Binarism in India

06 February 2013

Over the past several weeks I’ve been reading articles and books describing the relationship between Colonial Britain and India during the 19th and 20th centuries. In all of these readings, I’ve noticed a thread that seems to connect every anecdote and interaction between the West and the “other” from then until now: The “West”, assured of its own superiority and set in its views about what is “good” versus “bad”, imposed its binary paradigm on India in an effort both to pigeonhole Indian culture but also to reckon with the subtle, sometimes confusing, often contradictory aspects of Indian culture.

This got me thinking… Can we see this up/down-forcing mindset play out in other ways in India? Can we see them play out in more than just Indian culture? I’m pretty sure the case could be made. Whether we look at the World Bank’s approach with “development” in Lesotho or discourse about caste society, we see ripples of Western paradigms echo across the backdrop of day-to-day lives. And not just the day-to-day lives of people thousands of miles away, but here in California and elsewhere.

The consensus that the British empire imposed its own notions of modernity - to compete directly with notions of tradition - is hardly new. Nicholas Dirks discusses this point almost immediately in Castes of Mind when he points out that Britain imposed notions of tradition on India wholesale, subjugating Indians to Britain’s own projected idea of “traditional” (and associating the negative connotation with which you almost invariably read that word). At the same time, Britain held out this fictitious and idealized idea of “modernity”, loosely defined as everything that India isn’t, and promising that if India would just do everything the British said to do. As Dirks writes, “the colonizer held out modernity as a promise but at the same time made it a limiting condition of coloniality; the promise that would never be kept” (Dirks 10).

Mrinalini Sinha makes a related point in her article “Giving Masculinity a History: Some Contributions from the Historiography of Colonial India”, which points to the British imposing their own sense of masculinity on Indian culture, turning gender roles into a dichotomous chasm where men and women are defined essentially as polar opposites of one another, with rigid roles and expectations stemming from gender (Sinha 449). This binary thinking hadn’t been a pervasive cultural component in India until Imperial influence reached India.

Westerners are caught red-handed, so to speak, for assessing themselves in binary terms. Dirks writes in Castes of Mind that “the failure to convert Brahmans rendered the missionary enterprise an absolute failure” (Dirks 134). This strictly defined judgment emphasizes the worldview which the West not only imposed on others, but by which the West lived. If missionaries failed to recruit Brahmans, then the entire system of evangelizing and converting India is an absolute failure.

These are somewhat incidental references to the binary conflict posed by the West. Bina Agarwal blows the lid off of this quiet but pervasive conflict in her article “The Gender and Environment Debate: Lessons From India”, which identifies a number of the dichotomies invented and pushed by the West onto India (as well as other countries, but Agarwal’s focus is on India):

  • Man vs Woman
  • Culture vs Nature
  • Public vs Private
  • Rational vs Spiritual
  • Secular vs Religious
  • Urban vs Rural

These divides speak deeply and reverberate strongly through Indian culture, leading back to women’s rights and roles in society, a particularly salient point in the wake of the brutal gang rape in Delhi late last year (Agarwal 120).

So far I haven’t brought in any of the problems of imposing or indoctrinating another culture with your own views. The reality is that not only were (and still are) there significant social tensions resulting from the clash of Indian cultures with Western culture, but even when there’s not social upheaval there’s still subtle, passive, almost ubiquitous resistance constantly turning these impositions into something “peculiarly [Indian]”, as Kim Berry points out in ”Lakshmi and the Scientific Housewife” (Berry 1061).

The West isn’t just bad at making sense of India. While India is a remarkable case study in the failures of the West to interact meaningfully with other cultures, there are copious examples of international Western organizations, other Western nations, and Western individuals failing to understand the “other” in emic terms. James Ferguson writes in his article “The Anti-Politics Machine” about everything from the presumptuous metrics used by the World Bank (using Gross Domestic Product instead of Gross National Product, for instance) to the assumption that Lesotho is isolated, that the people are farmers, or that Western development tactics and strategies will play out the same way everywhere (Ferguson 177). All over the world, the World Bank has - at least to varying degrees - failed miserably at understanding the needs, perspectives, and paradigms of non-Western cultures.

Why is the West so bad at reconciling other cultures? Part of it may lie in a point Dirks makes in Castes of Mind again, on page 146, where he likens conversion to translation. Language translation may indeed be the perfect analogy, since the futility of trying to communicate one idea in two languages is both trivially easy and unfathomably difficult at the same time. Notions conveyed in one “word” in a given language may have no counterpart word, phrase, or body of text which can suitably describe the idea in a second language. Britain’s attempt, in the context of Dirks’s observation on page 146, to make sense of the caste system is simple and simultaneously doomed to failure.

The effects of Western thinking continue to affect the world, like ripples in a puddle. In S. Anand’s article “The Nandy Bully”, Anand accuses Nandy of binarism in describing and framing colonial influences; Nandy takes issue with the notion that only the British (or the West at large) “colonized” Indians when in reality there was colonizing happening before the West showed up (the colonizers just happened to be Indian, but Nandy refuses to acknowledge this). Outside of India, every little thing hinges on binarism and Western cultural hegemony. Electronics operate in bits, indicating a binary On/Off status; computer programs are almost exclusively written using fundamentally Roman characters, and English words populate many of the basic building blocks of programming languages. An aspiring foreign software engineer must not only grapple with the computer science aspect of the field, but also the foundation of English words and their meanings. The World Bank frequently judges nations according to its own metric for success, generally using GDP as the primary indicator, despite countries such as Bhutan almost wholly dismissing economic indicators as guideposts in domestic development (they use a measure which ascertains happiness). Notions of masculinity and femininity are still shaping foreign countries, and thoughts on race are largely dictated by ludicrous binary categories such as “light” and “dark” or, more directly, “white” and “black”.

The West’s influence on the rest of the world typifies the idea of “pervasive” by embedding itself so deeply in global culture that even after removing or disregarding superficial cultural influences, you find deeper and more nuanced influences permeating indigenous/local culture slowly and quietly. Is this bad? It depends. Even internally, I recognize a conflict: I know that culturally the integration of these Western influences has necessarily displaced “original” practices and traditions, which we are worse off for losing; on the other hand, I can’t deny that economically it benefits nations such as India to have at least some frame of reference with which to connect to Western culture. It facilitates trade and - arguably - more trade at least can (if not does) benefit everyone.

Works Cited

  1. Agarwal, Bina. “The Gender And Environment Debate: Lessons From India.” Feminist Studies 18.1 (1992): 119.
  2. Anand, S. “The Nandy Bully.” Outlook India, 11 Feb. 2013. Web.
  3. Berry, Kim. “Lakshmi and the Scientific Housewife.” Economic and Political Weekly 38.11 (2003): 1055-068. Print.
  4. Dirks, Nicholas B. Castes of Mind. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2001. Print.
  5. Ferguson, James, and Larry Lohmann. “The Anti-Politics Machine.” Ecologist 24.5 (1994): 176.
  6. Sinha, Mrinalini. “Giving Masculinity A History: Some Contributions From The Historiography Of Colonial India.” Gender & History 11.3 (1999): 445.
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