A general theory of India

The standard travel writer’s summary of India is that it’s a mixture of medieval and modern. But it’s not. That’s a lazy, historically illiterate cliche, which is at the same time both too harsh and too generous.

It’s too harsh, because even the most archaic values and standards of Indian society are superior to those of European medieval society. A much more appropriate comparison would be to our “early modern” period: the 1500s-1700s.

It’s also too generous, in assuming that India has any modern element mixed in. Just because it has 21st century technology, doesn’t mean that it has any 21st century values. Its society is not just partly early modern: it’s entirely early modern.

Digging a well in a village near Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh

There are two reasons for supposing that India is, in some respects, on a social par with 21st century Europe: the presence of modern technology (and a tech industry), and the existence of liberal, progressive Indians, particularly in the upper echelons of Indian society. But neither of these make its society wholly or even partly modern.

Adding technology to a society doesn’t make it a different type of society, at least not immediately. Technology might have a socially transformative effect over time, but 16th century society + computers 21st century society. Perhaps the writers who use the “medieval and modern” cliche specifically mean “medieval culture and modern tech”, but I don’t think they do. It’s unwise to assume that because Indians communicate with mobile phones, the content of their communications express the same opinions, values and social mores as westerners.

The existence of liberal, progressive Indians is a better argument that some parts of India are more socially advanced. But their number is vanishingly small compared to the total population of 1 billion people. Also, the wealthy elites in early modern society were more liberal and progressive than the general population. They were educated and had contempt for popular superstitions; they quietly tolerated extra-marital relationships and homosexuality; women were freer to take a more publicly influential role. These same traits in wealthy middle-class Indians might seem modern to us, but they’re also perfectly consistent with an un-modern society, being at the progressive end of the early modern spectrum of values.

Here are some of the defining features of a medieval society, none of which are applicable to India:

  • Feudal hierarchy, with power struggles between monarchs and nobles
  • Weak government and practically non-existent administration and record-keeping
  • Working classes almost universally employed in agriculture, and illiterate
  • Culture and education controlled by religious institutions
  • Unquestioned religious hegemony

And here are some of the defining features of an early modern society, all of which are applicable to India:

  • Fledgling democracy in conflict with more traditional forms of power
  • Consolidated central government and an explosion of bureaucracy
  • A rich and powerful business class replacing an obsolescent aristocracy
  • Increasing urbanisation of the working class
  • Increasing literacy, and political awareness through mass media
  • Growth of secular education
  • Religious fragmentation, conflict and violence

India has a relatively young democracy — 60 years is young in historical terms — which is still subject to dynastic dominance and autocratic interruptions. The royal families of former princely states have been stripped of their titles, but still retain significant wealth, power and in many cases political offices, much like the savvier nobility of early modern Europe, who transformed themselves into parliamentarians. The business class of modern India enjoys a level of wealth inequality which is comparable to that of European capitalists in the early days before it was countered by the unionism and revolutionary struggles which characterised modern European history. India’s urbanisation is now around 30%, comparable to Europe around 1800, and only rose above the 10-15% typical of early modern Europe in the last few decades. The literacy rate is about 75%, similar to early modern Europe, and the population is politically informed through newspapers, TV and the internet (the modern-tech equivalents of pamphlets and the theatre). Outbreaks of deadly riots and massacres between religious groups (mainly Hindu-Muslim) are commonplace in a way they haven’t been in Europe since the catholic-protestant conflicts of the early modern era. For example, while I was there, 62 people were murdered in the Muzaffarnagar riots less than 100km from parts of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand that I was travelling around.

The Ganges being treated similarly to the Thames circa 1500

So, India is a society which, politically and socially, closely resembles European society 200-400 years ago, with added modern technology. Why is this the case? I have a theory, but it’s based on a broader paradigm of historical progress, which is personal speculation and far from mainstream.

In essence, social change happens as a result of chaos and violence. In Europe, we’ve had almost constant violence from antiquity through to the 20th century, and we’ve seen constant social change as a result. In India, the turmoil which drives social change stopped at the end of the early modern period, when British administration began and suppressed it. Any violence which happened in the next 200 years was focused against the British, so Indian society itself remained in stasis. That’s why India today seems like it’s been teleported directly from 1750 to 1950 (and given futuristic toys to play with).

Consider the major sources of conflict in Europe since the early modern period, and the social effects they’ve had. The religious wars between Protestants and Catholics caused widespread suffering, but ultimately resulted in the acceptance of religious freedom and tolerance. Urbanisation and wealth inequality led to class revolts and revolutionary wars, and these led to greater rights and freedoms for workers, and more equitable economic development and wealth distribution. The catastrophic conflicts of the early to mid 20th century catalysed broad social changes: communist revolutions and socialist governments across Europe, universal suffrage, secularisation and human rights. The major social changes in the post-war era – the counterculture, feminism, the sexual revolution and civil rights struggles – were delayed ramifications of the Second World War. The generations who’ve grown up in the post-war pax americana have had no experience of conflict, and have driven no social changes on the scale of those which were effectively complete by 1970.

India, on the other hand, had peace forced upon it by Europeans, and ‘missed out’ on the 200 years of conflict and social change which those same Europeans had at home. The last period of home-grown political transformation, social reorganisation, turmoil and conflict on the subcontinent was the rise of the Mughal Empire, which was founded in the mid-1500s and had its heyday in the 1600s. In the 1700s it began to collapse, and the British traders of the East India Company were sucked into the power vacuum in a gradual process which eventually led to them ruling the entire region. Under the relatively stable and benign administration of the East India Company and then the British Empire, Indians were protected from conflict, both from external threats and amongst themselves.

This is an issue on which I changed my mind while I was travelling in India. Previously, I was inclined to the view that the British Raj was, on balance, good for India. Yes, the British caused a lot of death and destruction in their conquest of the country, and in the suppression of revolts during their rule. They plundered the wealth of the country to enrich the home nation, and they weren’t always as effective at managing crises like famine and disease as they could have been. But what would have happened if the British had never established themselves in India? It would probably have been colonised by the French instead, and judging by their behaviour in French Indochina, I don’t think it would have turned out any better. But suppose that no Europeans had gone there at all, and the history of the subcontinent had unfolded without western interference. What then?

We can only speculate, but I can’t think of any plausible scenario in which there’d have been less war and suffering. In fact it seems likely there’d have been a hell of a lot more. The various groups and entities which were on the rise as the Mughal Empire declined — the Marathas, Rajputs and Sikhs, the kingdoms of Nepal, Mysore, Hyderabad and the various quasi-autonomous Mughal provinces — would have fought amongst themselves, and been succeeded by other powers who would have continued to fight. And that’s without considering other neighbouring powers, like the Persians, Russians, Chinese or Burmese, who could have invaded and caused even more devastation.

The Rani of Jhansi, one of the leaders of the fight against the British during the Indian Mutiny

As John Keay says in his India: A History, the question isn’t whether the British were right or wrong in their conquest and administration of India, but whether India could have been dragged into modernity with any less bloodshed. My feeling on the second question has been, and remains, no. But what I started to doubt as I travelled around the country and saw the state of its social development, was whether it had been dragged into modernity at all. Without the freedom to tear itself apart in religious, economic and social conflicts between ~1750 and 1947, its development in all those areas stagnated.

There’s a certain threshold of violence which causes a whole society to seek peace and reconciliation, and put an end to violence. Anything below that threshold just provokes fear and animosity, and continues the cycle of violence. The death of a thousand people is a regrettable tragedy, but no more. It takes the death of a million to trigger major social change.

Take religious conflict, for example. India has seen plenty of it. Notable incidents include the massacres during Partition, Operation Blue Star and its aftermath, the Bombay riots of 1992-3 and the 2002 Gujarat violence. However, small scale incidents (less than 100 victims) occur routinely. None of them are big enough to create a consensus across Indian society that they must be stopped. Even the estimated million deaths during Partition were a drop in the ocean of India’s 350 million population of the time.

Compare the devastation of the religious wars in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Thirty Years’ War alone is estimated to have caused 8 million deaths, and a 25-40% reduction in the population of the German states. Or imagine living through the religious persecutions in England, and alternating between being the persecutors and persecuted, as monarchs of different allegiance came and went. I’m not saying that I would wish such horror on India. But what I am saying is that the reason Europe has religious tolerance now is that we went through a period of religious conflict which devastated entire nations. India has not.

The Second World War is another good example. Vaste swathes of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and East Asia became operational theatres of the war, and suffered terribly. The Axis nations were devastated in defeat, and even the Allies had fought to the point of collapse. But India was left pretty much unscathed. Apart from a brief period when it looked like the Japanese might break out of Burma, the subcontinent was never seriously threatened. The maximum size of the British Indian Army was 2.5 million men, of which about 87,000 were killed. Most of India’s 1945 population of 330 million barely noticed WW2.

A much more pressing issue for Indians was the ongoing struggle for self-determination, including the Quit India campaign from 1942. Indians therefore have no experience or folk memory of fascism and nazism, and very poor awareness of what those things mean. This is why, for example, they have no shame in glorifying as a freedom fighter the Nazi collaborator Subash Chandra Bose.

Subhas Chandra Bose statue in Calcutta (by Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons)

Under the generally benign administration of the British Raj, the conflicts which could have driven social change within India were suppressed. For almost two centuries, Indians were unable to struggle to redefine traditional social hierarchies, redistribute the unequal extremes of wealth and power, or work their way towards some kind of understanding and tolerance between religions. Instead, their only conflict and demand for social change was the campaign to get rid of the British. In 1947 they achieved independence, but were left with a nation and society which hadn’t progressed through internal conflict since the middle of the 18th century.

Change results from trauma, and the bigger the trauma the bigger the change. In Europe, a constant series of great conflicts have led to what we consider the modern world and an enlightened, liberal society. But while Europe moved itself forward by struggle, India stagnated under sedentary European administration. It is yet to experience trauma powerful enough to drag it into modernity.

2 thoughts on “A general theory of India

  1. You are way off the mark in saying that India did not experience religious conflicts. No other country has experienced as much religious conflict as India. Remember India was under Islamic rule for 1000 years beginning from the 8th century. One example- The entire Hindu population was wiped out of the land of Kashmir under threat of death by sword or drowning in the Dal lake, or converted. About 50,000 Hindus were said to have perished defending the single temple of Somnath against Abdali. The then richest city in the world, Vijayanagar, was systematically destroyed over a period of six months after massacring the population. There is recorded eevidence of 30,000 Hindu temples being destroyed including the magnificent Shiva temple at Warangal, and even more magnificent Sun temples at Martand(Kashmir), and Konark. No ancient temple exists in North India. They have all been wiped out.
    It is difficult to keep track over a period of 1000 years, but unconfirmed reports put the number of Hindus killed be Muslims at 80 million. This of course does not take into account the inquisitions by Vasco da Gama in Goa and Kerala.

    • Actually, I said India did experience religious conflict: “plenty of it” in fact. The difference is the scale, and in particular, the number of casualties in proportion to the total population: a rough measure of societal suffering.

      Even if your 80 million in 1,000 years figure is accurate – and I take all such hyperbolic statements about ancient Indian history with a pinch of salt – that’s still an order of magnitude less, in intensity, than the better-documented 8 million over the course of the Thirty Years’ War. Also, that affected a smaller population: up to half of the population was destroyed across much of central Europe.

      That said, I’m interested in reading more on the Hindu genocides you’ve mentioned. Can you give me some sources?

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