India: Culture and Society Rowena Robinson Professor of Sociology Department of Humanities and Social Sciences Indian Institute of Technology Bombay Introduction



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Social change in modern India

While in the above paragraphs I have tried to chart out for you the patterns of social relations that came to be revealed to sociologists and anthropologists when they set out to do fieldwork in different parts of the country, this section will focus on the changes in Indian society. Modern India is changing very rapidly and society today presents some fascinating as well as contradictory trends. One of the most important changes in India is economic change. Already during the colonial period the new means of transportation and communication and the development of cities had brought in a degree of economic and social change. People began to migrate to the cities in search of work and modern education. The barriers of caste began to slowly break down or become more flexible. Children were no longer compelled to follow the occupation of their parents; they could aspire for different and better work. Such change was, indeed, revolutionary in the context of Indian society. The ideas of liberty, equality, democracy and the like began to have a slow but sure impact on the colonized people; the struggle for Independence has shown the importance such ideas had for educated Indians.

British rule initiated the process of secularization in India, a tendency which, to some extent, became stronger after Independence. However, contrary to expectations, the role of religion either in the lives of people or in public and political life has by no means vanished in India. Secularization entailed a process of differentiation whereby the various aspects of society – economic, political, legal, moral, familial and religious – become discrete in relation with each other. This has occurred to some degree. For instance, the rules of purity and impurity that applied to castes have declined to a considerable extent. Urban life has its own pressures and does not permit rigid rules to remain in place.

In office spaces, public spaces and the industrial or corporate world, the rules of caste hardly apply. One works with persons of many different castes and sometimes all may eat from the same cafeteria. Cooks, stewards or waiters in restaurants or cafés are not necessarily of high caste, but one and all eat at such places without regard to these matters. Most restaurants serve both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food and the dishes or plates would not necessarily be kept separate. On trains, buses or at public places one rubs shoulders with persons of all castes, classes and religions. The law also prevents discrimination against persons on the basis of caste or religion. Rituals are being shortened and sometimes they are dropped altogether. New celebrations taken over from Western society – Father’s day, Mother’s day or Valentine’s day – are becoming important for urban, educated folk.

There is an increase in the age of marriage and women increasingly have an opportunity to get education and work before and after marriage. While more girls enter careers now-a-days, this is sometimes because men want educated and employed brides. However, there is also a sharp increase in women working because they want to carve out independent careers. Men and women meet and try to discover areas of compatibility, even when marriages largely continue to be arranged by family members. However, there is also an increase in inter-caste, inter-religious marriages, especially among the urban, educated elite. Among such groups, the income, life-style and education of the partners often counts for as much if not more than just caste position.

Divorce rates are soaring in modern India and it is becoming more common as well as more accepted for divorcees and the widowed to enter into new marriages. Because of migration and mobility, the modern Indian family is more often than not nuclear in composition. There are changes too in fertility patterns, with more among the urban sections settling for just one or two children. While, traditionally, it was the son who looked after his parents during old age, there are many cases now-a-days of women, especially single women, taking on these responsibilities. Marriage was the rule in the past, but there are increasing numbers of women (and some men) who remain single. This may be out of choice especially among the urban elite, but it may also happen due to a variety of other reasons. For instance, a woman may remain single because of the need to look after aged parents or younger brothers and sisters.

Continuity persists, however, in the preference for male children. Fertility control and female foeticide together ensure that the sex ratio remains very skewed, often more so in the urban and richer areas of the country. Thus, richer areas of the country including, for instance, Punjab and Gujarat display a very low sex ration. A man’s parents often stay with him or they may move from one son’s home to the other. Else, they may live close by to their children. Parental support is vital for young couples in urban areas. Where both men and women work, parents are often called upon to care for the young grandchildren. Even if brothers rarely reside together, they often share expenses related to, for instance, the marriage of a sister or ritual celebrations in the family.

Similarly, rituals and the observance of caste rules never entirely disappear. While caste may recede from certain areas of life, it remains in others and even thrives. Scholars have written about the capacity of modern Indians to compartmentalize their lives. In this context, it is interesting to remember what one informant said to a well-known anthropologist: ‘When I put on my shirt to go the office, I take off my caste, and when I come home and take off my shirt, I put on my caste’ (quoted in Srinivas 1988: 123). It is still true that an overwhelming number of Indian marriages, and not just in rural areas, are arranged by the families concerned. In fact, various surveys have shown that young Indian men and women have little trouble adjusting to such ‘other-arranged’ marriages and believe that their families will choose well for them. They also believe in the long-term stability of such marriages. These marriages are, for the most part, caste-specific.

In recent times, various scholars have paid some amount of attention to trying to understand changes in family structures particularly among the educated urban middle-class of Indian society. The sociologist, Béteille (1991), argues about this group that it has shifted its ‘focus of attention away from caste and sub-caste towards school, college and office’. According to him, caste and sub-caste have ceased to play an active part in the reproduction of inequality, at least at the upper levels of the social hierarchy where they are no longer important agents of either social placement or social control’. He argues that modern Indians have an ambivalent or negative attitude towards caste in general and that caste is no longer an ‘institution’ among them in the way that the family is. In other words, Indians of this social level do not place value on caste as they continue to do on the family. He is also inclined to think that Indians have a differing orientation towards family and caste. They can repudiate the demands of the second, but not of the first. The implication of this view would appear to be that location within familial bonds of particular kinds involves no certain adjustment to caste.

Another anthropologist, Arvind Shah (1998), has shown himself much more reluctant to write off caste from the social landscape of the modern Indian. As he cautiously reminds us, even ‘modern’ individuals who are ideologically averse to caste are not averse to the ‘network of relatives’. These networks of relatives along with the family or, indeed, constituting the family in its broader sense, are very important for performing the function of inculcating and enforcing caste norms in modern times. Though modern individuals may rail against caste, they are deeply loyal to the family.

In contrast to what Béteille suggests, however, the orientations to caste and the family are not fundamentally different. In fact, Shah argues that the family should be seen as including the networks of relations by kinship and marriage. When viewed as such, it emerges that networks of relatives occupy the realm between caste and the family and enable the mediation of the two. In other words, for a modern Indian, the most concrete representation of his/her caste is the network of kin and social relations, which constitute the core of the individual’s social world. This is the group that has the moral power to exert pressure on the individual to practice caste norms and it is, therefore, extremely important in caste perpetuation. For instance, so many intra-caste marriages are arranged through informal inquiries among members of kin groups.

In modern India, the print media and the web have become important sites for the search for suitable spouses. I reproduce here some recent advertisements from a leading English-language newspaper. These show us the extent and well as the limits of change in the area of marriage.


Match for Rajput girl. Class Two Officer Maharashtrian Government MSc Computer Science wheatish slim smart 150 cms. Born June 1971 Expectation: Maharashtra Govt./Central Govt. Officer/MBA/Engineer from Rajput/North Indian Brahmin/Maratha/other higher communities. Contact…
Suitable match for Delhi based Bengali Brahmin girl 26/162, fair, slim, beautiful, smart, Executive in MNC. Boy should be from educated cultured Bengali family (Brahmin/Baidya/Kulin Kayastha), professionally qualified and preferably in same profession. Please write Box…
US citizen, Computer engineer, 27, good-looking, Maheshwari, vegetarian. Proposals invited from fair, slim, good-looking, educated, well-qualified, homely Maheshwari/Jain/Oswal/Vaishnav girls with traditional Indian values. Write Box…
Nair boy Hindu 37, 5’ 11”, smart fair innocently divorced, no issues, financially sound government employee born and brought up in North India, seeks alliance from good looking cultured girl divorcee and widow can also respond caste language no bar. SC ST [Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes] please excuse.
Clearly, the advertisements show that the boundaries of caste do seem to be expanding. The boundaries between castes that are close to each other in the hierarchy are collapsing and one finds the search for marriage partners going beyond the sub-caste and even the caste limits. Thus, a Maheshwari boy’s family can contemplate his marriage within a group of similarly-placed castes, including Jains and Oswals. Further, a Rajput girl’s family can seek to arrange her marriage into the Rajput, North Indian Brahmin, Maratha, or other higher communities. However, caste categories continue to be quite clearly mentioned and not just broader varna categories, or regional and religious categories. Further, the line of pollution between the so-called ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ castes (castes belonging to the varna category and the avarna castes) remains firmly in place. Even when a divorcee seeks to enter a second union, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (former avarna groups) are emphatically excluded.

Some critical pieces of social legislation in modern India include the abolition of untouchability and the practice of positive discrimination in favour of former avarna communities. Independent India declared the untouchability of castes in any form an offence and it enforced the rights of the former avarna groups to enter Hindu temples as well as to draw water from wells previously limited to upper-caste use in villages. It was during British times that schedules of lower-caste communities and isolated tribal groups came to be drawn up in order to implement certain practices of reservation in their favour. These schedules came to be included in the Indian Constitution: the list of Scheduled Castes and the list of Scheduled Tribes. Reservations in education, political representation and employment have been implemented for these groups.

There has also been social legislation that radically alters the rights of women. In particular, Hindu marriage, inheritance and succession laws have been changed in order to achieve greater gender parity. There have been some changes in the personal laws applying to Muslims and Christians, but not quite as far-reaching. Among Hindus, women now bear the right to equal inheritance along with their brothers in both their father’s self-acquired as well as his inherited properties. Despite such radical legislation, however, it is still true that women frequently forgo their share in property, in order to not to damage their relations with their brothers. There are still many situations in which a woman will rely for support on her brother: if she is abandoned or widowed or if her marital relationship sours. Insistence on her legal rights may compromise the possibility of such support being forthcoming.

In more contemporary times, the practice of dowry or stridhan has turned into something akin to a ‘groom price’, wherein both the nature of gifts and the amounts involved have drastically changed. Further, the groom price is decided by the groom’s family and it is related to the educational and employment attainments of the groom. There is now a significant cash component involved, which was rare in the past. There have been numerous cases of what are called ‘dowry deaths’, in which the groom’s family play a role in killing off the young bride because of insufficient dowry. Despite the fact that the giving and taking of dowry are now offences and the fact that it is mandatory for the police to investigate the death of any woman who dies within the first few years of marriage, the practice of ‘groom price’ does continue.

Culturally, modern India shows several contradictory developments. Everywhere, the consciousness of ethnic identity is on the rise. Fundamentalist discourses – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh as well as others – have emerged, all of which are detrimental in their implications for the role and rights of women. The reconstruction of ethnic identity and the drawing of religious boundaries involve the reinterpretation of traditions. Often traditions are sought to be imposed on the grounds that they are ‘pure’ traditions from the past. These, more often than not, impose certain restrictions on women, who are considered to be the bearers of the honour of ethnic groups. The dress, deportment, movement and mobility of women come under examination under the harsher cultural regimes. There has, contradictorily enough, been a renewed interest in and revival of rituals and customs to do with life-cycle events and festivals. The media plays with and pushes along such interest. The telecast of television serials and mythologies which promote traditional culture is on the rise.

On the other hand, there is the spread of modernity, particularly in the area of capitalist, consumerist and materialist values. There are also increasing spaces available for the struggle for rights – whether those of women, of marginalized castes or other social groups. Progressive legislation as well as the belief in the ideas of democracy and judicial justice permit the questioning of the denial of rights and justice to different sections of the population. The media does not only promote religious and traditional values. The media also provides scope for the expression of new ideas of masculinity and womanhood, for speaking about issues that remained otherwise hidden, such as: domestic violence, homosexuality or gender discrimination in the workplace.





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