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Home > Women’s Rights > Social Change and "Keepers" of Culture and Tradition

Social Change and "Keepers" of Culture and Tradition

by Ravinder Kaur, 14 February 2009

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Times of India, 14 February 2009

Clouded by Confusion

A straight line can be drawn backwards from the Mangalore type of incidents to the Delhi murders of Nitish Katara and Jessica Lal. The canvas can be broadened to include the recent resurgence of honour crimes in northern India, instances of acid being thrown at women, and the backlash against women who dare to voice an opinion or choose a lifestyle of their choice. Young people are being punished for what is being perceived as immoral and detrimental to so-called Indian culture and tradition. Yet, physical assaults and assaults unto death cannot simply be comprehended as protests against what is objectionable to the sensibilities of some.

And it is the young who are victimising other young people, particularly women, drawing supportive responses from those responsible for law and order, whether it is a Ashok Gehlot supporting ’Indian culture’ or a confused Sheila Dikshit asking women to stay indoors. The particularly virulent form the actions are taking and their vigilante nature propel us towards a more nuanced reading.

Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, had a term and a theory to explain such (anti) social behaviour. Although his theory applied primarily to understanding suicide, it can, and has, been extended to other areas of human behaviour. Durkheim classified all periods of rapid change as leading to a state of ’anomie’ or ’normlessness’ in society. In such circumstances, individuals and groups are often in a ’state of confusion’, uncertain of the appropriate norms to follow and uncertain of their place in society. Their response may be either in the form of extreme steps such as suicide, or violence against those perceived to be causing grievous harm to the moral foundations of society.

That India is undergoing a period of rapid transition is not in doubt; the anomie induced may be held responsible for many of the responses and incidents listed above. Indian society has had few social revolutions, such as students’ revolts or strong feminist protests, or movements for greater individual freedoms, which could explain the changes we are experiencing. The transformation in Indian society has primarily been brought about by changes in the economy and technology. Yet, the social implications of far-reaching economic and technological change have been little studied or commented upon, apart from the railing we hear against globalisation and its presumed role in the destruction of ’traditional’ culture and values.

For Indian women, globalisation has generally done good. It has brought them into the workforce, and done so in large numbers. Earlier, working women in India were either the elite or the poor. This picture has now changed with women of many classes choosing to work both before and after marriage. But there is a downside to this. Despite obvious class differences between women working in factories or call centres and in managerial jobs, tensions are perceptible and palpable in most families and in society at large.

Men (and in-laws) are happy that daughters, sisters and wives are bringing home incomes but are not fully reconciled to them venturing out of the house. Work and independent incomes enable women to try out new freedoms. On offer are choices and an escape from the stifling confines of parental or marital homes.

Society is uncertain about how to respond to these new demands, and the new mores espoused by the young. Which are the constituencies most affected by change? If the old are protecting so-called tradition and their own hegemony, what are the young involved in incidents such as those in Mangalore or the Nitish Katara and Jessica Lal murders protecting or fighting against? Here class combines with a more general gendered targeting young men desirous of economic and social upward mobility, who are looking from the outside at others who have already got where they secretly wish to be.

In such cases a genuine confusion over ’morals’ combines with a destructive class envy, resulting in targeting of youth, especially women, who themselves are exploring the boundaries of their new freedoms. The targets are individuals who appear to have a glamorous lifestyle or putatively stand for a ’modernity’ that has not yet embraced all. In all such cases, the freedoms sought to be curtailed are those of women, especially those seen as espousing a ’western modernity’. Additionally, the rise of the Hindutva parties gives a platform to these uncertain young men as defenders of ’traditional, Hindu culture,’ providing them with respect from certain quarters.

That there is genuine confusion among our youth, especially among those associated with the socially conservative right, is often obvious in our classrooms. In an IIT classroom, peopled mostly with young men from small towns or cities, discussions of gender or homosexuality generally evoke embarrassed titters and reiterations of the importance of not losing ’Indian culture’ to the juggernaut of globalisation.

Yet, at least some of those with politically conservative affiliations are assailed by self-doubt are they right in hating Muslims, in agreeing with excessive parental control or in looking at women wearing jeans and T-shirts as ’loose’? Conservative ideologies often become a protective shield against the flux of rapid change, especially if one nurses the feeling of being left out. It is here that a liberal arts education has a lot of work to do in our universities and educational institutes.

The writer is a professor of social anthropology, IIT Delhi.