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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 31 New Delhi July 20, 2019

Whither Unreasoned Traditions?

Saturday 20 July 2019

by Arup Maharatna

As things stand by now, it would not be an exaggeration to say with hindsight that the entire post-independent India has been reeling increasingly under a stubborn, unquestioned, and endemic reverence for a sentiment-laden emotive notion called ‘traditions’ stuffed mainly by religious mythologies, dogmatic faiths, rituals, and loads of superstitions perceived popularly sacred and sacrosanct. Indeed, evidence is aplenty that an all-pervasive—albeit densely clouded—notion of tradition has been propelling the whole country’s post-colonial political and social vicissitudes. Take, for instance, the recent Sabarimala temple row that has occasioned large-scale social and political turmoil especially in the southern tracks of the country. To any objective penetrative thinking person with hard reasoning on the entire episode, it cannot but appear a mindless dance/display of untamed religious sentiments, unexamined religious faiths and associated (unreasoned) emotions fed bountifully by a pervasive popular sense of inviolability of our so-called traditions.

The scale of destabilising social eruptions surrounding the Sabarimala temple row, com-pounded, as it was, greatly by opportunistic political interventions/stimuli facilitated in turn by enormous advances of communication and media technology, has perhaps been unprece-dented over the recent past. But its potentiality for recurrence remains high amid what is arguably a muddled understanding, vision and image of post-colonial democratic polity as envisioned by influential leaders ever since independence. Indeed the Indian Constitution became eventually an embodiment/epitome of some fundamental dilemmas in its imagining of India as a self-ruled democratic polity. Central to these dilemmas is the tremendously dispro-portionate sanctity/priority accorded to the intrinsically lousy perception of so-called ‘tradition’ and related sentiments, while at the same time embarking on a megaproject of building a technologically, scientifically, politically and industrially modern nation.

Thus the Sabarimala incident unfolds this inherent constitutional contradiction, namely, between its vision, ideals and goals about our democratic secular society and its overwhelming pampering of religious sentiments both in private and public spheres. Its foundational assumption is that modernisation of economy and polity is perfectly possible without amending a country’s perceptually sacrosanct socio-cultural traditions, sentiments for them, related attitudes and values. Piles of official reports and policy documents as well as erudite literature since independence have rested crucially on a questionable dictum that no effort/initiative/programme of modern material development/growth can be allowed at the expense of popular admiration/affection for religious emotions and sentiments. Thus, modern metalled roads could be built, but always leaving a locally worshipped stone or tree or deity untouched and unmoved from the way, if any, irrespective of its adverse long-term consequences for roads and traffic. Likewise, modern material and technological progress is implemented in such a manner as to not call for stir in people’s tradition-bound mindset, perceptions, worldview, age-old unquestioned rituals and unreasoned social norms/practices. This has predictably given rise to India’s unenviable queerness in major spheres such as its national politics, functioning of democracy and practices of secularism. But the accumulated potential of such queerness for doing havoc in the long-term trajectory of economic progress and social development along with convenient embrace of incessant technological innovations has been mostly wished away or even carefully overlooked.

Our national leadership since independence seems stubborn with its notion of democracy as a pattern of governance of which the central driving force lies in abiding unquestioningly by the people’s majoritarian sentiments, emotions and rights pertaining to our society, culture and religion. That a democratic state has a distinct role and responsibility in reshaping (or even sometimes revolutionising) the pre-existing popular socio-cultural preferences, values and behaviour on the most desirable, or even constitutionally envisaged, lines often remains buried by the political leadership’s obsessive affinity toward electoral votes and victory. Leaving people’s sentiments and emotions—however unexamined and unreasoned—intact and virtually untouched by public policy and administration is, of course, a legacy of British colonial rule. But it is unfortunate that none of the political parties of India has ventured otherwise in the entire post-colonial era purportedly in a common, but narrow-minded, bid not to lose popularity and votes. It thus generates a vicious circle: it gives politicians power which they never deploy in enlightening the people, their attitudes and values.

Post-colonial India’s entire leadership—not only political but intellectual too—has strangely undervalued the grave implications of a dilemma between constructing a democratic Constitution as an exercise in subjecting the whole population to a uniform and standardised set of civil rules/norms and simultaneously preaching an incredible diversity/divisions in socio-cultural norms, practices, traditions and associated sentiments and emotions. How many Indian political stalwarts have seriously ever questioned as to why we must treat our ‘traditions’ so sacrosanct and ‘untouchable’ as to keep our nation perennially vulnerable to communal sentiments, emotions, and tensions? Why do we have to unquestioningly cling to traditional socio-cultural norms/practices even at the risk of encountering mammoth complexities, strife, and contradictions involved in fulfilling our goal of building a stable democratic nation? What exactly is the reason or rationale for revering ‘tradition’ per se in the first place, while boast-fully dreaming of taking to a globalised future? The crux seems to lie in our disproportionately prioritised—albeit unreasoned—set of sentiments and emotions bent intrinsically on championing the ‘tradition’—however confounded, hazy and contradictory the latter’s notion may be. This brings us to the crucial importance of our decision particularly in view of a subtle distinction between the worshipping of tradition and not completely forgetting it along our avowed modern developmental path. There is little point in remaining consciously oblivious —that too for just clinging to political power— that global human history is replete with a series of civilisational progressions based essentially on what is astutely described as ‘creative destruction’.

The author is the Rajiv Gandhi Chair Professor in Contemporary Studies, University of Allahabad, Prayagraj. He can be contacted at e-mail: arupmaha[at]

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