Hierarchy, Dependence, Equality and Democracy

In connection with the discussion on dynastic succession, our reader had helped clarify our thinking by characterizing both traditional monarchy and traditional religion as institutions marked by hierarchical relations between human beings (see Monarchy, Religion, Hierarchy and Modernity). Further, the point was made that in societies ruled by such institutions hierarchical relations were not limited but extended to all social relationships.

The interesting question that followed was “What is wrong with hierarchy itself?” The answer was contained in the alternative that was posited by the reader: The alternative to hierarchy is not necessarily individualism, just equality.

The importance of this distinction ensues from the realization that hierarchies can never really be eliminated—if nothing else, the hierarchy of knowledge is likely to persist. For example, the hierarchy between an expert and a layperson (say a physician and patient, lawyer and client) cannot easily be eliminated. Nor does it need to be as long as it can be ensured that the expert would not able to exploit this dominance by making the client act against his or her personal interests. And this is where political and social equality come in accompanied by access to an independent recourse to justice.

And this leads to an important conclusion: Our struggle is not against hierarchy but for equality, both social and political. The link between hierarchy and dependence needs to be broken. And our commentator was right in suggesting that a monarchy based not on divine right but on a social contract would be moving in this direction.

(It is important to note that the hierarchy of incomes (income inequality) will also persist. But this is not synonymous with social inequality. That it remains the case in South Asia, with important implications, is an issue we will take up in a later discussion.)

For the moment, we elaborate on political equality and its fundamental importance to democratic governance. Tocqueville describes the link as follows: “Equality, which makes men independent of one another, naturally gives them the habit and taste to follow nobody’s will but their own in their private affairs…. This love of independence is the first and most striking feature of the political effects of equality…. As each [individual] sees himself little different from his neighbors, he cannot understand why a rule applicable to one man should not be applied to all the rest… and legislative uniformity strikes him as the first condition of good government.” 

Tocqueville is very clear about the relationship of equality and independence to the system of governance: “Since in times of equality no man is obliged to put his powers at the disposal of another, and no one has any claim of right to substantial support from his fellow man, each is both independent and weak… Men’s hatred of privilege increases as privileges become rarer and less important, the flame of democratic passion apparently blazing the brighter the less fuel there is to feed it.” On the other hand, “When conditions are unequal, no inequality, however great, offends the eye.”

As our reader noted: “In a democracy, political officials *represent* or stand in for their people in a particular role and are equal to them in fundamental ways.” Once this equality is compromised, the political system begins to transform itself into a patron-client formulation with all its attendant consequences.

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82 Responses to “Hierarchy, Dependence, Equality and Democracy”

  1. SouthAsian Says:

    The BBC has provided this description of the caste system. Is it accurate?


    • Vikram Says:

      “Manusmriti, widely regarded to be the most important and authoritative book on Hindu law and dating back to at least 1,000 years before Christ was born”

      The very first line is false.

      First the easy part, Manusmriti is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, with scholars now leaning towards the later end of that spectrum.


      Second, there is not even one Manusmriti. Various versions have been found which are all inconsistent with each other. Also, although it was influential, there is no evidence that it was treated as law in any Hindu polity.


      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vikram: Thanks. Is the rest of the write-up accurate in its description of the caste system?

        • Vikram Says:

          SA, the problem with the article is its insistence on locating caste rigidly within the framework of Hindu religion. In the most extreme case, such a perspective leads to statements like ‘Caste is the soul of Hinduism’.

          It is useful to start by distinguishin varna and jati. Jati is thought of as primordial, or tribal. Varna is dealt with more in the theoretical and theological domain.

          Like any theoretical tool, individuals or more pertinently in India’s case, jatis, can use varna to expedite their political, social or economic goals. Examples have been discussed previously on this blog, jati’s like Jats and Yadavs claiming the Kshatriya varna as they secure political and economic power.

          For various historical and practical reasons, the tendency of jatis is to claim Kshatriya varna. But there are also examples of communities adopting Vaishya varna as a conduit to upward mobility, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arya_Vaishya , and claiming Brahmin varna, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhumihar

          Note that even many Dalit communities claim warrior status as they become upwardly mobile, despite conversion to Buddhism.

  2. SouthAsian Says:

    Modi and Trump characterize the new politics – convince the majority that it is victimized:


    Although, as the author observes:

    “There is no doubt that discrimination against Hindus does occur in Uttar Pradesh, and at a large-scale. But this is, by and large, intra-Hindu discrimination, most often on the basis of caste.”

  3. Vikram Says:

    SA, in 1871 Hindus made up 80% of the subcontinent’s population, and were present from Peshawar to Dhaka. In 2011, they made up 62% of the subcontinent’s population, have been nearly wiped out from Pakistan, and are in the process of getting wiped out from Bangladesh as well.

    You are going to have a hard time convincing us that we are not the victims.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: In that sense you are right. Sad to say, human beings have not been able to evolve a way to live with minorities. There is no doubt that Hindus in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been victimized as have Muslims in Burma and, for that matter, African-Americans in the USA. It is quite amazing to think that historians believe the best record in this regard belongs to Islamic empires from their golden age which is long past.

      But majorities, like Hindus in India or Whites in the USA, being victimized is a new phenomenon. It takes some chutzpah to make that claim as the victimized Jewish majority in Israel might suggest.

      • Vikram Says:

        “It is quite amazing to think that historians believe the best record in this regard belongs to Islamic empires from their golden age which is long past.”

        If this is indeed true, one hopes that Muslim countries will learn to look at their past in the correct light.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vikram: It does sound unbelievable and requires an open mind to absorb. And, No, Muslim countries are, by and large, not able to look at the past in a dispassionate manner. As everywhere else, the past has to serve the present interests of those in power to create the desired future that promotes their interests.

          But do read these two pieces. These are by modern non-South Asian academics who cannot be expected to have some local axes to grind. If they made up such stories they would be exposed in no time by their peers. If they are making this up do explain why they would feel the need to do so.

          A meta history: https://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2014/10/01/middle-east-history-shows-long-legacy-of-religious-tolerance-coexistence

          A local history: https://scroll.in/article/829943/what-aurangzeb-did-to-preserve-hindu-temples-and-protect-non-muslim-religious-leaders

          • Vikram Says:

            SA, if there is indeed such a long history of tolerance in Islam, why are Muslim secularists and liberals having such a hard time arguing against Muslim conservatives ?

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: Are the two parts of your comment necessarily connected? If Muslim secularists and liberals are having such a hard time against Muslim conservatives today does it necessarily imply that Islam could not have had a long history of tolerance?

            if a religion has had a history of tolerance does it necessarily imply that it would always remain tolerant? Doesn’t it depend on who comes out on top in the power struggle? The Mongol invasion of the Muslim heartland in the middle of the 13th Century was a turning point in the power dynamic in the Muslim world.

            The conservatives are solidly in power today which is why secularists and liberals are having a hard time.

  4. Vikram Says:

    SA, here is an example of higher castes of religion X, discriminating against lower castes. Note that the fundamental question here is not necessarily religious tradition, but access to land.

    Note that the ‘revolutionary’ AAP has not said a word about these atrocities.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: The video tells a terrible but not surprising story. However, as you note, this is about land where such is the historical phenomenon – belonging to the same religion is no protection against exploitation whether it was the Enclosure Movement in England, feudalism in Europe or the subcontinent today.

      More worthy of attention is continuing social discrimination where no such conflict is involved. For example, Sikhs of all castes can enter the Golden Temple but equal access and treatment is still an issue under Hinduism.

      As for mainstream political parties, in the subcontinent none have taken the poor seriously. Clearly AAP is no revolutionary party in that sense.

      • Vikram Says:

        “For example, Sikhs of all castes can enter the Golden Temple but equal access and treatment is still an issue under Hinduism.”

        1) Can you point me to prominent Hindu temples that prevent equal access to Dalits ? It is a crime under Indian law.

        2) SA, in reality, Dalit Sikhs were forbidden to enter the Golden Temple until the 1930s, and the movement to get Dalits entry to the Golden Temple was predated by the Vaikom Satyagraha for getting Dalits entry to major temples in Kerala.

        I quote an EPW article on the matter,
        “Giani Pratap Singh, later the Head Priest at the Golden Temple, noted that the Mazhabis were forbidden to enter the
        Golden Temple for worship; their offering of karah prasad was not accepted and the Sikhs denied them access to public wells and other utilities (Pratap Singh 1933:146-47,
        156-57). When a group of Rahtia Sikhs tried to enter the Temple in the summer of the year 1900, “the manager of the sacred establishment, Sardar Jawala Singh, ordered their arrest. The reformist Sikhs who accompanied them were abused and finally beaten up. . . Because one of the defining characteristics of a sacred precinct, in the eyes of the Sanatan
        Sikhs, was its ritual purity” (cf.Oberoi:1994:107).

        Harjot Oberoi cites from an “authoritative manual” – Khalsa Dharam Sastra of 1914 – which laid down that the members of the untouchable groups (like the Mazhabi, Rahtia and Ramdasia Sikhs) did not have the right to go beyond the fourth step in the Golden Temple and the members of the fourfold varnas including Nai, chippe (sic), Jhivar, (sudra sub castes) were instructed not to mix with persons belonging to the untouchable castes. Those who were guilty of breaking caste rules were classified as patit and shunned by civil society”. (ibid.106-107) The organisation of Khalsa Brotherhood was very active in converting the untouchable castes to Sikhism through ritual baptism. The matters came to a head when a group of newly baptised Sikhs from the low castes went to the Golden Temple to make their offering of karah prasad at the beginning of the Gurdwara Reform Movement in 1920. According to Pratap Singh, thousands of enthusiasts, including professors and students of Khalsa College Amritsar, joined in a clash with the Pujaris (Priests) who had refused to accept the offering, forcing the latter to flee. However, it did not seem to bring any noticeable change. Overall the Singh Sabha Movement devoted more attention to bringing more and more numbers of the low castes into the Khalsa Sikh fold and opening of schools and colleges. “Though removal of untouchability was also a part of this movement, but the amount of attention which was paid to the opening of schools and colleges, was not given to this aspect”
        (Pratap Singh 1933: 145). Thereafter, the engagements relating to the Akali struggle for liberation of Gurdwaras 1920 25, “did not leave the time for removal of untouchability” (Ibid. :151). It was not surprising. For the Jats, who composed 70 percent of the Akalis, and other high castes, caste equality or removal of untouchability was contrary to their disposition for social domination and hierarchy.

        The growth of communal competition and politics in Punjab since the beginning of 20th century made removal of untouchability, and conversion or reconversion (Shuddhi) politically significant to the political classes of each religious community. It facilitated a phenomenal and fast rise in the population of the Sikh community and assertion of distinct identity. However, this became, in fact a masked struggle for protecting and strengthening the special rights and domination of the high castes, both within the community and in the domain of political power in the province (Judge 2002b).”

        Singh, (Giani) Pratap 1933: Jaat Paat ate Chhoot Chhaat Sabandhi Gurmat Sudhar [Gurmat Reform of Casteism and Untouchability] ( Punjabi), Amritsar : SGPC.

        Oberoi, Harjot 1994: The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition, Delhi : OUP.

        Judge, Paramjit Singh 2002b: Punjabi Samaj Mein Jaati Ki Sanrachana [Caste Structure in Punjabi Society] ( Hindi)
        Dainik Bhaskar, April,12, 2002.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vikram: Thanks for the well referenced response.

          I was basing my comment on my own experience. In my visit to the Golden Temple I saw no mechanism in place to exclude any one. On the other hand, about temples one reads reports about exclusion on a regular basis. I pulled up these two at random – I hope they are incorrect:


          Of course, such exclusion is against the law otherwise there are no grounds for protests. The fact that such discrimination persists despite the law is what was implied in the original article which raised the issue that most of the discrimination against Hindus was within Hinduism.

          • Vikram Says:

            SA, since there are far more Hindus and Hindu temples, spread out over a larger area, it is natural that equal access takes longer to spread.

            Note that Mazhabi Sikhs continue to face discrimination on the ground as far as accessing Gurudwaras is concerned,


            The important point here is that regardless of what these religions claimed to have preached originally, the real push for equal access and equal treatment only came after the elites of these religions got exposed to the Enlightenment values.

            Of course, later the elites try and argue that their specific religion always had those values, they were just suppressed or not properly adhered to. But this doesnt change the sequence of events.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: This is the kind of purely social discrimination that is in the news on a regular basis. It is unrelated to zero-sum conflicts over land. It is hard to believe that the ruling elites who have to lead on such issues are still not exposed to Enlightenment values.


          • Vikram Says:

            SA, why is unacceptable action X ‘purely social discrimination’ when done by Hindus, but conditioned by politics/economics when done by another group ?

            In the example you have linked to, it is clear that the wealthy village folk want the carcasses gone for cheap using captured labor. They do not want to pay a commensurate salary for sanitation work, if they did, many ‘upper caste’ people would show up to do the job.


          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: I am just pushing your logic to its conclusion.

            You had mentioned that the old tolerance in some Islamic empires was due to adherence to scripture. You had also stated that the scripture had not changed. Based on that I had asked, given the two statements above, what would explain the intolerance in many Islamic countries today? It has to be something else and the only thing one can think of is context.

            This whole narrative could be wrong and the old tolerance could also be due to context with no relationship to scripture. This makes more sense to me. I do believe that context determines which parts of scripture are mined and exploited in support of contemporary needs and agendas.

            With Hinduism, the logic is different. Caste discrimination has a long history and continuity. If it had not there would have been no need to declare it unlawful in the Constitution in 1951. Despite the law, it still persists though it is decreasing.

            Whatever the issues, whether of intolerance or discrimination, they have to be faced. One can’t pretend they don’t exist or try and find all sorts of external factors to explain them away.

            In the example of social discrimination under discussion you have made it seem as if it is a simple labor market problem:

            “it is clear that the wealthy village folk want the carcasses gone for cheap using captured labor. They do not want to pay a commensurate salary for sanitation work, if they did, many ‘upper caste’ people would show up to do the job.”

            But in a labor market, if someone turns down a job you don’t burn their houses or molest their women or make them sit separately because they are unclean. Such an attitude does not belong to a labor market which operates on the principle of voluntary choice. It reflects a belief that there are unclean people who are required by some divine law to do a certain job without choice and if they don’t do it they are violating the divine law for which they deserve to be punished.

          • Vikram Says:

            “It reflects a belief that there are unclean people who are required by some divine law to do a certain job without choice and if they don’t do it they are violating the divine law for which they deserve to be punished.”

            Thats quite a jump. How did you conclude that it is specifically ‘divine law’, and not entitlement via socio-political dominance that produces such behavior ?

            I pointed some time ago the pathetic treatment of Iranian Jews by Muslims, do you also attribute that to a belief in a ‘divine law’ that allows persecution of other religions ?

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: You are correct that Hinduism has no divine law in the way that the Abrahamic religions do (although Sushma Swaraj claims that the present government is very close to declaring the Gita as ‘national scripture’ – http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/sushma-pushes-for-declaring-bhagwad-gita-as-national-scripture/article6670252.ece). Still people attribute a quasi-official status to Vedic texts and the Dharmashastras of which the Manusmriti is one from where caste rules find popular sanction. It is on this basis that one comes across the following types of accounts: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/faithbased/2004/05/caste_aspersions.html

            Regarding Iran, the treatment of the Jews needs strong condemnation but the answer to your question is still in the negative just on the basis of logic alone. If the persecution of other religions was sanctioned by divine law, it would have occurred uniformly across time and space in the entire Muslim world. But it has not. Therefore, one has to look at each local situation to find explanations. And where ever it is found it must be condemned without any apology.

          • Vikram Says:

            SA, why does a Christian priest from New York get the final word on whether caste rules find sanction in Vedic texts ?

            Vedic texts contain no mention of untouchability, and the Dharmashrastras do not have divine status.

            “If the persecution of other religions was sanctioned by divine law, it would have occurred uniformly across time and space in the entire Muslim world.”

            SA, the punishment for a Muslim leaving Islam or anyone criticizing Islam has been death uniformly across time and space in Muslim entities. As I pointed out earlier, Muslim males had the right to own sexual slaves.

            Perhaps all this is not persecution for you, but it is for a lot of other people.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: A Christian priest from New York does not get the final word but is just an illustration of popular perception. You are quite right that there is no divine sanction for the practices – people just associate it with tradition or how it has always been.

            You are also right about the slaves. Slavery was the norm at least from Roman times but Americans had legal slavery up to the middle of the 19th Century. What is your opinion about Americans? Do read the keynote address by Ta Nehesi Coates at Harvard: http://harvardmagazine.com/2017/03/a-vast-slave-society. You are probably at one such institution benefiting from the exploitation of slaves.

            Sanctions for leaving Islam definitely fall under persecution and must be condemned.

            The point is to fight unjust and unfair practices that exist at present independent of where they exist and in what religion and whatever the reason for their existence. This is hardest when the problem is at home. The tendency to avoid that by finding fault with other religions or countries is just a form of not facing up to facts.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: A useful input into the ongoing discussion:

  5. Vikram Says:

    “If Muslim secularists and liberals are having such a hard time against Muslim conservatives today does it necessarily imply that Islam could not have had a long history of tolerance?”

    In fact, I am saying quite the opposite. If Islam has a history of tolerance, Muslim liberals can definitely use that history to argue against conservatives.

    “if a religion has had a history of tolerance does it necessarily imply that it would always remain tolerant? Doesn’t it depend on who comes out on top in the power struggle? The Mongol invasion of the Muslim heartland in the middle of the 13th Century was a turning point in the power dynamic in the Muslim world.”

    SA, I am not sure many scholars would locate the current dominance of conservatives in the core Muslim regions all the way back to Mongol invasions, nor would many argue that conservatism goes that far back. Egypt and Syria are classic examples in this regard. These places had thriving Christian minorities, and a less conservative Islamic practice even 100 years ago.

    “The conservatives are solidly in power today which is why secularists and liberals are having a hard time.”

    But why are the conservatives *solidly* in power ?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: This is an interesting article which tries to show why social systems cycle:


      Ibn Khaldun, considered by many as the founder of sociology, had argued more or less the same in his Muqaddimah written in the 12th Century.

      On the Mongol invasion, I agree there is a lack of consensus. But do keep in mind that there are very long lags in social systems. Regimes can keep on functioning in a particular way but lose their intellectual dynamism and become ossified. There is very little Islamic scholarship after the Mongol invasion compared to what is called the golden age prior to that event. In a crisis, Muslims have nothing to fall back on except medieval texts that are frozen in time.

      A much more nuanced analysis was linked on the blog some time back: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/from-elsewhere/#90

      • Vikram Says:

        “In a crisis, Muslims have nothing to fall back on except medieval texts that are frozen in time.”

        SA, is it your claim then that Muslim’s have not been able to engage in any substantial intellectual production since the Mongol invasions ?

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vikram: The link to the article I had mentioned on this subject had changed. I have replaced it now: http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/chaney/files/paper.pdf

          You will note from this very meticulously researched study that the output of Islamic scholarship had declined steeply even before the Mongol invasion – for which the author has a very interesting hypothesis. After the invasion there was a further decline so it is more or less right to say that subsequently there was very little intellectual production in the sciences and philosophical thought. That is also why the earlier period is called the ‘golden age’ in retrospect.

          You will note that all ideological disputes in Islam are attempted to be resolved by reference to medieval texts not more recent scholarship. One might consider Iqbal’s ‘The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ to be an example of the latter but it carries no weight in the debates.

          • Vikram Says:

            SA, I agree that the study is very interesting, but I am not sure that scientific output is the right variable for the goals of our discussion.

            The question is why did Muslim attitudes become more scriptural and less reflective, leading to an increase in sectarian tensions and associated violence. Note that there were, and indeed are, plenty of scientifically and technologically advanced societies that are very repressive and violent towards minorities/marginalized.

            I think the entry of the Turks into the Islamic fold was a turning point in this regard. I feel that the Turkic leaders deployed Islam and its scriptures for purely political/imperial designs, even against existing Muslim kingdoms for an extended period of time. There are a comparatively fewer number of Turkic Muslim polymaths, compared to the large number of Persian and Arab ones, but a much larger set of conquerors.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: This is a difficult question and I am sure there is material on this that I have not come across. My own sense is that scientific output and reflection are related. Scientific and philosophic output requires curiosity and the freedom to ask questions which is what leads to reflection. When the former declines, the latter does too.

            At the same time reflection does not mean an automatic relationship to liberalism and tolerance as we well know from the history of Europe. So, the episodes of tolerance and intolerance within the Islamic world must have some other proximate causes as well. They cannot just be tied to reflection or its absence.

            I don’t think the Turks were peculiar in the use of religion for political purposes – that has always been how religion has been employed. Nor was the Ottoman Empire particularly intolerant. Jews, when they were thrown out of Spain went to the Ottoman lands.

            The comparison of Turkish polymaths with Persian and Arab ones overlooks the chronology. By the time of the Ottoman Empire Arab and Persian scholarship had also declined to insignificance. That is why Chaney’s chronological study is important to keep in mind.

          • sandeep Says:

            SouthAsian, if Islam turns more conservative, fixed in old time then it is good for the religion. See that demographics is favoring Islam with increase in population. War in Syria, Lybia will also help in spreading Islam in Europe. I like to know how can current scenario is harmful for Islam in short-term or long -term?

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Sandeep: I don’t see the connection. If the population of Muslims is increasing how do they benefit from being more conservative? How is the spread into Europe helped by being fixed in the old time?

          • sanpatel90 Says:

            Being conservative, patriarchal helps in increase in population. Muslim society is becoming conservative and looking at its past which is golden era for them. On the issue of family planning, they have a number of verses which suggest more procreation and they are getting inspired by them. In a country. ultimately demographics play a big role. Syria, Lybia, Afghanistan are boon for Muslims as with that they will enter Europe and soon will have a huge share in population. To me, it appears that the current phase of events happening in muslim society are good for them. I like to know your views on how they will be beneficial/harmful for muslims.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Sanpatel: There has never been a shortage of demographic scare stories. Reverend Malthus had a theory that the poor would over run the world, consume al the food and bring an end to existence. It didn’t turn out that way.

            In 1909, U N Mukherji of Calcutta published a series of articles in the ‘Bengalee’, later published as a pamphlet, Hindus: A Dying Race in which he predicted, on the basis of the 1901 census, that Hindus would be swallowed up in next 420 years. Swami Shradhanand wrote an influential book about him in 1926 entitled, Hindu Sangsthan: Saviour of Dying Race. We still have some time to go to find out if he was right.

            You may also be right. Muslims may take over Europe as well as India. I have no idea whether that would be beneficial or harmful for anyone.

          • Vikram Says:

            SanPatel90, here is a preview:


  6. Vikram Says:

    “One might consider Iqbal’s ‘The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ to be an example of the latter but it carries no weight in the debates.”

    Is time the correct variable though ? For example, the thoughts of Maududi are said to have been very influential, especially via his influence on the Iranian revolution leaders.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: I don’t believe Maududi had any influence on Iranian leaders. He did influence the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I wouldn’t put Maududi in the same category as the scholars of the golden age. It would be like saying Savarkar was a great scholar because his work influenced the RSS and the BJP.

      • Vikram Says:

        “Maududi even had a major impact on Shia Iran, where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is reputed to have met Maududi as early as 1963 and later translated his works into Persian. “To the present day, Iran’s revolutionary rhetoric often draws on his themes.”[214]”



        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vikram: Interesting. Thanks for this information.

          The following is useful about the evolution of ideology in Iran:

          “Meanwhile, the Islamic ideology of Maududi and Qutb began creeping into Iran through translations in the early 1970s, but it paled against the modernist, eclectic, and revolutionary Islamic ideology of Ali Shariati (d. 1974).”

          • Vikram Says:

            SA, I am not sure what argument the author is making. Is he saying that Ali Shariati was the main influence on Ruhollah Khomeini ? Is there any solid evidence for this ?

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: No, the article did not say that Ali Shariati was the main influence on Khomeini. What it said was that within Iran Shariati’s vision carried more weight than that of Maududi or the Muslim Brotherhood. I would also be interested in knowing who were the main influences on Khomeini. I have a hunch they would turn out to be pretty medieval.

          • Vikram Says:

            “What it said was that within Iran Shariati’s vision carried more weight than that of Maududi or the Muslim Brotherhood.”

            If this is so, why was the Islamic Revolution, based on Khomeini’s ideas so successful there ?

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: I don’t know and would also like to find out. It could be that people were fed up with the Shah who was an American puppet and westernising too rapidly against the wishes of the people and Khomeini offered the only real opposition at that time. But this is speculation. This is not an area I have looked at in any depth.

            A parallel to consider might be Turkey where Ataturk westernized by coercion and finally after many decades the Islamic undercurrent resurfaced rallying around first Erbakan and then Erdogan. All along the military was too powerful to allow a Khomeini type figure to take over so the transition was much more drawn out and via the electoral process.

  7. Vikram Says:

    “Scientific and philosophic output requires curiosity and the freedom to ask questions which is what leads to reflection. When the former declines, the latter does too.”

    SA, I would disagree on this matter. Although both scientific and social sciences encourage curiosity, they encourage curiosity about vastly different subjects.

    Science requires curiosity about the inanimate nature, whereas social science/reflection requires curiosity about other human beings and our relation to them. These are vastly different, and to my knowledge, have not shown to be correlated.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: The way I see it, a person can either be curious or non-curious. Where that curiosity is directed is largely a matter of aptitude, interest and opportunity mixed in with a lot of randomness – the accidents of lives. Once the path is determined the nature of curiosity also adapts to the subject matter.

      These issues were discussed on this blog quite some years ago: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2009/11/07/education-humanities-and-science/

      A social system has a great deal to do with either encouraging or discouraging an attitude of curiosity at an early age with the choice of curricula and pedagogy in school. To take a simple example: Is a child rewarded or punished for asking a question? Of course, there can be variations within systems. For example, an upper-caste child in an elite private school may be rewarded while a lower-caste child in a government school might be punished. The results are the kind of elitist societies we see in South Asia.

      • Vikram Says:

        SA, I am reminded of a famous anecdote from Theo Von Karman’s biography.

        Von Karman meets his former teacher and colleague Ludwig Prandtl (both famous fluid physicists) after WW2. Prandtl had stayed on in Nazi Germany and worked with the Nazi regime. To Von Karman’s utter amazement Prandtl, without a hint of apology, asks whether his future funds for research could come from the US.

        We all like to admire science and scientists, and not without justification. But there is very little evidence that a good scientist is as curious about humans and their lives as he/she is about their subject of research.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vikram: I am not saying that a curious person would be equally curious about everything in life – that claim can be disproved by everyday experience.

          What I am saying is that one must be curious in order to become a creative person – whether that curiosity is focused on natural sciences or social sciences or humanities is a separate matter. As I wrote “Once the path is determined [partly by interest, partly by personality, partly by accident] the nature of curiosity also adapts to the subject matter.”

          • Vikram Says:

            One can be curious without necessarily being very creative, and vice versa. I dont think there is any conclusive evidence that these are correlated.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: I agree to the vice but not to the versa. Put “relationship between curiosity and creativity” into Google and see what comes up.

  8. Vikram Says:

    “It is quite amazing to think that historians believe the best record in this regard belongs to Islamic empires from their golden age which is long past.”

    SA, I wonder how relevant these examples are, especially in a world where the benchmark for tolerance is set by the post-enlightenment societies of Western Europe and their extensions in the New World.

    The change in attitudes in early modern Europe represented a radical break from the past. Enlightenment thinkers like Bacon, Locke and Hobbes did not base their arguments on some authoritative religious text from the past. Even where they did borrow ideas from the past, they engaged with them and didnt uncritically accept them.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: This is a common mistake that people make very often – evaluating a past era by the values of the present. It makes little sense to apply post-Enlightenment norms of tolerance to a period of a millennium ago. What historians mean when they label Islamic empires of that period tolerant is that they were tolerant relative to other empires that existed during the same period.

      It does seem that the Islamic empires of that time were in fact more tolerant than many Islamic countries today. Given that Islam has remain unchanged, this suggests that the focus ought not to be on religion but specific polities in order to explain the variations in tolerance over time.

      I have already mentioned that Islam has no credible modern scholarship and therefore Muslims have to revert to medieval texts in order to grapple with their modern-day problems.

      • Vikram Says:

        SA, my intention was not to judge the past by values of the present. It was only to point out that the past in this case might not be of much use in achieving a tolerant present. This is because the tolerance in those Islamic empires was ultimately based on scriptural principles.

        And those scriptural principles, some of which been rendered unacceptable in a post-enlightenment era, cannot be altered from a religious point of view.

        Medieval Christianity had similar scriptural injunctions, but the enlightenment thinkers were able to overrule them. I think there were 2 key factors which enabled this coup:

        1) The emergence of linguistic nation-states, which changed the focus of devotion and submission towards a territory, and a linguistic community, as opposed to monotheistic God.

        2) The presence in the West, especially in England, of an independent class of legal practitioners (lawyers and jurists, this has its roots in the Roman empire: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_legal_profession) who were able to take over the function of providing justice from religious authorities.

        One of these factors is usually missing in Muslim societies. Where there is a strong national feeling due to linguistic/cultural reasons (Iran for example), law remains firmly in the hands of religious authorities. Where there is an independent class of legal professionals due to a colonial legacy (Pakistan for example), strong national feelings are not present, and religion is brought in to solidify bonds, thereby increasing its political importance.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vikram: Okay, but I am still not convinced by the logic.

          Medieval Islam was tolerant “because the tolerance in those Islamic empires was ultimately based on scriptural principles.”

          “And those scriptural principles… cannot be altered from a religious point of view.”

          So why has modern Islam become intolerant?

          A more convincing narrative is that religious texts are extremely ambiguous – one can find support for any position one wants to favor. Present-day intolerants (of which the most extreme are the Daesh) are looking at exactly the same scriptural texts that guided the Ottomans, for example, but finding in those texts the extreme stipulations that the Ottomans either ignored or interpreted differently.

          The politics of the times determines how the texts are read and interpreted. Even today there are alternative readings but the extremists have more sway for context-specific reasons.

        • Vikram Says:


          SA, this is a typical example of the kind of analysis one regularly sees from Islamicate ‘liberals’. Virtually everything from Pashtunwali, to British colonial laws, and lo and behold, ‘followers of anti-woman philosophy of Manu’ (aka that religion whose name starts with an H) are blamed for the condition of women in Pakistan.

          There is absolutely no critical examination of the role of religion. In fact, the position seems to be that Islam already had the answers, but they were distorted for 1200 years in a region ruled by Muslim elites, which has been majority Muslim for hundreds of years.

          And now that these ‘liberals’ (having being exposed to Enlightenment values via the British) have realized that the treatment of women was shoddy, they will relentlessly argue that everything except Islam was the reason for this, and that one only needs to go back to the base scripture to find that those Enlightenment values were always there.

          But of course that scripture also allows Muslim men to own slave women from other religions, Muslim men to marry four women, allow Muslim men to ‘strike’ even Muslim women and so on.


          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: There is a lot of poor analysis floating around. If this article says what you have stated it qualifies as poor analysis.

  9. Vikram Says:

    “It is hard to believe that the ruling elites who have to lead on such issues are still not exposed to Enlightenment values.”

    The right threshold to check whether the bulk population in Gujarat adhere to enlightenment values or not is to examine the laws there, a society where there has been democratic politics for 70 years. If the idea of equality was so starkly at odds with the ‘scriptures’ of the majority population there, and if they adhered to those scriptures blindly claiming some kind of ‘finality’ for them, the laws would have reflected this by now. But on contrary, the laws still favor the marginalized groups, and rightly so.

    17 % of women in Gujarat marry someone outside their caste, with half of them marrying someone of a ‘lower caste’.


    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: One is not talking about laws but about attitudes. Post-Enlightenment attitudes have changed – there is a real belief in social equality in Europe barring some exceptions. People don’t practice social equality reluctantly because of the fear of law. If the attitudes have not changed one shud stop talking about the Enlightenment.

      In today’s world laws cannot be out of sync with global norms if a country wishes to be accepted in the community of nations. Either that or the country has to be a superpower to defy global norms.

      • Vikram Says:

        So, are you suggesting that India’s Constitution makers (and later law makers) enshrined social equality and affirmative action to gain acceptance in ‘community of nations’ ?

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vikram: I am sure the Constitution makers believed in social equality and affirmative action but acceptance in the global community would also have been a factor. Even after the constitutional provision the Indian government is regularly cited for discrimination by the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Big countries cannot afford to be out of line with global norms. Even North Korea has democracy in its official name.


  10. Vikram Says:

    “One is not talking about laws but about attitudes.”

    The claim that laws do not reflect attitudes has little standing in long standing democracies. Think about the laws in the US regarding abortion and gay rights, do you not think that the intense opposition to laws regulating these stems from attitudes ?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: Look at the persistence of racism in the US despite all the laws. What does it stem from if not attitudes?

  11. Vikram Says:

    “This is hardest when the problem is at home. The tendency to avoid that by finding fault with other religions or countries is just a form of not facing up to facts.”

    SA, the question being debated here is not whether there are faults, there certainly are, but the reasons for the faults.

    There is an insistence in major sections of the colonial-minded Western and leftist-minded Indian academia that Hindu religion is uniquely culpable of endorsing a regime of inequality. This claim, which originates in colonial scholarship, is adhered to vigorously by these intelligentsia, and they are evasive when questions about its validity are raised. See here for example:


    vague claim[s] “about Indian society offers to solve many a problem in one stroke. The problems created by the anomalous observations on the field are now made characteristic of Indian society itself: Indian society has both endogamy and exogamy. And what made this remarkable grafting of endogamy within an exogamous society possible?: “This isolation among the classes is the work of Brahmanism. The principal steps taken by it were to abrogate the system of intermarriage and interdining that was prevalent among the four Varnas in olden times.” 32 That is, in the absence of proper historical data, such issues are resolved simply by attributing immoral intentions to Brahmins. The supposed antiquity of the process precludes it from any historical investigation. As Samarendra points out, this is how the European writers, in general, used to solve problems in their argument. When difficult questions arose about their characterisation of Indians, the European scholars would give up their historical and factual arguments and recede “into the background and the distinctiveness of the ‘Oriental’ character”.3 “

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: I agree with you. Let us refocus the discussion on what problems we think exist and what might be the reasons for their existence and persistence.

    • Vikram Says:

      This exchange is really worth seeing, shows us the depth of Hinduphobia in western academia:

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vikram: I watched the video and have the following observations:

        It showed a particularly inept professor who didn’t know how to have a conversation. He obviously disagreed with Rajiv Malhotra. But disagreement with Rajiv Malhotra (whether conducted well or poorly) is not the same thing as Hinduphobia. Also, one can’t generalize from one professor to all of western academia. It would seem bizarre that all these people learn Indian languages, specialize in Indian subjects, devote their lives to teaching about India – all this because they are Hinduphobic. Seems paranoid to me.

  12. Vikram Says:

    “Let us refocus the discussion on what problems we think exist and what might be the reasons for their existence and persistence.”

    SA, societies thrive when there is both economic and political inclusion in them. It is rare to see a developed country where *both* these indices are not high. The usual trajectory followed is an increasing level of economic inclusion (via urbanization/industrialization), which leads to greater calls for political inclusion, which then enables the next level of economic inclusion and so on.

    I think you would agree that India was a bit of outlier to this trend. We had relatively high levels of political inclusion (for our income peer group), but have sustained low levels of economic inclusion. Economic inclusion relies on political stability, and the presence of entrepreneurial spirit.

    What India’s history over the last 70 years has shown is that political inclusion, in the absence of economic inclusion can severely distort the democratic process. The malignant features of Indian democracy include patronage politics, ethno-centric mobilization, constant demands for reservation by undeserving groups. These stem from the reality that much of the population aspires for an urbanized, industrial life, but feels that capturing state employment/patronage via politics is the only means of achieving this.

    The intellectual energy and vigor of the enterprising people is therefore directed either towards political strategy to control/influence the state, or exit strategy to get out of the country. But for real growth, the energy devoted to the second part should be devoted instead towards creating sites of economic inclusion (businesses, factories).

    Once a tipping point is reached, i.e. the livelihood of the majority of the population relies on non-feudal urban employment (this needs political inclusion, else will be exploitative) rather than feudal agricultural labour, there will be a change in the political equilibrium. The state will now respond to the demands of urban industrial owners, and their workers rather than rural landlords and caste leaders. A genuine push towards better infrastructure, and complex dispute resolution mechanisms (better courts) will be seen. This will increase the faith of investors in the system, and investments to generate more and more complex products and services will be seen. Tax revenues will increase enabling the state to spend more on public services.

    This process must happen in the background of increasing political participation, else we will simply see more and more bitter fights (your caste/religion/party is just evil etc) over the limited surplus generated by a primitive economy.

    • sanpatel90 Says:

      The business class in South asia lacks innovation. Most are petty shopkeeper running the same shop for decades. They just buy from somebody and sell without any value addition and acting as pure middle man. Even big business houses like Reliance, Vedanta, Adani, essar etc are in monopolistic business and not doing R&D. Mukesh ambani invested more than 1 lakh crore to roll out 4G in india but not on R&D in mobile communication. Any reason for such activities?

      • Vikram Says:

        sanpatel90, research investments are dictated by market sophistication. The Indian market is small and relatively primitive (most people still don’t even own fridge and washing machine), and the competition is mostly on price.

        Investments in research make more sense for well developed and sophisticated markets like the US where households have more surplus to spend on cutting edge products. Also, the US government (esp. defence dept) is a large customer for cutting edge technologies.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Sanpatel: I don’t agree with Vikram’s explanation. It is historically incorrect correct to say that “Investments in research make more sense for well developed and sophisticated markets like the US where households have more surplus to spend on cutting edge products.” Tremendous amount of innovation and research was what launched the Industrial Revolution in England in the 18th Century when the market was nowhere well developed or sophisticated and no one owned fridges or washing machine. In fact, it was that prior innovation that led to fridges and washing machines along with many other things.

          You will be better off studying inheritance systems to figure out why some societies have ended up more innovative than others.

          • Vikram Says:

            SA, there are various aspects to innovation and research. There is definitely the legal/property rights angle you seem to be pointing to, and undoubtedly the Anglo-American world has been exceptional in this matter.

            But there is also a structural/economic logic, I assumed sanpatel90 asked the question in this context. It doesnt make a whole lot of sense for Reliance to invest in mobile R&D because it is competing on price. Right now India is in a technology absorption phase, profits can be generated by simply implementing existing technology and making it available to more people. The economic incentive to invest in research appears when existing technologies can no longer generate profits.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: I am not convinced by this logic. If you extend this logic the advanced economies would continue investing in research which, for countries like India, would mean that there would always be ‘existing’ technologies that would generate profits.

            One would have to explain why Japan, Taiwan and South Korea which were far behind Europe and North America at one stage invested in R&D. Why didn’t they continue to generate profits from existing technologies? The same is the case with China now where more R&D is taking place than in India. The existing technologies are the same for both countries.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: This discussion will become more focused if we have comparable indicators of economic and political inclusion. For example, all countries that are urbanized and industrialized are not equal in economic inclusion. And how is political inclusion different for different income groups? Further, not all factories are sites of economic inclusion – think of sweat-shop factories.

      It is also not clear what sequence you have in mind. It seems we have to wait for urbanization. But many countries achieved political and economic inclusion when they were not fully urbanized.

      Also, India was never feudal. This is the seminal contribution of Professor Harbans Mukhia: http://www.academia.edu/2777599/Was_there_feudalism_in_Indian_history

      Lastly, you have ignored what might be the most important dimension – social inclusion. Recall what Dr. Ambedkar had to say about this when the Constitution was legislated:

      “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which is Assembly has to laboriously built up.”

      • Vikram Says:

        SA, there is no particular sequence. Societies which today have high indices of political and economic inclusion got there in fits and starts, sometimes even going backwards.

        Take the US for example. It was minimally politically and economically inclusive in the beginning, with an agrarian economy, and political rights restricted to land owning white males. Then came an increase in economic inclusion, starting from the 1820s as the country industrialized and a middle class was established. The Civil War and subsequent political reforms increased political inclusion by granting blacks citizenship, and white males voting rights. Then industrialization, especially in the North accelerated, and by 1930 the US was the richest country in the world. Then white women got the vote, and latest, in 1964, after another economic boom induced by WW2, all citizens could vote.

        “Further, not all factories are sites of economic inclusion – think of sweat-shop factories.”

        This is why the emphasis is on *both* economic and political inclusion. Factories become ‘sweat shop’ because the workers in those factories are unable to exert any political influence. This means low wages and inadequate protections against hazards, absence of safety nets. There are thousands of factories, and millions of factory workers in Germany, but which of those are ‘sweat shop’ ? This is because Germany’s inclusive political culture ensures that there are parties which represent the workers, and are able to protect their interests.

        The importance of political inclusion, even relatively low levels of it can also be seen in the Maternity Bill recently made into law in India. As urban Indian women enter the non-farm workforce (https://www.google.com/publicdata/embed?ds=d5bncppjof8f9_&ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=sl_emp_insv_fe_zs&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=country:IND&ifdim=region&hl=en_US&dl=en&ind=false), and their families appreciate the higher income this brings, this group has been able to use its clout to ensure that women get enough maternity leave, and the ability to access their children on the site of their work.


        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vikram: This is alright as generalization but not very useful at an analytical level for comparative purposes. For that we need definitions of the indicators used for economic and political inclusion. We need these, for example, to say anything meaningful about how India and, say, Thailand, compare on the two indicators.

          Everyone has the vote in India. Does that mean there is 100 percent political inclusion? If not, why, and what is the actual level of political inclusion? And, if there is 100 percent political inclusion, does that mean there is 100 percent economic inclusion? If not, why, and what is the actual level of economic inclusion?

          Also, you are still missing social inclusion which is perhaps more fundamental than the other two.

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