The Politics of Culture
Most discussions of culture in India, as they take place in academic circles and the dominant media, tend to confuse 'culture' with 'civilization' and civilization with 'religion'. These discussions then prepare the ground for identifying the essence of Indian culture with Brahminical classicism. Hinduism remains the centre of gravity in these confusions of culture, civilization and religion. Christianity, which has an older presence in India than most smriti literature, is rarely regarded as an intrinsic part of this all-Indie culture and is jettisoned, in the discourse of revivalist conservatism, to the domain of missionaries. Islam, which has an older presence here than most of medieval bhakti, is itself regarded as marginal and additional. The very terms of this debate, with their extraordinary orientation toward the past, pave the way, objectively speaking, for a revivalist and even fascist kinds of cultural nationalism, since the cultufalist claims of an organised religion in the context of modern politics, where religion gets intermeshed in cultural nationalism, almost always conceal very high degree of violence against those who stand outside the charmed circle of this religiously defined cultural nationalism.
Against this revivalist definition of culture, we need a materialist conception which looks at culture not as spiritual or religious heritage but as a set of material practices through which people live and produce the meanings of their lives. The starting-point for such an analysis is not the heritage of the past but the actual realities of the present, and one of the things that most crucially matter, then, is the degree of access to cultural goods - such as education or training in the arts - that different classes and social groups have in real life. When we look at culture in this way, we immediately recognise that social conflicts of various kinds, along lines of class, caste, gender, ethnicity, etc. actually leave very little room for all the people, or
* Senior Fellow, NMML, Teen Murti, New Delhi
Social Scientist, Vol. 27, Nos. 9 - 10, Sept. - Oct. 1999