Chapter 10. Composite Culture, Community and Identity: Interface with Social Change in India – Composite Culture in a Multicultural Society


Composite Culture, Community and Identity: Interface with Social Change in India

Yogendra Singh

India is a society of communities. According to a recent survey, there are about 4,634 communities in India1 which constitute the fabric of its social structure and culture. India is also a ‘civilization society’. The interaction between the institutional, cultural and social-structural elements through the evolution of a civilization society in India has given birth to a cultural phenomenon, popularly known as ‘composite culture’, which is probably unique in history. Any keen historian of culture and civilization of India would aptly recognize this fact. Our national leaders, Gandhi and Nehru were deeply cognizant of this reality and its processes. Nehru particularly took note of the composite culture of India. By this he meant the continual presence and processes of reciprocity; mutual sharing and overlap of cultural practices; styles of life; a technological and economic worldview of the relationship between nature and culture; shared practices of economy and technology; values and belief systems cutting across the divides of space; and religious belief systems and specificities of community differentiations. The civilization society of India evolved through a dynamic historical interaction with thousands of communities and castes over the landmass of India. These communities were ever mobile, cherished their own cultural and religious identities self-consciously and yet mutually shared spontaneously and freely a variety of cultural attributes, customs and life styles. This process was strengthened by continual social and cultural reform movements by saint-poets, Sufis, folk artists and religious reformers. The cultural superstructures of the civilization society further reinforced the emergence of composite culture by the institutional arrangement across India of establishing cultural linkages through binding the cultural ‘centres’ with its ‘networks’ at a variety of levels, the local, the sub-regional, regional and national.2

Yet the questions about the feasibility of the concept of composite culture have risen primarily because of the lack of appreciation of two factors: first, the concept of culture and cultural identity; and second, the linkages among the local and regional cultures of communities, their search for cultural identity and the cultural centres and networks of the civilization society. Culture is not merely a normative construct as formalized by the ‘texts’ or a scripted and prescribed style of expression of the values, beliefs and aesthetic standards to which members are expected to conform. As a living reality, culture is also grounded in the existential, ecological, social and political settings of the society. These forces continually impinge upon the ‘scripted text’ of culture; accord it the capacity of creative innovation and improvisation, reform, or even repudiation.

The legitimization of culture is an ongoing process. It takes place at the point of intersection of the textual and the contextual modes of the cultural setting. There is scope for tension in this relationship, which, as the contemporary events suggest, is indeed real. But the dialectic implicit in this relationship also constitutes the necessary ground for cultural consensus and adaptive responses. It takes place through numerous styles and forms in which culture is continually being rationalized in each society. The role of reformers, cultural specialists, prophetic or messianic interventions by cultural leadership and the state (political authorities) contributes to the process of cultural rationalization from time to time. Apart from these, encounters with ‘other cultures’, either through contacts or through political and cultural domination (colonialism is one example), also triggers the process of rationalization in the cultural system of a society. In course of time, each culture evolves its own mechanism for institutionalization of the new contents from the ‘other culture’ within its own structure through adaptation, assimilation or rejection in consonance with its systemic principles. Culture, thus comprises normative, symbolic and behavioural contents, which exist not in random relationship but constitute a system or a meaningful pattern. Anthropologists have explored the nature of this ‘pattern of culture’ extensively. The reality of ‘composite culture’ in India forms an important aspect of this cultural pattern.

The phenomenon of ‘cultural identity’ is linked to the dynamics of culture as constituted by its need to rationalize either on account of factors which are sui generis or are results of interventions from outside. The perception of the ‘other’ in terms of one’s own culture energizes the consciousness of identity. The processes of ‘development’, which are sponsored by the state, by the social groups or classes wielding power within the society or the outside agencies, invariably impact upon people’s self-consciousness of their own culture, its symbolic significance and its resilience and ‘symbolic power’ to withstand the challenge of social change and development. The nature of the relationship between culture, cultural identity, and social change and development is determined by the people’s perception about and the facticity of harmony between the two discourses: of culture and of development. This relationship, however, should not be seen as a zero sum process. It does offer possibilities of reconciliation and accommodation in various forms and at different levels in accordance with the unfolding historical processes.

At the operational level, however, we may arrive at some common denominators with which the concept of culture is endowed. First, culture is observed in the normative principles and value-orientations of the people in a society. It permeates through all its social institutions and the behaviour pattern of the members of the society. Second, culture constitutes a pattern. Its various components, whether mental, normative or behavioural, are meaningfully integrated and are configured into a system. Third, the pattern of culture as evolved by a society is adapted to its own unique historicity and no culture could claim any superiority over the other culture. This cultural relativism, however, does not preclude co-sharing and co-existence of common attributes across cultures. For instance, the nature of composite culture and its social structural linkage with communities and regions in India affirms this position. The comparative studies of culture have amply established this fact. The parallelism in the cultural innovations across societies and cultural contacts in course of history are possibly responsible for this phenomenon. Finally, culture has both manifest and latent levels of embeddedness in each society. The latent aspect of culture is constituted by the subjective internalization of the core values of a culture within the personality system of its members through the process of child-rearing and socialization as demonstrated by social anthropologists and psychologists. This defines the resilience of the cultural identity characteristic of the culture not only in objective terms, such as collective manifestations and institutionalization, but also in subjective terms. Culture is embedded in the psyche of its members at the conscious as well as the unconscious levels, and its identity derives objective as well subjective reinforcement from this process.

Study of Culture in Understanding Composite Culture

The understanding of the significance of composite culture in India is vitally related to the methodology of cultural studies. Two distinct methods which have prevailed are: historical and ethnographic-sociological. Sometimes the two are seen in mutually exclusive terms. It may lead to ideological pronouncements on culture which enlarges the perception of diversity, fragmentation and conflict of identities. This primarily is due to lack of grounding of the ideological constructions of culture in the factual data in the existential and cultural structures of communities and its relationship with the civilization society. Historians have otherwise consistently emphasized the location of the Indian civilization society in the network of cultural centres across regions in India which provided a ‘fundamental unity’ within the diversities of cultural pattern based on communities and regions. Such historical findings are based mainly on the textual and documentary sources. Lately, historians have also started bringing in their analytical domain the ethnological and oral historical records to provide further depth to their propositions and their verification.

The ethnographic-sociological approach to cultural studies, although later in origin, comes mainly from social anthropology and sociology. Its sources of analysis and study of culture are mainly drawn with the help of the observational data based on fieldwork, ethnographic studies and empirical studies of cultural processes located in various institutional structures of the society and community. Its focus is upon the observation of the cultural practices, values, beliefs and cultural artefacts within a community or ethnic group, in both the objective and subjective or the manifest and latent forms. It is generally inductive-inferential in approach and makes cross-cultural comparisons based on the ‘core’ and ‘peripheral’ values and patterns in the cultural system of a community. Such comparisons are largely treated as being culturally relative in the methodological or philosophical senses. Its basic premise that culture constitutes a system or pattern is tested in most cultural studies where the unit is a community, tribe or ethnic group but rarely a nation or civilization. The notions of nation and civilization are themselves, according to this approach, methodological constructions which could be tested with the help of cultural observation of facts grounded in empirical realities.

The implication of these approaches to the study of culture has a high degree of relevance to the notion of composite culture in India. A preliminary analysis of the uses and interpretations of historical and ethnographic data for the interpretation of the nature of cultural systems in India reveals that more the study is grounded into the observation of the ethno-sociological bases of culture of a single community or of communities within a sub-region or a region, the more its findings affirm and highlight the presence of composite culture. This proposition is also supported by cultural studies of a single community or a set of communities as well as from macroscopic cultural surveys of the country as a whole. For example, the ethnographic study of the culture and social change in an eastern U.P. village conducted over a period of fifty years amply affirms the strong presence of the traits of a composite culture and its slow movement towards ‘exclusiveness’ with a new focus upon ‘identity’ over a period of time.3 At a macro level, a cultural survey of the communities in India as a whole by the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) based on the shared cultural traits establishes a very high correlation of mutual sharing of cultural traits among various religious communities. Both studies also observe that a slow but steady process of formation of ‘exclusivist’ cultural identity has been also in operation as a result of historical, economic and political changes in society, which have continued to narrow the cultural space of compositeness in the cultural styles at various levels. However, the soul and spirit of composite culture still remains resilient. Most of the historical and politico-economic factors have been drawn into the communities’ self-consciousness about their culture or local traditions based on the manner in which main cultural discourses in India have evolved during the national movements and even after Independence. It is instructive to keep them in view as they demonstrate the linkages between cultural ideologies and the notion of the ‘composite culture’.

Cultural Ideologies, Movements and Symbolic Constructions

Indian civilization, in course of its evolution, has been continually going through processes of ideological rationalization of its cultural discourses. It has taken many twists and turns with enormous diversity and plurality. Yet, there has existed a continuity and centrality particularly on the debate about the nature and orientation of its principle of cultural unity within diversity. It has a variety of ideological orientations but the debate still goes on. As the processes of development and modernization have gained strength and have also enkindled a strong sense of cultural identity among local and regional cultural entities, this debate has gained much more relevance. The issues of cultural identity are today not only being projected strongly in the discourse on culture but identities are also being continually invented and reinvented.

In contemporary India, discourse on culture with the selfconsciousness of identity is tied to its historical unfolding as a nationstate. It has its beginnings in the colonial discourse on culture. The colonial discourse, which started with the onset of the British rule, had at least three distinct orientations: the missionary, the orientalist and the utilitarian. The missionary discourse on the Indian culture, with its objective of converting the tribal and the Hindu population to Christianity focused its attention on demonstrating the shortcomings of the Hindu religion and its customs; it particularly denigrated the caste system and its mores which legitimized rituals, and social and economic discriminations. It also decried caste because later the missionaries, despite all their effort and support from the regime, had very limited success in conversion, which remained confined to the fringe of the Hindu society. They could not make dent into the mainstream society. But the missionary discourse on Indian culture created very strong reaction within the Hindu society and activated a variety of reform movements.

The oriental discourse led by the European scholars focused mainly upon the philosophical texts, Vedas and Upanisads and so on to construct a picture of Indian culture and traditions. They viewed Indian culture through a comparative perspective of the West and applauded its salient and distinctive contributions. Unlike the missionaries, their discourse on the Indian culture was not adversarial but accommodative and integrative. Their contributions formed the basis of a lively debate in India and abroad about the need towards cultural reciprocity between the East and the West. It also reinforced the forces of cultural renaissance and reforms in India.

The utilitarian discourse on the Indian culture, led by the British administrators was influenced by the philosophy of rationalism and legal positivism dominant in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The British administrators, products of the contemporary intellectual and philosophical ambience of the universities in Britain ideologically championed its values. They, at least many of them, aspired to cast the Indian social system and its cultural values in tune with the new philosophy and its modernization discourse. Hence, they brought about reforms in customary laws, educational systems, codification of the penal and civic laws, establishment of modern judiciary, bureaucracy, military and administrative structure, and attempts towards structural reforms at the selective sectors of economy. For historical reasons and compulsions of colonial interests the momentum of these reforms was moderated, manipulated or even halted in several areas, but it reinforced the process of a new cultural discourse among the intellectuals and social reformers in India. This phase of the culture discourse, however, did contribute to generation of massive data on several aspects of society, language, races, castes and ethnic groups in India, which by implication also prepared the ground for later debates in India on theory and methodology of the culture discourse.

But the most important contribution of this phase of the colonial culture discourse was the upsurge in the reformist movement on the one hand and the beginning of the social science discourse on culture, its theory and methodology on the other. No doubt, the beginning of cultural and social reform movements in India precedes the colonial phase, particularly in the rise of the Bhakti traditions. But the new reform discourse which followed had its idioms drawn from the cultural encounter between the civilizations and systems of the East and the West. The period 1800–1940 saw remarkable cultural, social and political renaissance in India and contributed to a variety of cultural discourses. The mainstream discourse was of course oriented to the modernization paradigm for India. The Brahamo Samaj movement started by Raja Ram Mohun Roy, the Prarthana Samaj of Justice Ranade, the Theosophical Society of Annie Besant, Ramkrishna Mission of Vivekanand, Vishwabharti of Rabindranath Tagore are all oriented to reforms within the Hindu religico-cultural and social system, and simultaneously aim at imbibing the modernizing attributes of the western culture, science and technology. The philosophy of universalism and humanism basic to the Hindu tradition is generally offered in this discourse for a creative rapprochement with the western civilization and culture.

In addition to the cultural discourse which promoted the ideals of cultural synthesis, renaissance and reconciliation there emerged reform movements during this period which drew inspiration entirely from within the Hindu religico-philosophical tradition. The Arya Samaj movement led by Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1875–1883) and his work Satyartha Prakash inaugurated a cultural discourse based on the Vedic traditions. It offered a systemic alternative in the realms of culture, education and institutional reforms in the society. Its agenda also included organized resistance to the attempts by the Christian missions and others towards religious conversion. This movement had a great impact in the North Indian states. It rejected ritualistic Hinduism, caste system and gender discriminations in Hindu society, and to promote these ideals it established its organizational base and its own missions. In the field of education, however, it made major contribution with the involvement of the Hindu middle classes. In many senses it stood for Vedic revivalism and cultural modernization in tune with its basic philosophy of universalism and humanism. But at the same time it was acutely conscious of preserving the exclusionary Hindu identity. At a philosophical level, we find its reiteration in the writings of Sri Aurobindo who aimed at modernization of the Indian civilization based on the traditions of the Gita, the Vedas and the Upanishads. According to him, ‘the future civilization of India will be no more Asiatic modification of European Modernism like the present Japanese civilization, but something truly Indian, and at the same time something of first rate importance for the progress of humanity’.4

Yet another reform discourse on culture, antithetical to the Brahminical tradition emerged during the nineteenth and early twentieth century India. Jyotiba Phule, B.R. Ambedkar, E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker and Swamy Narayan Guru could be mentioned among those who gave this movement a strong and lasting leadership. Based mainly in Maharashtra and South India, this movement directly attacked the Brahminical customs, rules and practices which victimized and exploited the lower and ‘untouchable’ castes. In Ramaswamy’s cultural discourse we find a strong commitment to ‘secular rationalist’ ideology, and yet he made the critique of caste system and its origin in traditionalist Hinduism the focus of his attack. In Kerala, the movement led by Swamy Narayan Guru, which later evolved into the Sree Narayan Dharma Pratipalana (SNDP) movement contributed greatly to the educational and cultural development of the Izhavas. This movement was committed to reforms in Hindu rituals, blending it with secular ideology. In Maharashtra, Phule and later Ambedkar led the movement against caste and Brahminism. The credit for formulating a systematic counter-ideology to Brahminical discourse on culture goes to B.R. Ambedkar. He finally locates this ideology and its normative structure in Ancient Indian Buddhism. In contemporary India, this counter-cultural discourse has intellectually evolved a great deal and inspires the Dalit cultural discourse.5

Evolution of Nation-State and Cultural Ideologies

The discourses on culture inspired by colonialism culminated in the national movement and struggle for freedom. In many ways, the leadership of the various reform movements in culture was also engaged in the nationalist discourse whether their discourse on culture promoted cultural synthesis, cultural exclusiveness or cultural protest. The significance of Gandhi and his leadership of the Indian National Congress mark a major point of evolution in the Indian cultural discourse. However, as the political contours of the national freedom movement gained momentum, ideological, ethnic and religious identities of groups and communities in India emerged with sharper edges. Many latent or semi-rationalized discourses on culture, which had continued from the pre-British times among the various communities and religious groups were increasingly re-evoked and given new form as a discourse as they found new grounds for their legitimization, rationalization and institutionalization (as pressure groups and political parties).

From early twentieth century till India’s Independence, this discourse could be seen evolving into several directions. The major discourses which had greater impact could be the following: the Gandhian and Nehruvian discourse which offered a systemic worldview and led to the formulation of the notion of ‘composite culture’; the Islamic discourse, which had both the nationalist and separatist orientation; the Hindutva discourse which resulted from an ideology of cultural nationalism and also in reaction to the perception that the Hindu society has since long suffered the cultural domination of alien cultures and religions and needed an orthogenetic renaissance. Finally, there emerged, what we could term as the civil society discourse on culture after India gained independence. This discourse is related to India’s evolution as a constitutional republic and the civil rights that it endows on people of India. This is discernable not only in the Constitution of India but also in the cultural policies of the state flowing from the processes of its legitimization and institutionalization. India, after the Partition, and over the past five decades and more, has provided an arena for sharpening of cultural identities, intermeshing of the cultural discourses with the processes and policies of social and economic development, and bringing in the cultural discourse in India to bear upon its political institutions, ideologies and projects.

The Indian freedom movement led by Gandhi and Nehru had ideologically inherited several contradistinct cultural discourses. Among the freedom fighters, one could find the proponents of most of the above cultural discourses as well. However, as time passed, these cultural discourses evolved, sharpened and crystallized. The Gandhian cultural discourse is a part of Gandhi’s ‘worldview of a non-violent moral social order’, which inheres its own project of social, cultural, technological and economic development. It offers scope for celebration of cultural and religious identities of each community, race and religion without envisaging contradistinctions because the varieties of cultural discourses it assumes submerge their counter-pulls into a universalism of the non-violent moral social order. Nehru differed from Gandhi in respect of its practical nuances but fully supported him ideologically. This convergence of normative paradigm in the discourse on culture between Nehru and Gandhi resulted into the ‘civil discourse on culture’. Nevertheless, this discourse does not fully endorse Gandhi’s systemic worldview on culture, polity, economy, science and technology as instruments of ‘development’.6 The perspective of Gandhian internationalism differs in many significant measures from the Nehruvian perspective. The opinion of scholars also differs as to the notion of ‘composite culture’ discourse as held by Gandhi and Nehru respectively, and Gandhi’s view on secular cultural discourse but their total agreement on the policy of cultural pluralism cannot be denied.

The Islamic and the Hindutva discourses on culture resulted mainly on account of India’s colonial encounter with the West, and as a result of India’s intercultural and dialectical movements, which sharpened the quest for identities. These identities sharpened as the freedom movement gained strength. This process no doubt also sharpened the cultural and political consciousness among the Sikhs and Dalits. But Islam and Hinduism have provided major cultural and political impulses to the contending cultural discourse in India since Independence. The partition of the country in 1947 was, at one level, an acknowledgement of the failure of attempts to reconcile the two cultural discourses, which no doubt were embedded deeply in ‘myth, history and reason’.7 Since then, however, India has continually been in pursuit of policies and institutional mechanisms to establish a relationship between the two discourses on culture which could strengthen their bonds of cultural partnership and reconciliation without compromising on their self-consciousness about the cultural identity.

The issue of cultural and political identity of the Muslim community in India sharpened during the early periods of the colonial expansion. The leading role in this process was played by the ashrafs or upper class Muslims and maulanas. The Fara’izis movement led by Shah Walliullah in Bengal, the Delhi School of Islamic thought and the doctrines of al-Wahhab of Saudi Arabia shaped the Islamic cultural discourse in India during the eighteenth century. The Barelwi movement, namely Tariqah-i-Muhammadyah, led by Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi, about the same time offered it reinforcement. These cultural movements were puritanical and aimed at restoring the original doctrinal principles in the practice of Islam to the exclusion of the surviving customs and practices from other cultures. The movement was also directed against the British rule, and the followers of the Barelwi School supported jihad to end the British domination. The Delhi School, represented by the Deoband movement, represents yet another orthodox cultural discourse in Islam. This movement too was inspired by the feeling of opposition to the British rule and gained greater strength after the failure of the 1857 war of Independence. Its major figures were Muhammad Qasim Nunutawi and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi. Apart from its focus upon radical puritanism in Islamic practices, its main contribution was the madarasa movement and formulation of curricula for Islamic education. Through these madarasas it led a cultural movement in Islam.

As different from the orthodox cultural discourses of Barelwi and Deobandi schools, a modern Islamic cultural movement was initiated at Aligarh by Sayyid Ahmad. He also led his movement through educational reforms and the establishment of the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College in 1875 at Aligarh (later, Aligarh Muslim University). But his educational project included teaching of the modern sciences and western traditions of knowledge along with the courses in Islamic theology. He maintained that Muslims should take cognizance of the ‘natural laws’ of science along with their practice of the laws of the Quran and its traditions. Sayyid Ahamad’s cultural discourse was addressed to and led by the ashrafs, the Muslim upper and middle classes, and had strong political overtones. The elites, who were products of this educational movement, contributed significantly to the political uprising of the Muslim League, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. This movement ultimately led to the Partition. However, these exclusionary cultural discourses in Islam had also thrown up a large community of scholars, middle class elites and ulema who followed the nationalist ideology of the Indian National Congress. A large section of the Muslim elite and masses participated in movements countering the Muslim League ideology in favour of the nationalist discourse. Many of them were proponents of the ‘composite culture’ discourse within a secular framework. Indeed, the large majority of the Muslim peasants, artisans and working classes remained always marginally affected by the political ideology of the Muslim League or the exclusionary cultural discourse of the Islamic orthodoxy.

These two factors, the partnership of a sizable section of the Muslim elite with the Indian National Congress and other secular political forces and the marginal influence of the exclusionary Islamic orthodoxy upon the mainstream Muslim population explains as to how India after Independence has been able to maintain a certain level of stability in the cultural discourse between the Hindus and the Muslims and other cultural minorities despite the shock of Partition. But this stability continues to remain fragile.

The Hindutva discourse on culture, which today occupies a very significant space in the debate on the rise of cultural nationalism in India, is based on an ideology that equates the Hindu cultural and social renaissance with the Indian cultural renaissance. It has its own construction of the ‘insider-outsider’ in its cultural discourse, which it associates with complex sets of historical, cultural and political experiences of the past about the domination by ‘aliens’ over the Hindus in India. In concrete terms, conversion of Hindus to Islam and Christianity during the Muslim and British political regimes is offered as evidence of persecution and domination. The All India Hindu Mahasabha (1910) and the Rashtriya Swyam Sevak Sangh (RSS) (1925) were the two main organizations which promoted the Hindutva ideology. V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar are the two main ideological proponents of the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, respectively. The former functioned mainly as a political party and organization. Its fortunes as a political and cultural movement rose and fell from time to time, but as a political party it could never overwhelm the Indian National Congress. Its influence, particularly after Independence, waned considerably. The history of the RSS movement is just its opposite. It made a slow and steady beginning during the mid-twentieth century and was briefly banned as an organization after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, but it soon resurrected itself and has today expanded its organizational base and its reach to almost all parts of India. It runs scores of organizations for welfare, education, social and economic development and empowerment of the Hindu communities. Its collateral organizations, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal have proactive or even radical activist goals and ideologies. RSS and its collateral organizations are now no longer confined to India; they have a global presence among the Hindu Indian Diaspora.

The Hindu Mahasabha functioned as a political party despite its cultural agenda. But the RSS always functioned as a cultural organ, particularly among the Hindu youth whom it mobilized through shakhas or physical and educational training. It later decided, however, to sponsor a political party, Jana Sangha, which remained mainly confined to the north, and most other political parties dubbed it as ‘communal’ and avoided allying with it. Following Indira Gandhi’s declaration of Emergency, when most of the leaders of the opposition parties were imprisoned, the Jana Sangha changed its strategy. After the Emergency ended, it launched itself as a new political party, the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), which was more acceptable to the mainstream opposition parties. In the 1977 general elections, as Indira Gandhi was voted out of power, the BJP as a coalition partner of the ruling opposition for the first time carved out a political space for itself in national politics. Since then it has made its presence felt nationally and has been the leader of a ruling coalition (the National Democratic Alliance) in the central government. In a political ambiance which has regionalized Indian politics, BJP projects itself as a pan-India political organization with a ‘nationalist ideology’. During its reign, however, the BJP found itself ideologically torn between its commitments to cultural nationalism and the need to lead a coalition where most parties did not really subscribe to its idea of cultural nationalism, and were largely committed to a secular political ideology.

The civil discourse of culture emanates from the fundamental normative principles of the Indian republic. It is anchored in the principles of secularism, civil rights and fundamental freedoms, which accord special protection to religious and ethnic minorities. It also makes provisions for positive discrimination in favour of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the Backward Classes. This has rendered it imperative for the BJP to modify its radical cultural nationalism to a dialogic one in its political agenda. As we observe, the BJP’s pull towards cultural nationalism is continually moderated by the imperatives of the constitutional discourse of culture. As the process of economic and educational development gains momentum, it enkindles a very strong sense of cultural identity among the ethnic, religious and regional communities in India. These identities have to be accommodated to strengthen the process of nation-building. Indeed, soon after Independence, the Indian state recognized this fact and many policies in pursuance of this need were adopted. For instance, linguistic reorganization of the state boundaries, the national language policy, the division of the subjects between the states and the central government and the flexible approaches in fiscal, financial and planning matters between the centre and the states. But the overarching role in this process has been that of the Indian democracy.

Inclusion, Exclusion and Cultural Identity

The cultural discourses we have discussed so far gave sharper edges to the consciousness of identities. A complex set of factors gave fillip to it, for instance, the common perception of the threat of the western cultural domination and conversion to Christianity both among the Hindus and Muslims. This was accompanied by the fear among the Hindus of conversion to Islam, before the British rule, and during the Partition. The perception that the colonial regime would disrupt basic cultural and social institutions also spurred the consolidation of identities. The colonial policies and instruments of governance, such as the social reform legislations, new educational policies, codification of laws, the Census operations and so on promoted construction of cultural identities. The identities of caste, religion and ethnicity, language and region etc., sharpened as never before. The principles of ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ in the realm of culture were products of this process. And its march has not yet ceased. The inclusionary and exclusionary discourses of culture, in fact, have played a major role in the construction of national, religious and ethnic identities in the past and they continue to perform that role.

All the salient cultural discourses we have discussed so far had their respective ideology of exclusion and inclusion. The colonial discourse, on one hand promoted inclusionary identities through the creation of a national legal framework for cultural interaction, and on the other hand, its administrative policies promoted the identities of caste, region, language and ethnicity. The reform movements, too, operated ideologically at the levels where both inclusion and exclusion was promoted. For instance, the orthodox Islamic movements which enjoined upon the Muslim to give up non-Islamic practices borrowed from other cultures, e.g., Hindus and tribes, promoted the inclusionary ideology of Islamic umma or nationality, trying to forge unity among more than 300 Muslim communities (according to ASI 1992) living in various cultural regions of India. Today, the cultural nationalistic ideology is confronted with several competing inclusionary cultural discourses inspired by the imperatives of democracy, civil society and the forces of globalization and liberalization of economy, culture and society. The irony is that the processes of inclusion-exclusion are governed not only by religion but are also deeply influenced by the forces of economic and educational development, and the perception of inequalities, cultural domination and exploitation by a set of castes and communities by others within the same religion. The exclusionary movements of the Dalits in India illustrate this. There can be many other examples. It appears that the inclusionary ideology which is anchored in the democratic process and institutions and aims at promoting the civic culture has the optimum possibilities in nation-building in India in the midst of the competing ideologies.

Sociology of Composite Culture: Cultural Complex and Cultural Order

A methodologically viable approach for conceptualizing the sociology of composite culture necessitates the formulation of analytical distinction between the notions of ‘cultural complex’ and that of ‘cultural order’. Cultural complex comprises the totality of various dimensions of social, economic, political and religious life of a community or communities with which various aspects of cultural symbolisms, cultural beliefs and practices are deeply interwoven. This totality of values, beliefs and customs, and stylized practices etc., constitutes the life-ways of the people and constitutes their culture. Culture is deeply influenced by the varieties of ‘dimensions’ through which it is socially and historically reflected but none of these singly determine its nature. Hence, it would be erroneous to reduce culture to the level of any one of the social dimensions, religious, political or economic. It has its own distinctive presence and an evolutionary or developmental trajectory. As such, culture has its own structure and organization. It is from this quality of culture, or its overlapping presence represented on several other ‘dimensions’ of social life each forming a specific ‘cultural complex‘ or a subcultural dimension derived from and bearing the influence of the total cultural structure in any particular society that the legitimacy of the notion of composite culture is derived. For instance, when such cultural overlap takes place in respect of the religious cultural dimension, such as in case of the sacred spaces (represented by cities or towns of religious sanctity having the centrality of their social and economic life strategically linked with sacred sites, temples, mosques or churches etc.), social anthropologists designate them as ‘sacred complex’. Several studies of such sacred sites have been conducted in India using the notion of sacred complex by social anthropologists. L.P. Vidyarthy has studied the sacred city of Gaya following the methodology of Robert Redfield and the notion of the ‘sacred complex’.8 Similarly, the studies of ‘political culture’, ‘culture and economy’, ‘culture and socialization’ within the systems of kinship and family have dealt with the dimensional aspect of the total culture. Hence, it is obvious that the totality of a people’s culture has its historical presence and evolutionary or developmental trajectory in a manner that is sui generis and the process remains oriented to the maintenance of the ‘core’ or the ‘pattern’ with a logic of its own self-integration, assimilation and adaptation. The notion of ‘compositeness’ of culture derives its theoretical legitimacy from this quality of culture.

Hence, invariably cultural systems have a social organization and a ‘cultural order’. It includes cultural specialists, functionaries, leaders and the cultural order/stratification of power and authority. Cultural specialists or its interpreters (rationalizes or ideologues) have existed in human societies from their early tribal existence who also formed the cultural leadership of such societies. As societies evolve through time and history, the ‘cultural order’ and its system of rationalization becomes more and more complex. Also, it begins increasingly to get interlinked with or impinge upon, as well as it gets more and more impacted by, extra-cultural ‘dimensions’ of social life, such as polity, economy and social structure. The society becomes more self-conscious and protective of cultural identities. It leads to the processes of formulation of the domains of ‘exclusion’ and ‘inclusion’ in the cultural system. Particularly, the institutions of state and economic order which have a level of primacy in social order along with culture begin to impinge more acutely on the cultural system. Hence, often the discourse on ‘composite culture’ ceases to remain cultural but gets deeply and sensitively bound by issues that are primarily political, economic or religious. However, it is well to recognize that such inter-dimensional discourses about culture are unavoidable considering the composite nature of all cultures.

Composite Culture: Empirical Foundations and Changes

Earlier, we have briefly reviewed the mainstream cultural ideologies with a view to finding out as to how far the contemporary cultural situation across communities, religions and regions in India has evolved in consonance with those ideologies and to what extent in substantive terms the phenomenon of ‘composite culture’ has subsisted in India through myriad forces of modernization and social change. This can further be established with the help of empirical investigation of the ground realities preferably by a combined strategy of micro-macro explorations of cultural behaviour and ideologies of people. We have some empirical evidence from the ethnographic and cultural studies of villages9 and all-India cultural survey of India sponsored by the ASI10 which throws up some insights both from micro and macro perspectives in regard to the continuities and changes in the ‘composite culture’ in contemporary India.

The village provides us a view of the cultural complex of communities in India. The term ‘village community’, which is popularly used in social science vocabulary, is indeed a misnomer. Very few villages in India are formed of a single community. The village social structure consisted of an interactive system of communities drawn from different castes, sub-castes, ethnicities and religions. On top of this, prevailed the institutional order recognized by the state which legitimated village governance, its economic system and socio-cultural practices. The traditional institution of the jajmani system, which implied occupational interdependence of castes and communities in the village economy and the ritual and ceremonial order of the village, constituted its cultural ‘complex’ as it were. This cultural complex was such that each community or set of communities depending upon their religious and ethnic traditions articulated and practiced their specific cultural pursuits. In addition, there existed significant domains of cultural practices which were inter-communitarian in nature encompassing the communities drawn from a variety of religious traditions and belief systems. Overarching these two levels was the cultural role of the administrative systems of economy and power structure of the village legitimized by the state. The village zamindars under a joint-zamindari system in these villages constituted this level of the cultural complex of the village. This three tiered structure of the cultural complex of the traditional villages in the Himalayan Tarai (Basti District in Eastern U.P.) to which our data refer, helps us in drawing the cultural boundaries of the practices of culture, belief systems and the modes of cultural participation of members of the traditional village communities. The first level, of a single community, represents the domain of ‘cultural identity’ of exclusive cultural practices, rituals and belief systems specific to a particular community in the village. It primarily focused upon their religion and ethnic practices. The second level, of intercommunity cultural transactions and interaction, traditionally constituted the major domain of the ‘composite culture’. It had its basis in a ‘cultural order’, which was multidimensional and formed its third tier. One part of this composite culture had its roots in composite culture and its order, but the other part was linked with the systems of economy and the state. Hence, the third tier of this cultural complex also included the role of the state’s administrative and socio-economic structure such as the zamindars and the revenue and civil officials who despite their deriving legitimacy of their authority from outside the cultural domain did contribute to the maintenance of this cultural complex of which composite culture was a salient and general attribute. The structural features of this composite culture were reflected in periodic organization and supervision of ritual festivals both of the Hindus and Muslims, the fairs and ritual gatherings at the sacred abodes of the folk deities, the mazars of Muslim saints, and rituals and ceremonials associated with the calendar cycles of seasons, agricultural and other occupational activities of communities and the sacred geography of the village. The zamindars in the region comprised Muslims, Rajputs, Brahmins and Kayasthas professing different caste and religious affiliations and yet they too periodically sponsored cultural meets, festivals, drama and dance performances both of the classical and folk origins and a host of other cultural activities in which all communities across several villages would participate irrespective of differences of caste, class or religion. This further provided a space for reiteration of composite culture. The composite culture functioned and held sway in this social structural system without, however, encroaching upon or threatening the space of exclusive cultural identity of a religious or ethnic community. Even when the Hindu or the Muslim zamindars were invited for social occasions at each other’s residence where commensality was involved, the families took care to have separate kitchen, cooks and utensils and so on, and this was considered normal. The domain of composite culture did not threaten the quest for cultural identity of a religious or ethnic community.

This equilibrium of identities of cultures with composite culture has continued for decades or even centuries in this region where about one fourth of population comprises of Muslims. A fresh dynamics in this equilibrium was introduced by political and cultural forces released by the national movement which kindled both patriotic fervour as well as religious sectarian politics in the region. Identities began to be imbued with new meanings with more focus upon exclusionary notion of culture. A case in point is the observation of Muharram in one of the villages. Most of the Muslims in this village were Sunni and yet observed Muharram with enormous zeal and fervour up to the end of 1940s. Commemorative tazias (replicas of the tomb) were built with total community participation committing substantial funds and skills. Tazias were built exhorting sacred reverence not only by Muslims but also by most Hindu artisans and peasants. Hindus actively participated in chanting the commemorative dirges (mercia) with rhythmic dances and beating cymbals and drums on the occasion of the sacred procession. The Hindu zamindars sponsored Muharram activities and extended fullest moral and material support.

By the end of the 1940s, agrarian movement against the zamindars led by the Congress party gained momentum. The tension between the zamindars and their peasant tenants gained ground. Communities were now polarized on class basis cutting across religion and caste. This resulted in a dispute between the zamindars of the village and the Muslim artisans and tenants at the next occasion of Muharram on the title of the burial ground for the tazias. Tension increased in the village and state administration and police force had to intervene. For fear of police repression most Hindus dissociated themselves from construction of tazias and its ritual activities. The next year onwards, Muharram by and large took the form of an exclusive ceremony of the Muslim. Still later, when the ideological divide between the Sunni and Shia Muslims in the region gather sharpness, the fervour of Muharram ceremonial in this village became still muted and half-hearted. Today, Muharram is observed in the village but enthusiasm and participation is not the same. More pre-eminently it is treated as a ceremonial of the Shia Muslims exclusively. In the cultural complex of the village the space for composite culture has been accordingly rendered narrower over time, although Muharram even now continues to represent aspects of composite culture in the rural society of this region. The cultural structure, its organization and the style of people’s participation in composite culture has undergone changes as the social and political movements have introduced new elements in the cultural complex of the villages in the region.

The cultural complex has changed radically, following Independence due to the abolition of the Zamindari system and land reforms and introduction of a series of civil reforms in the governance of rural communities and their economy. The third tier of the traditional cultural complex of the village and its cultural order has disappeared. The introduction of electoral party politics and the new Panchayat system in the villages has sharpened the identities of communities, castes and religious groups. The system of positive discrimination in favour of some castes or communities and exclusion of others, the caste and community oriented political mobilization and skewed form of social mobility in the rural social structure has deeply affected the nature of the traditional cultural complex of the villages. The social-structural foundation of the traditional composite culture based on a three-tier order of cultural participation has witnessed changes, which render it obsolescent in contemporary times. Increasingly, the space vacated by the traditional order of culture, for instance the one represented by the zamindars and colonial administration has been replaced by political order and civil society. The social nature of the communitarian relationships in the village have been politicized on lines of religion, caste and ethnicity. The older order of cultural complex of the villages in which the traditional forms of composite culture flourished and was sustained now no longer finds sustenance in the village. On top of other changes, the rural communities are under pressure to link up with a wider world to cater to their needs for gainful employment, a reasonable quality of life and cultural survival in an increasingly globalizing world. The pressures of urbanization, out-migration and diversification in the agrarian economy add to the processes of fragmentation of the traditional structure of village communities and their cultural order.

Under these circumstances, the preservation of the composite culture in the rural society today has shifted from its traditional organizing principles of cultural order and cultural complex of the village. The cultural identities of communities based on religion, caste, language and ethnicity has become stronger. But it does not even today erase the presence of composite culture from the cultural landscape of the village. Its form has, however, undergone changes and its space has shrunk. The composite culture of the village communities is now reflected more at the points of intersection among the sacred, the civil and the recreational aspects of cultural activities. This is commensurate with the emerging new cultural order of the villages in which boundaries between the sacred and secular domains of culture are being sharply drawn. For instance, the presence of composite culture remains visible and persistent wherever the sacred spots, tombs and temples of saint reformers are concerned. People irrespective of their religious difference continue to pay homage to such places and saintly souls. The cult of the reformer saints remain widespread and provides a strong basis for the presence of composite culture. Apart from these sacred domains, now composite cultural activities are reflected in the civil organization of cultural activities undertaken by the village councils and community associations on an inter-communitarian or multi-communitarian basis. The varied patterns of political activities led by the political lobbies and political parties in their mobilization strategy invoke cultural motifs and symbolic forms of cultural representation which for strategic reasons articulate composite culture. The attributes of composite culture also persists wherever there is the interface between culture and economy, such as in the stylization of specialized skills in craft, manufacturing, masonry, carpentry and smithy and so on. At the macro-social level this aspect of the composite culture has been found to be intact on a range of cultural attributes from purely sacred to entirely secular ones among the communities in India.

The Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) undertook a national project on the ‘People of India’ whose findings support high level of positive correlation between the cultural traits of communities irrespective of differences of religion. Its findings highlight the cultural plurality of India and demonstrate the strong normative and structural bonds of unity within India. It also affirms the shared cultural practices and technologies across the religious, ethnic and regional divides in India. For the study of culture, it has used the ‘indicators’ approach making observation of 700 cultural ‘traits’ within the material-nonmaterial range of culture. It concludes, ‘there is very high correlation of traits between SCs (scheduled castes) and STs (scheduled tribes), between STs and Hindus, between Hindus and Sikhs and between Hindus and Muslims (which is very high indeed)’.11 It reports that India has ninety-one major cultural regions in terms of the clustering of traits; bilingualism in India has increased from 9.7 per cent in 1961 to 64.2 per cent in 1992. The consumption of non-vegetarian food, alcohol and smoking is very widely in vogue. Smoking is not only common among men, about 42 per cent women also smoke. India comprises 4,634 communities and each religious group is divided into multiple communities, more than 300 among Muslims, above 200 among Christians and over 100 among the Sikhs and Jains. Most Indian communities consider themselves migrants from other regions of India and have a perception of India as an area where they will realize their ‘potential’. The ASI study of the People of India suggests the enormous potential that exists among Indians for cultural adaptability, sharing and partnership and psychic and physical mobility.

Composite Culture and Multiculturalism

In a globalizing India, with increasing fragmentation of identities on the one hand, and the emergence of new cultural domains of collective partnerships and associations on the other, the relevance of composite culture or its alternatives assume a great deal of significance. India has forged its civilization society on the basis of consolidation of a shared cultural space across the divide of communities, regions, languages and religions over a period of several millennia. This civilization society has nourished and celebrated the presence of composite culture. In large parts it continues to subsist. But as our analysis of the ethnographic and survey data reveal, the continuance of composite culture as represented in the traditional order of culture and cultural complexes of India is under sever pressure and is getting eroded. It is mainly because of the increasing obsolescence of the traditional cultural order on account of the modern forces of competitive politics, uneven economic growth and the tensions arising out of the impediments to social and cultural mobility among a large number of communities. This has reinforced self-consciousness of cultural identities among communities on lines of religion, ethnicity, caste and language etc. However, most such catalytic factors in the consolidation of exclusivist identities being universal, the challenges of forging a shared cultural space for all communities is global in nature. Yet, the Indian experience has a unique character. Here, the exclusive aspects of cultural identity of a community such as religious beliefs and rituals were accepted by all communities, but beyond this exclusive domain there existed a very vast space where cultural practices, normative systems and institutions were shared in common. This defined the scope of the composite culture. Such experience has been alien to the Euro-American and some other civilization societies.

Hence, faced with the indispensability of living with communities of dissimilar cultures, resulting mainly because of increased pace of in-migration from less developed economies (a result of past colonialism and contemporary processes of globalization) the Euro-American societies have proposed strategies to meet with the new problem. Multiculturalism is one such proposed alternative. Multiculturalism implies legitimization of cultural, ethnic and racial differences among communities professing different belief systems, religion and customs by their institutionalization. Charles Taylor proposed ‘public recognition of cultural difference’12 to overcome problems of conflict arising out of cultural differences. This approach has a specific historicity which has little relevance for India. The notion of composite culture, on the other hand implies a pattern of intercultural sharing and reciprocities among communities which has existed in India since ancient times. It recognizes difference among cultures of various communities only at their individual religious and ritual levels of traditions but in most other cultural domains co-sharing and commonalities are accepted and promoted in an inter-communitarian mode of participation. Composite culture is essentially multi-communitarian. This ‘multi-communitarianism’ has the elasticity of cultural accommodation of differences of cultural denominations of a variety of communities and faiths. A.R. Momin writes:

The idea of multi-communitarianism has been derived from the composite, syncretic civilizational legacy of India, which is a product of centuries of interaction, exchange and accommodation between Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and Christian traditions. Despite the tragic partition of the Indian subcontinent along religious lines and the current atmosphere of communal polarization and mistrust, this composite legacy remains an inseparable part of Indian society. Hundreds of millions of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and other communities living in the country’s innumerable villages and small towns continue to share material traits, social and cultural spaces and regional ethos and identity.13

Despite this continuity, composite culture of India does face the challenges of a modernizing and globalizing social, economic and cultural order which throw up newer facets of normative principles and practices. Indian cultural traditions have so far shown enormous adaptive resilience to the challenges of modernization and globalization, economic as well as cultural. Yet it would be strategically sound to weld the inter-communitarian and multi-communitarian ethos of composite culture with emerging new cultural ideologies and norms based on social justice, freedom and democracy. These would inevitably emanate from the principles of civil society, which promotes equality, freedom, human rights and well being of all communities irrespective of their differences of ethnicity, religion, language or caste. What is characterized, as ‘civic culture’ by political thinkers would indeed become an organic component of the new order of composite culture in India?