those of another. Culture consists of the patterns of thinking that parents transfer to their children, teachers to their students, friends to their friends, leaders to their followers and followers to their leaders". Cultures become crystallized or reified in the institutions of a society, which in turn programs the minds of people. Hofstede found in his study of people in 67 different countries that differences amongst people could be identified in four underlying value dimensions along which the countries could be positioned. The four dimensions are:
1) Individualism vs. Collectivism: Individualism is the preference for a more loosely knit social framework in which individuals are supposed to take care of themselves and their immediate families. Individualists like to pursue their goals and ambitions, sometimes to the exclusion of what the group believes, thinks, or wants. The United States is an example of an individualistic society. This individualistic pursuit makes the society dynamic, but one can also see vast disparities in income and wealth and also where the individual is left to fend for herself or himself. Loneliness, lack of connection to community or group or family etc. can also make people in such societies exhibit some severe and dangerous psychological traits.
Collectivism is the preference for a more tightly knit social framework in which individuals can expect their clan/caste members, relatives and other in-group members to take care of them in exchange for loyalty to the group. The primary issue that is addressed by this dimension is the degree of interdependence a society maintains among individuals. In such a society the individual primarily serves the group or society and where group or community goals take primacy over individual goals. In Japan, there is a saying that the nail that sticks out gets hit on the head. It simply means that the individual who calls attention to himself or herself will have to suffer some kind of social opprobrium and also that s/he could become an outcaste for pursuing individual goals assiduously.
On the Individualism/Collectivism scale India scored 48, with the US scoring 91 (Highest on Individualism) and Guatemala scoring 6 (Lowest on Individualism). Other countries on the 40 to 50 range included Japan (46), Argentina (46) and Iran (41). So, we are kind of "Middle of the Roaders" when it comes to individualistic or collectivistic behavior.
People in an individualistic society favor a "Direct" style of communication. A direct communication style is one in which verbal messages reveal the speaker's true intentions and needs. People in a collectivistic society prefer an indirect style, in which the message is often designed to camouflage the speaker's true intentions or needs. People in the US (English speaking and White) prefer the direct style. In India, the style preferred seems to be the indirect style, though we have to be careful about such generalizations. We all, as individuals and group members, use the direct or indirect style depending upon context. However, in the land of "Chamchagiri", or in the context of Indian politics and business, people not only camouflage their true feelings, they lie outright. I remember organizing a north Indian classical music concert in this small town where I live and teach. The Ustad told me after the concert that he was extremely pleased with the arrangements made for the concert and how we handled the money issue, etc., because I combined the direct style of the Americans with the courtesy and warmth of the Indian. "You know, many Indian organizers promise the moon; they say they will pay me $5, 000 or $10, 000 but then they give all kinds of excuses, make further false promises and just don't know how to tell the truth to my face", the Ustad said.
2) Large vs. Small Power Distance: This dimension shows the extent to which people accept that power is distributed unequally. People in large power distance societies accept a hierarchical order in which everyone has a place and that place whether high or low, needs no justification. People in small power distance societies, however, strive for power equalization and demand justification for power inequalities. Clearly the acceptance or challenging of hierarchy or power has consequences for the way people build their societal institutions and organizations. India scored 77 on this scale with Austria scoring the lowest (11) and Malaysia scoring the highest (104), meaning that Austrians challenged the unequal distribution of power the most and Malaysians the least. In the 70 to 80 range were other countries like Equador (78), Indonesia (78), Singapore (74), former Yugoslavia (76) and the West African countries of Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone (77). Rather high on the scale, Indians could be seen as justifying differences in power and thus having a rather "Feudal" mindset.
We pay lip service in India to the idea and practice of democracy. Look at our "Netas"! From a Laloo Prasad Yadav to a Jayalalitha, from a Jyoti Basu to a Sonia Gandhi, there is no one who is willing to shed the accouterments of power. Everyone wants "Z" category security. Hordes throng to the mansions of these leaders, fall at their feet, beseech them, beg them for a little glance, for a small favor.
3) Strong vs. Weak Uncertainty Avoidance: This dimension indicates the degree to which people feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. According to Hofstede, weak uncertainty avoidance societies maintain a more relaxed atmosphere in which practice counts more than principles and deviance is more easily tolerated. Strong uncertainty avoidance societies maintain rigid codes of belief and behavior and are less tolerant of deviant persons and ideas. Hofstede says that the issue addressed by this dimension is how a society reacts to the idea that time only runs one way and that the future is unknown. India scored 40 on this dimension, with the Greeks showing a happy disregard for time (112) and Singaporeans being the most "Anal" about time management (8)! Countries scoring in the 40 to 50 range included Canada (48), Indonesia (48), Norway (50), New Zealand (49), the Philippines (44), South Africa (49) and the US (40). Hmmm! Do you buy these numbers?
I believe the numbers reflect the attitudes of the "Subject" pool (see below). I don't think we have much regard for time in India. Most public projects never get completed on time. From plumbers to masons, from automobile mechanics to your local "Tehsildar", who has ever surprised you by completing a work as promised and at the time promised?
4) Masculinity vs. Femininity: "Masculine" societies show a preference for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material success. "Feminine" societies prefer relationships, modesty, caring for the weak and the quality of life. The most important issue addressed by this dimension is how societies allocate social roles to men and women. Some societies seek maximum differentiation and some others minimal. Indians scored 56 on this dimension, with the Swedish scoring the lowest (5), meaning minimal differentiation and Japan scoring the highest (95), meaning maximum differentiation. On the 50 to 60 range were countries like Argentina (56), Belgium (54), Canada (52), Greece (57), Hong Kong (57), Malaysia (50), New Zealand (58), Pakistan (50) and some Arab countries (53).
Is this just an academic exercise, or does this have any basis in reality and any consequences for society? Depending upon your individual ideological leanings you might want societies to lean one way or another. For the sake of curiosity let us compare India with Pakistan. Indians scored 48, 77, 40 and 56 on the four dimensions and Pakistanis scored 14, 55, 70 and 50. Thus on individualism Indians scored higher than the Pakistanis (indicative of the economic dynamism in India compared to Pakistan's?), on power distance Indians scored higher than Pakistan (Indians, with their caste hierarchies are more feudal and more accepting of power inequality?), Pakistanis scored higher on uncertainty avoidance than Indians (meaning that they have more of the "Chalta Hai" attitude than Indians?) and on the masculinity/femininity dimension both were about equal.
Hofstede says that his research on these cultural dimensions has implications in a variety of situations and issues. These scores in a way reflect the nature of employer-employee relationships, priority in business to the task or to the relationship aspect, the role of the family in the work situation and the importance of "Face" (Maintaining face, protecting face, etc. Loss of face in East Asian countries is fairly studiously avoided and in individualistic societies there is less attention paid to it), the need for subordinate consultation versus the acceptability of paternalistic management, the meaning of status differences, respect for old age, ways of redressing grievances and the feasibility of appraisal systems in general. They also affect the emotional need for formal and informal rules to guide behavior, for formalization and standardization of organizations, the types of planning used or preferred, the meaning of time, the seeking of precision and punctuality, the showing and hiding of emotions, tolerance for deviant ideas and behaviors, competitiveness, achievement and sex roles.
The results here need to be considered with a rather large dose of skepticism because Hofstede collected his survey data from employees working in a large multinational corporation and its subsidiaries around the world. Thus the data may not reflect the behaviors and tendencies in the larger society. It becomes especially difficult to generalize from this data about countries like India, which are so complex and heterogeneous.
Talking the talk
Language is all, or almost all. It is a powerful tool that can and does have an impact on how we construct and maintain relationships. Communication combines both language and nonverbal communication. It is the metamessage that allows listeners and speakers to interpret and relay messages. We Indians are supposed to be very talkative. We can grind any problem to abstract dust and we will be happy we won the argument. Isn't that so? In fact, I realize how much I "Talk" when I debate any issue or a problem on some discussion list. We Indians are also notorious for interrupting other people. Have you noticed that when Indians gather that everyone seems to be talking at the same time? It is said that American talk can be compared to a game of tennis: one person says something and then the other responds to which the first person responds, back and forth. Japanese talk we are told, can be compared to a bowling game: one person takes the ball, polishes it and rolls it down and he waits for the ball to return. And then he polishes it again and rolls it once more if he hasn't had a strike. Then he sits down. The other player then selects a ball and goes through all the motions the first player does. To what game can Indian talk be compared?
Indians (generally speaking) are notorious for holding forth on any topic. It reminds me of what Paul Theroux said about the Spanish in his book, The Pillars of Hercules. Attending a party in Barcelona he finds that the Spanish were wonderfully witty, creative and full of ideas. He found the English, the Germans and the Scandinavians rather staid and saying very little. But how is it that the English or the German man or woman goes back home and in the next month or two you hear that they have written a book or published an article whereas the Spanish have just gone back home happily drunk and slept, despite being full of ideas and talk, he asks. I think Indians are a little like the Spanish - more interested in the moment and less in the future. But I have lately begun to despair of the Indian habit of talking over one another. We also have the bad habit of inviting scholars and experts to come talk and then we end up listening to a lot of haranguing and arguing from members in the audience. Am I stereotyping? Is it a correct stereotype?
On soft people and soft targets
In his book "The Real War", Nixon wrote: "Nations live or die by the way they respond to the particular challenges they face. Those challenges may be internal or external; they may be faced by a nation alone or in concert with other nations; they may come gradually or suddenly. There is no immutable law of nature that says only the unjust will be afflicted, or that the just will prevail. While might certainly does not make right, neither does right by itself make might. The time when a nation most craves ease may be the moment when it can least afford to let down its guard. The moment when it most wishes it could address its domestic needs may be the moment when it most urgently has to confront an external threat. The nation that survives is the one that rises to meet that moment: that has the wisdom to recognize the threat and the will to turn it back and that does so before it is too late". He also said: "The na´ve notion that we can preserve freedom by exuding goodwill is not only silly, but dangerous. The more adherents it wins, the more it tempts the aggressor".
Some commentators have said that India is a soft target for terrorists because Indians don't have the will to persist, that they don't know when they face a real threat, either internal or external and that we have been weakened by Gandhian and Buddhist ideas and ideals of non-violence, giving in to the demands of the enemy and so on. They quote Will Durant who wrote that the "Mohammedan Conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history. It is a discouraging tale, for its evident moral is that civilization is a precarious thing, whose delicate complex of order and liberty, culture and peace may at any time be overthrown by barbarians invading from without or multiplying within. The Hindus had allowed their strength to be wasted in internal division and war; they had adopted religions like Buddhism and Jainism, which unnerved them for the tasks of life; they had failed to organize their forces for the protection of their frontiers and their capitals, their wealth and their freedom, from the hordes of Scythians, Huns, Afghans and Turks hovering about India's boundaries and waiting for national weakness to let them in. For four hundred years (600-1000 AD) India invited conquest; and at last it came".
He went on to write: "This is the secret of the political history of modern India. Weakened by division, it succumbed to invaders; impoverished by invaders, it lost all power of resistance and took refuge in supernatural consolations; it argued that both mastery and slavery were superficial delusions and concluded that freedom of the body or the nation was hardly worth defending in so brief a life. The bitter lesson that may be drawn from this tragedy is that eternal vigilance is the price of civilization. A nation must love peace, but keep its powder dry". So, are Indians afraid of conflict? Are we a nation of appeasers? Do we ignore conflict till it is too late to manage it effectively and then lash out injudiciously?
In the natural world, the world of plants and animals, conflict takes the form of the struggle for survival: Food and space, for animals and plants respectively, are scarce resources and each species and every individual animal and plant is subject to the laws and vagaries of nature; the food chain is well-established and it seems that every animal has imprinted in its being the knowledge of what it can eat, what can pose danger to it and what it can pose danger to. Conflict, in the form of survival needs, is thus "Natural" to the non-human world: it just is - it cannot be chosen, nor can it be rejected. But human beings, while part of the natural world, seem saddled with conflicting ideas about conflict. We wish to escape conflict, we sometimes deliberately seek conflict, we are unsure of the nature of the outcome of conflict, we have strategies to deal with conflict and we imagine what it would mean to live without conflict. Liberating and burdensome at the same time, the human mind and the human spirit are constantly warring with themselves and with other minds and spirits and constantly seeking reconciliation. This paradoxical pursuit is a strange and unique phenomenon in the human world.
Most scholars now agree that conflict is not only about the pursuit of incompatible goals by people or groups, but it is also the perception of incompatible goals and the interdependence of the two or more people or groups in conflict. So, for example, Hocker and Wilmot (1985), define conflict as the interaction of interdependent people who perceive incompatible goals and interference from each other in achieving those goals. Elaborating on this definition, Folger, Poole and Stutman (1993) point out that the most important feature of conflict is interaction. Without interaction conflict is not present and cannot be sustained. The focus on interaction or behaviors, will enable us to understand and manage conflict better. The next feature of conflict is the perception of conflict by interactants. Perception or beliefs or interpretations of incompatible goals play an important role in conflict. However, Folger et al caution that this does not mean that goals are always conscious and that people can and do act without a clear sense of their goals and interests.
People's interactions are shaped or influenced by their interdependence. Without interdependence there is little or no consequence. Interdependence means that the conflicting parties can potentially hinder or help each other. Thus, conflicts are always characterized by a mixture of incentives to cooperate and to compete. Conflict is characterized by different types of interdependence. But whatever the nature of interdependence, we have to remember that interaction is key to conflicts. Also, conflicts can be productive or destructive. Coser (1956) distinguished between realistic and non-realistic conflicts, describing realistic conflicts as those based on disagreements over the means to an end or the ends themselves and unrealistic conflicts as expressions of aggression aimed at defeating or hurting the other. Scholars point out that productive conflicts depend upon flexibility of the parties and destructive conflicts are characterized by the inflexibility of parties. In productive conflicts there is an expectation or belief that all parties can attain important goals; whereas destructive conflict is based on a win-lose premise.
Ross (1993) and Avruch, Black & Scimecca (1991) point out that conflict styles differ among groups and among cultures and that it may prove difficult to use information and knowledge gathered in one society to effectively analyze conflict situations in another society. Deutsch (1973) also notes that conflict resolution will be strongly influenced by the context within which the conflict occurs. Ross (1993) and Avruch and Black (1991) argue that the culture of conflict - a society's norms, practices and institutions - affects what people fight about, the culturally approved ways of pursuing goals in disputes, the institutional support or resources that shape the process or course of conflicts and the outcomes of those conflicts. Ross (1993) also points out that there is great variation from society to society in both the amount of conflict and the responses to conflict. Viewing conflict as cultural behavior will help explain why disputes over seemingly similar issues can and are dealt with differently in different societies. Avruch (1991) concludes that the most important perspective on conflict and conflict resolution is the necessity to place them "In a larger socio-cultural context and not isolate them from the encompassing worlds-of-meaning in which, in ongoing ways, they remain embedded. In particular, attention must be paid to the native's understandings of human nature and personhood (self and others) and affect as the starting points of our enquiries".
India, with a billion people, ethnically diverse (72 percent Indo-Aryan, 25 percent Dravidian and three percent Mongoloid), speaking sixteen major languages and many hundreds of dialects, by a mix of religious groups (about 80 percent Hindu, 12 percent Muslim, three percent Christian, three percent Sikh and the remaining made up of Parsis, Jains, Jews) makes for a truly polyglot country. To study such a vast and complex Society/Nation and generalize about it would be extremely difficult and may be even foolhardy. But there are some tools that should enable us to at least get some sense of where the fault lines lie and see if we could we could collectively "Jump" over those lines!
Ross (1993) submits that there are two theoretical approaches we can take to study how a society deals with conflict. The two theories are the Socio-Structural Conflict Theory (SSCT) and the Psycho-Cultural Conflict Theory (PCCT). SSCT does not seek to explain individual conflict incidents; instead it focuses on forces or structures that make a society more or less prone than another to particular levels and forms of conflict and violence. As Ross puts it, "The organization of the society determines which outcome is most likely". SSCT has two goals: first, it uses the structure of society to understand who is likely to initiate conflict with whom and on such factors as how, where and with whom people spend their time and share common resources; second, it submits that the social structure offers an explanation of how conflicts, once started, develop. The relationship between the original disputants and the extent to which it reinforces other societal divisions determine whether or not a dispute is likely to escalate and how different groups are likely to be aligned. Ross points out that the usefulness of SSCT lies in the clear way it portrays group interests and the actions groups take to pursue them. However, there are some problems with the theory. For example, it posits that there could be alternative bases for conflict. Nor does it explain the relationship between individuals and groups, the role of consciousness in group action and how potential conflicts are translated into action.
PCCT accounts for conflict behavior in terms of motives for action rooted in culturally shaped images and beliefs of the external world. The term psycho-cultural refers to psychological processes whose patterns and content are pervasive within a culture. One of the examples that Ross gives of such patterns is the shared norms regarding disciplining disobedient children. Another is the primordial nature of culturally shared targets of ethnic hostility. These psycho-cultural dispositions are culturally shared response tendencies acquired through mechanisms that are spelled out in psycho-dynamic and social learning theories. Dispositions are fundamental orientations vis-a-vis the self and others and include culturally learned and approved methods for dealing with others both within and outside one's community. The interpretations shared by community members enable them to act, relieve them of anxiety and ambiguity and infuse actions with intense social and political meanings. As can be expected, these interpretations are also the source of cognitive and perceptual distortions.
PCCT, Ross argues, provides a strong challenge to the anti-psychological view of conflict. It does so by addressing the problem of "Intensity" of some conflicts, by viewing society as more than the family writ large and by making us aware of the importance of understanding how intra-personal and cultural frameworks, not just objective conditions, shape social action. Pointing out that humans are predisposed to establish social bonds from birth and that strong ties to others have important adaptive significance, Ross argues that an individual's external experiences provide the raw material for constructing the person's internal world, which in turn fuels action.
Identifying psycho-cultural dispositions related to conflict and violence therefore requires the specifications of mechanisms linking early learning to personality formation and adult behavior. Making specific hypotheses, Ross submits that a) harsh socialization makes it difficult to establish bonds with others later in life and is likely to be associated with low levels of trust in social relations and exaggerated emphasis on social (or political) attachments as a compensatory mechanism; b) open expression of affection toward children, greater emphasis on values such as trust, honesty and generosity and closer father-child ties encourage individuals to develop social skills needed to resolve conflicts without violence; c) a good deal of aggressive action is compensatory behavior arising out of male gender-identity confusion and so in cultures in which male gender-identity conflict is common, disputes escalate rapidly and resolving them is difficult as long as individuals continue to see the outcomes as related to identity issues and self-worth.
Applying such a theoretical model to study a country like India would be fraught with difficulties. It is not like studying a single, isolated tribe in Africa or South America and drawing conclusions about the denizens of such tribes. India is an old culture, complex, huge, ridden by linguistic, ethnic, religious, caste and regional conflicts. A country's history influences its present postures and predilections. India (like many other non-western societies) has been saddled with a variety of cultural stereotypes. These stereotypes are then used simplistically to explain the problems that confront the nation (Moog, 1993).
Major and rather persistent inter-group conflict in modern India is usually based on separatist nationalism (for example, the Punjab and Kashmir conflicts), religion based (mostly Hindu-Muslim clashes but also Hindu-Sikh and Hindu-Christian lately), caste based and more rarely language based (for example, the anti-Hindi riots in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s and 70s). Most recent analyses of the Indian situation has focused on one incident - the destruction of the Babri Mosque on December 6, 1992 in the town of Ayodhya. The destruction of the mosque was followed by communal violence and riots across the country in which more than two thousand people died. A variety of commentators have thus focused their analyses of conflict based on the Ayodhya incident in particular and Hindu-Muslim division in general. There are both perceptive analyses as well as ideologically colored analyses.
To understand the nature and culture of conflict in India, it is imperative that we cast our net wider to include the disjunctures in life brought about by the process of modernization. Modernization implies not just changing our exterior world but acknowledging the profound changes it brings about in our inner world. To understand these changes we need to understand how the life of ordinary Indians have changed in terms of domestic patterns of tradition, ritual, child-rearing and so on.
First, let me explain the Ayodhya incident from a social structural conflict theory perspective. From a SSCT perspective we need to look at the structure of society to understand who is likely to initiate conflict with whom. And to understand the structure of Indian society we need some historical background. Singh (1990) posits that India may be seen to have gone through three major transformations historically: 1) From lineage-based, primitive political systems to the origin of the state in the post-Vedic period and on the tribal peripheries of Brahmanical, Indo-Islamic and Indo-British civilizations throughout Indian history; 2) From regional kingdoms to sub-continental imperial states dotting the entire historical landscape, beginning at least with the Maurya empire in Magadha in the fourth to second centuries BCE and culminating in the British colonial state in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and 3) From empire to nation-state following the British withdrawal in 1947. Within these transformations is contained two competing world views: The society-centered and state-centered conceptions of a political system. These competing ideologies can be found to have a long historical tradition.
The society-centered view originated in the Rig Vedic times and was essentially a pre-state lineage system based on uni-lineal kinship differentiated by age, family and household production and through the exchange of gifts and tributes ritually. The society-centered polity survived the emergence of monarchical and republican states in the post-Vedic period until overwhelmed by the Mauryan state centered in the capital of Pataliputra. After the decline of the Mauryan empire, the society-centered polity re-emerged and was reinforced by the rise of feudalism during the Gupta regime. Singh (1990) says that the normative archetype for such a polity can be found in the Dharmashastras (law books) that outline the classical Hindu conception of political order in which the state was expected to protect rather than supersede the caste, guild and feudal autonomies of a society based on the idealized varnashrama dharma. The Cholas (Tenth and Eleventh centuries) and the Vijayanagara kingdom (Fourteenth to Sixteenth centuries) in South India also displayed a political order in which the society and state coexisted in a symbiotic relationship. The medieval Muslim kingdoms and the British colonial state belonged to the strong state tradition.
Singh posits that similar competing ideologies can be found in modern Indian political thought. Religious sectarians, proponents of economic free enterprise and Gandhian communitarians, for example, are all essentially for a society-centered conception of political order (though, as can be surmised, for different reasons). The statist tradition, on the other hand, is supported by Nehruvian developmentalists and secular and religious nationalists (also for different reasons and thus making strange bedfellows). These competing ideologies and the perceptions of opportunities and dangers within such systems of governance, fuel and sustain some of the major inter-group conflicts.
When the British left, India was partitioned into India and Pakistan. Pakistan chose to be an Islamic Republic, whereas India chose to be a secular democratic republic. India is an integrally pluralist country, made up of different religious beliefs, distinct language groups, divergent social practices etc. But this idea of secularism is both too broad and undifferentiated in the Indian context. Varshney (1993) distinguishes between three different types of nationalism in India: A Secular Nationalism, a Hindu Nationalism and two Separatist Nationalisms in the state of Punjab and Kashmir. Hindu nationalism, he argues, is a reaction to the two other nationalisms. Madan (1987) and Nandy (1988) argue that secularism is intrinsically unsuited to India. Separatist nationalisms (Kashmir, Punjab, the Northeast) have threatened the integrity of India as a nation state. The other two nationalisms, while committed to India's territorial integrity, are seeking to pursue it in different ways. For separatists, Kashmir and Punjab are different nations, while Indian nationalists claim that Kashmiris and Punjabis are ethnic groups, not nations. Secular nationalists seek to preserve the geographical unity of India and include all ethnic and religious groups in its definition of a nation. They consider giving security to the various groups as integral to nation building. For Hindu nationalists, however, Hinduism is the source of India's identity and it alone can provide national cohesiveness.
Gurumurthy (1994), one of the BJP's prominent intellectuals, argues that in India society and individuals were the pivots around which the polity revolved and that the state was merely a residuary concept. This enabled the people to develop a variety of institutions and accept diversity of thought and practice. Whereas, the Semitic tradition of the West, with its centralizing tendencies, invested the state with supreme power. He goes on to develop this premise to claim that India survived not as a state but as a society from onslaughts by foreign invaders. He then posits that whereas the Christian West evolved dynamically from a theocratic state to a secular state, then to a democracy which is giving way to a commercial and technological state, Islam is a story of "1500 years of unmitigated stagnation" because anyone who attempts to start a variant of the faith, or argue about its tenets are condemned or killed. The encounter between the "Inclusive" Hinduism and the "Exclusive" Islam in India has left behind an "Unassimilated Islamic Society", Gurumurthy claims. The Hindu nationalist movement, he suggests, is the Indian contribution for a review of the "Conservative and extremist Islamic attitudes towards non-Islamic faiths and societies" and that secular nationalists are beating up on Hindu nationalists only to garner Muslim votes. Moreover, the Indian problem cannot be divorced from international Islamic politics and the world's reaction to it.
From a SSCT point of view we can see how different positions in the social structure produce different interests among individuals. It would direct our attention to forces which make the Indian society more or less prone to violence and conflict. It is especially useful in explaining the particular targets of aggressive actions and why one target is chosen over another. Thus, for example, forces that increase group cohesion (Hindu nationalism) and limit conflict (for example, intragroup Hindu conflict or conflict between Hindus and Christians) may also make aggression against an outgroup (for example, Muslims) more likely. Secular nationalists perceive only Hindu nationalists as the catalysts of violence and conflict. They ignore pan-Islamic and international Islamic forces and their influence on the Indian, especially Indian-Muslim polity. They have also been hesitant to take on separatist nationalists, targeting their criticisms mostly on the BJP and the RSS.
The focus on Hindu-Muslim structural forces should not blind us to various other forces and groups that coalesce to produce common interests. Hindu nationalists complain that secularism in India is Pseudo-Secularism, a term that Advani coined to describe the excessive appeasement of minorities in India. While minorities are represented fairly well in the upper layers of Indian bureaucracy and politics, as well as cultural layers, Muslims and many of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes are among the poorest and least educated communities in the country. Is it the policies of the majority for such a state of affairs? Do Hindus insist that Muslims study only inmadrasas? Sikhs, a minority, are among the most well-to-do and educated sections of the population.
An interesting and useful study from a SSCT perspective would be to list oppositional forces in the country. Such a list, with a description of the historical, political and economic reasons for such oppositions would enable us to understand the dynamics of present day conflict and violence and help us choose carefully strategies to minimize such conflicts.
Psycho-culturally, we should study the construction, or attempts at construction of new Hindu, Muslim, Christian or caste identities. Most studies in India have been of the rather amorphous and large group of "Hindus". Kakar (1994), for example, says there are a few well-marked steps in the construction of the Hindu identity: first, there is a marking of the boundary of the community by hailing selected gods and heroes and offering them up as ego ideals to be shared by community members and for bringing about group cohesion; second, the marking of boundaries is followed by invoking actual or perceived events of shared loss (for example, the destruction of the temple in Ayodhya by Babar); third, the addressing of perceived threats from inimical forces and how those forces should be defeated; and fourth, the idealizing of the ingroup and the demonizing or scape-goating of the outgroup. The demonizing of the outgroup is a reflection of the ingroup's anxiety about its own identity. Thus, the Hindu self-image that of a tolerant, compassionate group exposes what it fears about itself "The specific Hindu shame and fear of being cowardly and impotent to change the material or social conditions of his life" (Kakar, 1994). This vulnerable self then has to be shored up through forceful action so that the group becomes more cohesive. Kakar says that a sense of superiority is invoked by all groups to serve the purpose of increasing group cohesion and thus the enhancement of self-esteem of its members. The problem though is when this narcissism becomes deviant. Kakar believes that though there is no "Standard" against which to measure such narcissistic deviance, "A group wherein all individual judgment is suspended and reality-testing severely disturbed, may legitimately be regarded as pathological".
This Hindu culture and identity sought to be carved out by Hindu nationalists who, as Kakar points out, seek to conserve only certain aspects of the Hindu past by silencing contrary interpretations has been considered authoritarian. Nandy describes the authoritarian personality as basically a sadomasochistic character, who is a sadist with regard to the targets of his destructiveness and a masochist when it comes to authority figures. Such a person is the product of a repressive family and disciplinarian parents. Nandy argues that what technology and science did to the West and to creating authoritarian/fascist tendencies among the marginalized, political and social change is doing the same to India. An expanding sector of marginalized and incompletely socialized people on the one hand and those searching for order, security and meaning on the other constitute the authoritarian tendency in India, he claims. Such people have the conviction that an internally consistent, unambiguous, ethical system is necessary for social progress and moral growth. This is in fact the very anti-thesis of the Indian world view which stresses "Ideological Flexibility and Structural Rigidity". However, if you believe that the Kak and Nandy analyses indicate that the "Authoritarian" and/or "Communal" personality would be found among members of certain groups or political parties, you've got a think coming. A study by Shah (1994) in Gujarat, in which more than 700 people were surveyed, showed that the BJP and the Congress had an equal share of voters with high levels of communal consciousness. Tell that to Madam Sonia Gandhi and her vociferous spokesman Ajit Jogi, will you? The study also revealed that communal consciousness was at a rather high level, evenly distributed across age, class, gender and profession and not correlated with economic status. The study also showed that there were no clear correlations between a high level of religiosity, communal attitudes and support for the BJP. So much for the secular parties and the communal BJP, huh? More importantly, what does it say about the "Indian" - not just the stick and cardboard Hindu that newspapers and ideological suspect academics have constructed? That the Christian and the Muslim in India (surprise, surprise) is as much a "Communal" person as the much-maligned "Hindu".
A number of studies of the "Hindu" personality claim that the individual lives in his inner world less with a feared father than with a powerful, aggressive and unreliable mother. He doubts his mother's nurturance and sees his father as a co-victim of his castrating mother. Thus, the mother serves the Hindu as his ultimate model of authority and this identification with the mother makes him a passive-aggressive feminine character identifying with the ideology of "Mother, motherland and mother-tongue". The Hindu concept of "Maya" (the unreality of the outer world) may then enable him to rationalize his own withdrawal from the world and the cynicism he develops in response to his distrust of his mother's nurturing.
Kakar, in another work (1981), explores the Hindu self and world image. The traditional Hindu way of life provides an individual a certain patterned way of living which is a kind of template that enables them to absorb and accept the uncertainties and the ebb and flow of life. This Hindu way of life, whether consciously acknowledged or not, has influenced the Hindu's thinking, perceiving and experiencing. The themes of moksha (Self-realization, Salvation and the overcoming of the distinction between subject and object), dharma (law, moral duty or conformity with the truth of things, the principle underlying social relations) and karma (namely, individual action and individual fate affected and influenced by each other through the endless cycle of birth, growth and death and how right action would intervene in this process) are the three essential ideas that influences and controls the Hindu's life and spiritualism. Kakar explores Indian spiritualism through the developmental significance of Hindu infancy and childhood and how they influence Indian identity formation. He builds the psycho-social foundations of the Indian inner world using anthropological evidence, clinical data, mythology and folklore and concludes that there are no insurmountable psychological obstacles for the traditional Indian identity to evolve in a manner that it maintains its historical continuity while integrating with a changing environment. He, however, cautions that there may be some individuals who would make determined efforts to restore an earlier and imagined "Idyllic" state and there would be some others who may regress and react with a depressive mode of apathy, resignation and withdrawal. Note that Kak practices the "Soft" social science of psycho-analysis where case studies rather than carefully conducted experiments provide the results. So, take these adumbrations with "Salt to taste"!
For most Indians, social change has been gradual and the disjunctures brought about by modernization bearable. They therefore continue to remain "Traditional" in the sense that their identity, their inner world is made up of the maternal cosmos of infancy and early childhood. The economic is still subordinate to the religious and so the spiritual quest is dominant over the material. But with the kind of pressures being brought about by an increasingly interdependent, commercial and technological world Indians are under great pressure to abandon their "Cultural emphasis on the emotional, aesthetic and instinctual qualities of life, on the primary group relationships and on the communal sharing of responsibility for individual lives". How Indians have reacted to such changes are now grist for our analytical mills. The Ayodhya incident and the events following it are one indicator of the effect of such environmental pressures.
In terms of interpersonal conflict, the Hindu way of life imposes certain strictures that may force individuals to deny conflict and to suppress it. Roland (1988) says that the profound social and psychological changes brought about by modernity influences the individual in three areas: decision making, child rearing and institutional structures. The demand for greater autonomy and independent decision making by modern institutions of individuals has led to the experiencing of increased strain and anxiety by adult urban men. Such anxiety and strain is especially experienced after the death of a parent on whom they had depended for decisions. In the area of child rearing, conflict is generated when parents give ambivalent and conflicting signals to their children for greater freedom and autonomy on the one hand and expecting them to be deferent and obedient on the other. Thus mother-in-law/ daughter-in-law conflicts are common to almost every Hindu household and innumerable films have story plots revolving around this theme. These conflicts, especially in joint-family households, have serious and tragic consequences with the kind of alignment of forces that are doomed for failure. When women, because of the kind of sexual taboos in joint family households, channel their erotic feelings toward their sons, they increase the anxiety feelings in the sons who then develop a fear of women, mature love and sexuality. The male child's identity with the mother leads to his supporting his mother in her battles with her daughter-in-law. The loss of control over her husband and her children leads the woman to extend a provocative sexual presence toward her sons, which leads to another vicious cycle (see Kakar, 1981; Barnouw, 1985).
Modern institutional structures borrowing western management practices seek to inculcate autonomy and individuality in its members but ignore the needs of the individual's familial self. Thus inefficiency, shirking of responsibility, delay and passing the buck have become the hallmark of Indian organizations, especially government organizations.
Indians also exhibit a need to deny any issues of dissension where issues of conflict are to be discussed. Disagreement and conflict are usually swept under the rug and agreements are made when there are no real agreements. Anger is contained, swallowed or denied (Roland, 1988). The internalized structures in the Indian conscience thus severely inhibit the direct and open expression and sometimes even awareness, of ambivalence, anger, annoyance and hostility, Roland points out. The emphasis on harmony and emotional connectedness at all costs lead to the expression of annoyance and anger nonverbally and indirectly, occasionally building up to an outburst.
Nandy suggests that the way to curb authoritarianism in India is by building new institutions on the basis of its old traditions, by monitoring change and growth in society so that they don't destroy the basic dignity and self-esteem of the individual, by openly debating social choices and by creating institutions that promote political leadership that don't take advantage of the latent tendency towards passive obedience and mindless aggression.
Implications for interpersonal communication and the resolution of conflict are discussed by Roland (1988). He says it is essential to take into account how resistance, transference and counter-transference are influenced by the social and cultural factors that shape familial and individual relationships. Since hierarchical relationships are the norm either in the family or institutional structures, individuals usually are hesitant to express their thoughts and feelings, especially those of anger and hurt. Feelings are expressed only when there is some trust that the other will be receptive and confidentiality will be kept. Thus, for example, in terms of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law problems, the daughter-in-law usually spends some time anguishing over and dealing with the acts of hurt and disregard by her in-laws. Gaining the trust of her husband and especially of her mother-in-law is fraught with anxiety. But once a relationship is established it is also more rewarding. As Roland puts it, "Indian relationships and communication are often overwhelmingly governed by varying subtle balances between the intense, emotional intimacy needs and wishes of the qualitative mode and the deeply internalized expectations of superior and subordinate in the structural hierarchy" and in the "Daughter-in-law/ mother-in-law relationship, structural hierarchical expectations of deference and subordination strongly predominate over emotional intimacy in the early years of a young woman's marriage".
Because of the imbalance in hierarchical relationships, Indian communication, especially relating to conflict have to be studied both at the verbal and nonverbal levels. The verbal communication is usually dictated by considerations of hierarchy and is therefore frequently indirect, implicit and ambiguous, whereas the nonverbal communication can be either more positive or negative. Roland gives numerous examples from case studies to support his point. He also describes some of the nonverbal communication in conflict situations: these include suddenly stopping talking; leaving the room; not eating the next meal while conveying that you are feeling fine; or simply walking around looking unhappy. These indirect expressions of hurt and anger are meant to shame the other person into realizing what s/he has done. Gandhi's tactic of going on fasts orsatyagrahacan be seen as coping with British acts of violence or Indian acts that he didn't concur with. Roland concludes that the acute sensitivity of most Indians to the moods and emotional states of the other and therefore to the development of conscience, is due to close familial interdependence, whereas the American superego, for example, is trained for eventual autonomous adaptation in extra-familial relationships.
In changing times and under the influence of sweeping technological and social forces, Indians exhibit enormous identity conflicts, which in turn could influence their politics. We can see here how the interpersonal and social/political coalesce and thus strategies to reduce conflict and violence in India should take into account these familial factors. But as the Chinese say, where there is danger there is also opportunity. These kinds of identity issues provide Indians opportunities for better integration into "An Expanding Self". Modernization and Westernization is making the Indian more individualistic. Roland believes that this movement will not lead to the kind of individualism that prevails in the West, but instead will be incorporated in a broader "Familialism". This change, in the process of happening, can and will also generate considerable conflict.
What are the ways in which such conflict can be managed and directed toward productive ends? The lack of education, has contributed to the lumpenization of politics and to increasing violence and regressive nationalism. Some believe that the re-instituting of secular nationalistic ideals as espoused and practiced by Nehru would stem the tide toward disintegration and crass nationalism. Nandy says that the tradition in India is to alter the dominant culture from within and so any abuses of power will be recognized from within and acted upon.
Originally published on Wednesday, February 16, 2000.