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Why Are We So Obsessed With Trying To ‘Save’ The Indian Culture And Society, Does It Really Need Saving?

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By Nivedita Rai:

A taboo topic is something that needs an ice breaker. In an average Indian family, the debate around marriage is still considered to be one such topic. I personally fail to digest the fact, not because I am a rebel or an outlaw but because I am in an internal logical conflict within. What perturbs me is the fact that how can people be so strikingly illogical when it comes to relinquishing outdated convictions?

Indian bride

India has come a long way in abolishing brutal and torturous practices that gripped it during the colonial era. We respect the pioneers of change such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who played a crucial role in abolishing the unjust practice of Sati. We are have always resisted oppression, be it external colonial rule or our internal convictions. Why then are we not able to shed our age old orthodox mentality? Why are we so resilient to positive change?

I have spent a considerable amount of time pondering over temporal issues related to marriage, caste, culture, beliefs and sartorial concerns. In India, “Society” occupies the most revered position in our life, especially for people belonging to middle and lower middle class. An in depth psychoanalysis of people belonging to this strata reveals their inherent societal fear. Fear of their reputation being bandied about if they refute accepted norm, however illogical they may be. Fear of being outcast or boycotted by the people is what holds them back.

Obsession towards ‘purity’ of women is prevalent all over. This leads to the tendency to control and protect them in most parts of India. The slogans of ‘India shining’ and ‘Milon humen jana hai’ hold no good in this scenario. Most women do not even enjoy the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and expression. They have either lost the skill to discern because of age long domination by the patriarchal society or the moral obligations inherent in society do not leave enough space for them to make crucial decisions of their life. Starting from how they will be born – in home with help of midwives or in a hospital, how will they grow up, how should they dress up, where should they study — in a school or not study at all, when they should marry and most importantly ‘whom they should marry?’, all these decisions are taken up by either her father before marriage or her husband after marriage.

Sadly, the gamut of problems India is striving against is large. Ranging from corruption in the top brass to nepotism and bribery at the grass root level, our motherland seems to be held up in misery. Amongst all the bedlam and turmoil, we tend to ignore the subject of equality, fraternity and freedom for all. Turf war and caste politics dominate the agenda. Almost daily, we hear incidences of rape and molestation. Women are the worst victims of casteism. Couples belonging to different castes who enter into wedlock are often subjected to exploitation and torture, and are at the mercy of Khap panchayats and several other institutions that portray themselves as the vanguards of Indian culture. To my amusement, these moral policing pseudo chauvinists are immensely protected by political clout making the entire situation mind boggling.

Clearly, our country’s misguided culture needs an overhaul and it’s high time we shun the barriers of caste, creed and gender and start respecting fellow human beings. People exploiting culture and hiding behind the veil of religion with the intention to play dirty politics of divide and rule should be incriminated. The practice of playing with the emotions of minorities and women should be abolished immediately. Policy makers need to understand that we do not need condolences, what we need is equal status and rights. We do not want pity or mercy, what we pine for is guidance to conquer our dreams. My sincere appeal to my countrymen is to stop encouraging the politics of devastation and racism, we have suffered enough. Embrace humanity as your religion – that’s the epicure for all our woes.

Let us break this inertia of wistful silence and unveil our culture in its true essence.

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  1. Akshay Sharma

    An eye opener ! Never read such an article on this topic. Waiting for more articles from you.

  2. arpit goel

    Hi Nivedita

    You say you are not a rebel or an outlaw. I ask why are you not a rebel ?
    As a fact, as i see you had stepped into the rebel arena the day your “internal logical conflict” convinced you the presence of oppression of women indirectly in ways which are presented at “as a matter of fact”. I honor your views and there’s no harm in calling a spade a spade. But just enlightenment lead to a revolution? The article clearly explains the society scenario of these days. I ask – Are women weak? No! I claim this based on the fact of women who have been supported to come and fight for what is theirs(their rights). Then why do women hesitate on taking a firm step forward and rebel against the parents/society etc.. After all it comes down to every individual woman when they take the dais of change (related to women’s issue ,i am saying).
    I have seen girls in their 20’s who were given less priorities than their brother.

    Change comes from the lowest strata of society..then why are those girl afraid to give up on emotions (that includes blackmail) and step out of it.
    I think even the educated women are afraid of society. That is a very strong, where you pointed that ” women have lost the skill to discern from age long domination”.

    India still not ready for a revolution. Give a decade or more and see the change happening by itself. We are the future affterall.

    1. Akshay Sharma

      Hi Arpit, I respect your opinions. But I feel, you are taking the role of being a ‘Rebel’ (for a normal Indian women/girl) too lightly !

      When a 13 year old illiterate girl is married and then expected to have kids, do you expect her to become a ‘Rebel’.
      I ask is it too easy for her being a rebel ?
      How do you expect her to do that ? Do you want this illiterate and poor girl, beset with difficulties, to fight against the society (her parents or to whom she got married). I do not think, she can do much at this stage.
      15 years down the line, she might not want to get her daughter married when she is 13, no doubt her husband and his family wont let that happen, because they are very open to the idea of child marriages, still it would not be easy for her be a ‘rebel’. (even if you think she should be).

      Leave alone the pathetic conditions of poor and illiterate girls in our country, let us talk about educated women. When an educated women wearing formals/tight pants gets raped, the society says that her clothes invited this gesture. Do you think it is too easy for her being a ‘rebel’. Being raped, she would already be in detrimental condition, moreover the so called ‘educated crowd’ of our country would continue to blame the girl and self styled god men like Asaram would give ridiculous ideas to get away from being raped.

      Let me take an example of an educated girl, who commits the mistake of being in love with a guy who does not belong to her caste, this time her enemy would not be anyone else but her own family, who would be ready to chop her head off. No wonder why we have so many cases of ‘honor killings’.

      The wish or thought of being a ‘rebel’ is not a strong enough reason to be one. The outdated thoughts of our society and culture make it difficult for one to be a rebel. It is sad, but it is true. Those who fight against the odds and try to be defiant, end up getting the tag of terrorist (alluding to an example of Phoolan Devi).

  3. Prashant Kaushik

    Yes the culture needs saving. Culture is what differentiates an Indian from a Chinese or a Chinese from a European. Culture is the life and soul of a civilization. It is a very vast amalgamation of philosophies, lifestyle, costumes, eating habits, social habits, festivals, dance, literature. religion, language and so on. Its beyond the scope of this commenting box, to define what exactly a culture is.

    Having said that, I agree with all the changes you said should take place in our society. But I still don’t understand how culture is stopping you to bring the changes ?

    Culture doesn’t put restrictions on the women. Culture doesn’t ask them to sit at home. Culture does n’t say that keep women uneducated. I mean you don’t need to malign a word as auspicious as ‘Culture’ and tag it where you are discussing problems of a society.

    Whatever problems you mentioned are actually features and economy of this society they are different from culture. yes certain things in our culture may be unsuitable or may require a change. Culture is dynamic. But the change must be brought very carefully and preferably it should be a natural process and not a process guided by political or market reasons.

    For example, Problems and challenges faced by Indian women are because of law and order situation, illiteracy, corruption, poverty etc.
    Culture doesn’t ask people to remain uneducated or engage in acts of violence amongst each other.
    In fact culture calls men for respecting women, treating every women except the wife, as either sister or mother.

    We have taken culture in a very narrow perspective. In fact, restoring culture may help in getting rid of a number of problems faced by the society especially by the women.

    1. Akshay Sharma

      Hi Prashant,

      You wrote an interesting reply to the post. I would like to begin my reply by answering your question, ‘how culture is stopping you to bring the changes ?’.
      Before I answer your question, I would like to make it clear that there are no hard and fast rules associated with any culture. ‘Culture’ is like an empty sheet of paper, people prefer to change the culture as per their choice and they do so by making use of this empty sheet as per their will. ‘Culture’ can also be seen as a sky, though it is blue in colour, it would appear ‘red’, if you wear red glasses, ‘green’ if you wear green ones and so on. You hit the nail, when you say culture is an amalgamation of so and so on, but do not forget different people have different ways of interpreting it and they prefer to follow it as per their own will.

      Just to give an instance, ‘the Indian caste system’, has been mentioned in one of the oldest texts of Hinduism (‘Purush Sukta’ of the Rigveda). But different people had different ways of interpreting it. Siddhartha (later known as Buddha), denied the caste system and his brother Devdutt favoured it.

      You say culture does not put restriction on women, then why are women in few arab countries forced to wear ‘hijaab’ ? I am sure not every one enjoys it and they are forced to do it, because some people consider it to be their ‘culture’.
      You say culture does not ask them to sit at home, then can you explain me why the women employment rate in Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland etc. is more than 70 percent, while in India it is meagre 16 percent. I do not deny that overall employment in India is very low compared to other countries, but the gap between men and women employment in urban areas is much less than that in rural areas, the reason is that people in rural India, consider it a ‘culture’ that women need not work and should sit at home. People consider it a culture that money should not be wasted on girls to get them educated, because they ultimately need to work at home. (This is a bad practice, which has been a ‘culture’ for rural people, like you say it is a social habit).

      The word ‘culture’ has been maligned long back, it has lost it’s original meaning. Again, I would like to repeat, ‘culture’ might have a different meaning for you, but alarmingly it is something very opposite for a major portion of the nation.

      The economic and social status of a country has a strong reason as ‘culture’ behind it. You can not alienate ‘culture’ from economic and ‘social status’, because you yourself believe that the former is the amalgamation of the latter.

      The practice of ‘sati’ was blindly followed and considered as a ‘culture’, because it was a part of mythological even of goddess Parvati. When such events are considered as ‘culture’, it turns into violence.

      ‘Culture’ might mean something to you, and something else to me. The problem arises when people take the wrong essence of things and make it a practice. If we will change our social, economical etc. habits, the ‘culture’ would change. Do not forget, ‘culture’ means ‘all the knowledge and values shared by a society’ and when people of a nation consider things like ‘caste system’ to be a value, it creates problem and maligns the word ‘culture’. An uneducated Brahmin denies to clean a gutter (which would one day kill him of diseases), because he considers ‘caste system’ to be a part of his ‘culture’ and things he would degrade himself if he does this pity job.

    2. Prashant Kaushik

      Again Akshay, you are missing the point here. There is a thin difference between ‘Culture’ and ‘Practices’. Whatever ugly things you have mentioned are bad practices and not something advocated by culture.

      You mentioned ‘Caste System’. That itself is a vast world of debate in itself, and without getting into it detail, I want to put it here that Caste System was never pro-fused by the culture or holy texts in the wrong ways, in which it was latter practiced. Even today, infact we dont live in a completely caste less society. Our constitution makes place for reservation for certain castes, but that does n’t mean that Constitution is castiest.

      Another example, A lot of politician are communal and do vote bank politics. This doesn’t mean the constitution is communal. This also doesnt mean that Indian Democratic culture is communal in character. Just like, because of the communal character of a few politicians , you will not call the constitution communal, similarly just because of a few bad practices in our society, we should not malign the ‘Culture’.


      Lastly, Offbeat, may be you will be surprised to know, that employment rate of women is better in rural India, then in urban India. This is because of the working behavior/preferences, and not entirely because of the culture.
      Similarly, it is quite common to see girls in South India working at petrol pumps, as bus conductors, as traffic signals. You dont see girls taking up similar jobs in North India. This difference is again because of differences in preferences and other conditions for employment and not because of ‘Culture’.

      Hope you understand what I wanted to say.
      Lastly, Thanks for your comment, I enjoyed this conversation with you for you sticking to the point and not dragging it offtrack and not getting personal.

    3. Rakesh Iyer

      Practices are indeed a part of culture and culture is in some sense also defined, re-defined and modified by practices. For example, the practice of sati was indeed a part of Bengal culture at one point of time before Raja Ram Mohan Roy initiated a movement which later led to its near-abolition. The idea that jouhar should be done in Rajasthan among Rajput women was a practice which was a part of Rajput if not Hindu culture, which later transformed to the idea of sati.

      It would be incorrect to say that culture only consists of practices but it would be wrong to say that practices are not a part of culture. Practices, good or bad, just like tradition, is indeed a part of culture. Preferences in employment in some sense are often related to the idea of what kind of jobs a female can or should do and what she shouldn’t, and those preferences, do form a part of the local culture, sometimes even related to particular groups. To suggest that bad practices can’t be a part of culture, would be incorrect – they have been part of a culture. After all, if the lived experiences of people in various forms including their practices can’t be culture, then what else can culture be?

      I also do not agree with you that culture needs saving. I am not against following any tradition by anyone per se, but I do not think any culture in any part of the world needs any saving, including in India. Culture modifies and changes, and doesn’t always remain the same. We have changed, our ways of life have changed, and our practices have changed accordingly. Culture is also related to the pace at which life moves, and saving it would mean not moving forward. Culture in some sense is related to the ideas we think, and to say we should save culture would mean we can’t think of newer ideas possibly.

      I am interested in learning about cultures, one’s own included, but I am not per se attached to any one culture – taking practices which can help shape humanity in a better way from around the world is fine even if it means giving up for me a part of the “traditional” identity of an Indian and adopting an idea from a foreign land And as human beings, we have moved from being hunters to civilization era, and while we can be nostalgic about earlier times or the pace of life, the mode we have taken perhaps means that the pace of life would not change – so the idea that culture should be saved as what it is, no I am not a believer of that. .

  4. Nivedita Rai

    @Prashant: That is exactly what I want to convey here that people have misunderstood culture to ‘subjugation’ and we need to remind them of the real essence of Indian culture 🙂

    1. Raj

      You could have talked about the fact than men hate marriage too. What could be worse than spending your life being stuck to some strange woman, earning for her and taking care of her kids, not to mention the restriction of sexual freedom . I would like to point out that married men commit suicide two to three times more often, not just in India but all over the world. Maybe some sensitivity in that direction would be helpful

  5. K.B.Srivastava

    Percentage of love marriages are increasing in India each year and I think that there will be no place of caste and arrange marriages after 25 years The parties which. want to win election should mention in their manifestoes that (1) there will be no reservation on the basis of castes and religion, but our party will pay a pension of more than Rs12300/- per month to 16.40Crore poor families of India(whose vote elect the government) without any discrimination of caste and religion so that they can make a progress and children of poor families can also be admitted in good and private schools and poor patients can be treated in good and private hospitals.(2) Our party is well aware that Hindu, Muslim,Sikh Isai. All poor are bhai, bhai.(3) U.P. Government is paying Rs50000/- as award if a couple marry in other caste, but our party will provide Rs5 lack as award for inter caste marriages so that caste system can be abolished as soon as possible.

  6. Nivedita Rai

    @Akshay: I appreciate your comments. You actually filled the void in my article 🙂

  7. splooge

    pfft. They are afraid of americanizing, and I dont blame them.
    returnofkings and debates with feminsim here has gotten real ugly. WIth all this racism and choosing who you want is an issue here in fact more so since india is tribal, they dont go out doing lynchings here. Or gang violence. Choosing your partner has become problem matic since we got idiots getting hitched to the wrong people and create dysfuntional kids.
    This liberialism that made into a rebel has to go. Its a feel good short term mindest. Trust me you dont wawnt india turning into us….

  8. splooge

    from the west with love. Enjoy your tradtions without the ghetto aspects and do not let them over take the narrative, all the ugly aspects of indian culture, have any of you in the middle class gone through this if so you are likely in that category. Theres a dysfuntion thats not being rexoginized.

    by these posts looks like india is going through what we went thourgh decades ago. belive me,dont follow it, once that door opens it cant be closed.

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