Back when India was still 'shining', a BJP-leaning friend of mine was surprised to find out that I knew more about Sanskrit Philosophy than he did. Not that I am a scholar, but he was taken aback to find out that a jeans and tee shirt-wearing, wine-sipping Indian was interested in the subtleties of Nyaya logic and Madhyamika metaphysics. The debate between tradition and modernity rages on all over middle India; in fact, it has always done so, but middle India has expanded enormously since 1908, when Gandhi expressed his misgivings about English minds in Indian bodies - incidentally, while he was still wearing a coat and tie to work- in Hind Swaraj. Gandhi revisited this dilemma a couple of decades later, when he and Rabindranath Tagore exchanged a wonderful series of letters on this topic. Indian modernity is too important a topic to be left to the hands of partisan votaries of one kind or the other, from religious fundamentalists to unreconstructed liberals.

Worries about westernisation and western domination abound in the Indian psychological landscape, as they do in almost every non-western corner of this earth. But India is also one of the few places where major thinkers have engaged systematically with foreign ideas, accepted some, and rejected others. Whether it is the recent fracas over the Ram Sethu, agitations over the role of multinational agribusiness or the dominance of English over local languages, there has been a vigorous public debate in which the language of tradition and modernity has been used by both sides. Modernisation is here to stay, but what is it? Perhaps it's time to turn the debate on its head, and stop seeing the relationship between tradition and modernity as one where western ideas are the primary agents.

Focus on Indian culture

Why are we still conceptualising the relationship as the entry of an invasive (or enlightening, depending on your perspective) external force into a resistive (or benighted) Indian culture? Why not focus on Indian culture and its capacity to respond to challenges from the outside? Is there an innate Indian sensibility that has internalised western modernity with varying degrees of success? If so, should we study the relationship between tradition and modernity as one of a continuous self-evolution of a relatively autonomous Indian cultural sphere? To echo Gandhi once again, have we always been able to open our windows to the world without being swept off our feet?

Thinking of modernisation in India primarily as an internally-driven psychological and cultural process has important consequences across the socio-political spectrum. To take two important examples, it becomes possible to understand the vibrancy of democracy in India without calling it as a parting gift of the British, or as a throwback to an ancient proto-democratic structure. Similarly, when it comes to the politics of development, it asks us to shift focus from the policies of the World Bank and multinational corporations to the machinations of our own business houses. No external intervention theory can explain why a Communist government is eagerly appropriating land for large industrial projects and SEZs.

We might be more successful in explaining the current socio-economic trends in India by tracing our social dynamics to certain 'innate' predispositions of the Indian people. Perhaps even more important than these revisionist analyses is the general principle: contemporary trends in Indian society, business and statecraft are ultimately grounded in long standing intuitions about nature and culture that permeate Indian society. Furthermore, we do not learn these intuitions in our schools; we learn them at home, from our friends and from the million tales that circulate in our cities, towns and villages. There is an explicit link between gut instinct and public policy.

Unlike the West, where children leave the home and make their own friends, we seem to invite our close friends into our families.
Consider the problem of justice, especially distributive justice. We can all agree that every citizen of India should have access to food, water, education, health services and other necessary amenities. Unfortunately, as we all know, the Indian state has been rather unsuccessful in fulfilling these basic needs of its citizens. This failure of governance is often attributed to corruption, vested interests and other imbalances of power. What if the problem lies deeper? What if the lack of success lies in a fundamental conflict between abstract ideas of justice borrowed from Anglo-American political philosophy (and now enshrined in the Indian constitution) and the basic thought patterns of the Indian people?

In order to evaluate this hypothesis, we have to inquire whether psychological conditions in India are conducive to the success of abstract notions of justice.

The 'family' in public identity and policy

According to psychologists such as Sudhir Kakar, we Indians learn how to behave in public partly through the lens of the extended family. In India, the family occupies a prominent location in the public sphere, in arenas that would be unthinkable in the west. Both the Indian nation and the state that I live in are currently led (overtly and covertly) by a prominent political family. Bollywood movies project an endless procession of Kapoors. Most of the leading business houses in India are family concerns. Even the judiciary - that seemingly impartial upholder of abstract justice - is in the limelight because of familial allegations made against a retired chief justice. The family is a window into the nature of justice in India.

In the caricatured version of the extended family, those who are 'family' are to be protected and nurtured. As for the rest, they can fend for themselves. Kakar writes about the prominent politician who when asked why he nominated his son for an important party post exploded "So whose son will I nominate; yours?" Familial notions are prominent even when family boundaries are transgressed. When I was growing up in Delhi, there were innumerable occasions when a person was introduced to me as "yeh mera bhai hai (he is my brother)" only to be told later that he was no blood relative, just a family friend. Unlike the West, where children leave the home and make their own friends, we seem to invite our close friends into our families.

Our public identity is deeply mediated by family, caste and community, which are all at the subjective, concrete end of the psychological spectrum. Roughly speaking, while in the West, notions of justice stem from a psychological experience of others as 'objectively' equal, in India feelings of justice emerge from the private, subjective and familial feelings of nurture and care. The emotion that one instinctively feels for one's own family is not that of impartial justice (despite all the classical stories of kings punishing their sons as if they were just any other subject) but that of compassion. How can one then expect universal, abstract notions of justice to thrive in the public sphere?

Illustration: Farzana Cooper

There is nothing new about the insight that Indians care about others when asked to think about them in a highly personalised manner. I have aunts who are deeply distrustful of Muslims as a community while having close Muslim friends - one aunt rationalised it by saying "She is very clean, for a Muslim." Religious movements with an eye towards social justice, from the Sikh Panth to the Sai Baba Satsang emphasise bhakti and seva as their markers of equal treatment. Similar movements have happened in other parts of the world as well, most famously, Liberation Theology in Latin America, where too the family plays a similar role in the public sphere. These were also very important in Gandhi's thought. He understood that in India, justice has to be channeled through highly particularised notions of care and compassion that may vary quite considerably from individual to individual.

Indian rules for public conduct

In such a scenario, we pick our public rules not by following the law, but by looking towards each other and exemplary individuals for guidance. Unlike abstract notions of justice, which can be implemented by people who don't have expansive notions of morality, the claims of justice in India require that our moral capacities be expanded. Therefore, in Gandhi's scheme it becomes crucial for public figures to set a personal example by leading a morally faultless life. Otherwise, the Indian tendency to look for human archetypes quickly leads to subservience and exploitation as has often happened in seemingly progressive religious movements.

At this stage in the evolution of Indian democracy we can and should go one step further and say that exemplary moral leadership has become unacceptable as a foundation for a just society. We cannot let our public behaviour be guided by a few moral exemplars. However, we are still left with the problem of reconciling our desire for personalised treatment with the goal of building a truly democratic polity. In the absence of a benevolent moral leadership, we have to learn our notions of justice from each other.

The problem is fundamentally a pedagogical one - how do we learn a compassionate way of being from each other rather than a Guru figure? Anglo-Saxon norms of objectivity have the advantage of extracting a common essence from a variety of views. Not all views are harmonisable but as long as the differing views are private to individuals, they are protected. However, if my arguments about the role of the Indian family in the public sphere are right, Indians do not divide the world into public 'norms' that have to be followed universally and individual 'tastes' that we are free to choose as we please. Since the family mediates between the private and public, the imposition of objective norms often breaks down. In my opinion, the dynastic nature of Indian politics should be seen as a breakdown of 'objectivity' - one might call this literal imposition of family values on to the nation 'family fundamentalism'. A progressive universalisation of the family to include all citizens is crucial to the success of the Indian democratic experiment.

I believe that effective notions of justice in any vision of Indian modernity will be tied to a universal and yet personalised agenda of compassion. The larger goal of equality in India demands a vigorous public discussion about the nature of justice, one that's not just about abstract notions of human rights or the cost and benefit of reservations, but also about the concrete, emotionally grounded values of nurture and care.