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Civilizations and Settlement Societies

Cultural Development and Identity at the End of Twentieth Century

Ravindra K. Jain

This paper deals with an unstated premise of the twentieth century paradigm for cultural development. This premise is that civilizations are the legitimate teleology of cultural development and that settlement societies like the plantation societies formed from the eighteenth century onwards ought to be considered as resting on the peripheries of developmental process. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong in this premise: in our quest for authenticity and ennobling ideals of human development, we do of course look upon civilizations as the pinnacle. But the reality of the politicization of culture introduces a kind of historical distortion in the myth of civilization. I need not dwell at length on the nature of this distortion which is manifest in our own country at this time and historical conjuncture in the Mandir-Masjid dispute. In this dispute the civilizational myth of Ram has been hijacked for extremely parochial and violent ends. I plead, therefore, for a reversal of analytical perspectives between civilizations and settlement societies at the end of the twentieth century.

The paper is divided in three parts. Part one deals with the problematic of culture where India is considered as a civilization. Part two considers the East Indian culture in Trinidad and Tobago which is an example of a settlement society in a Caribbean context. Finally, in part three, I look upon civilizations and settlement societies in the dialectic between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’.

The Problematic of Culture : India as a Civilization


It is best to locate the problematic of culture in India — ‘Unity in diversity’, to put it briefly — in the framework of the kind of plural society that obtains in this land. Here the Furnivallian concept of plural society, which is characterized by (a) culturally incongruous and mutually incompatible socio-cultural sections, (b) having inter-relationships only of the market place, and (c) all kept together as a functioning whole by the exercise of a superordinate power, is clearly inapplicable. We shall be wrong to postulate at the start that the Indian unity lacks a common will. It will be argued that the Furnivallian paradigm applies only to ‘settlement societies’ and not to civilizations.

The Civilizational Synthesis of Culture

Here we might take a lead from the anthropological conceptualizations of unity in diversity in India, and posit the existence of a Great Tradition and several little traditions. The civilizational process in Indian history can then be traced as a continuous and sustained interaction between the Great Tradition and little traditions. Whereas this resolution to the problematic of culture takes us part of the way to understanding the dynamics of the Indian civilizational process, it has two shortcomings:

(a) There is a tendency to put greater value and hegemony on the centralizing classical traditions and a commensurate under-playing of the regional and local (decentralizing) significance of the little traditions.

(b) The civilizational process tends to marginalize the problems of culture that are encountered in building the Indian nation (especially in the last two hundred years) and the Indian state (especially during the post-Independence period of last forty to fifty years).

The Decentralized Paradigm of Unity in Diversity

Here we must recall, (a) the issues raised in the process of nation-building in India, especially during the nationalist struggle, and (b) the cultural problems in the functioning of a federal state structure in India. As soon as we focus on the dominant thrust of the above problem areas two cultural problems, namely, clash and diversity of religion with its twin faces of communalism and the partition of the country into India and Pakistan, and the formation of linguistic states in India as the solution to centralization/decentralization dilemma come to the fore. In other words the decentralized paradigm of unity in diversity forces us to look closely at religion and language as forces of present discord and potential unity in the problematic of the Indian culture.

Religion and Language

Crisis and creativity in Indian culture: As regards the potential of Indian religions not only for cultural diversity but for the potential unification of the heritage of the country, one type of solution was suggested by the Nehruvian secularism which, with some modification, was enshrined in our Constitution as Sarva-dharma-sambhava or the coexistence of all religions in the eyes of the state. A glaring inadequacy in the implementation of this policy has been that the appearance (ritualism) rather than the reality (spiritualism) of religious diversity in India has been encouraged and sponsored by the state. This has led to the unhealthy phenomenon of a tie-up between religion and politics such that the status quoist and recondite aspects of religious tradition (cf. the Mandir-Masjid issue) have gained prominence and, in the name of religion and creed, vote banks have been created. What is needed for disentangling religion from politics is a

(a) philosophical acceptance fundamentally of the individual rather than collective freedom of religious faith and worship.

(b) following from (a), the distinguishing of spiritual from the merely ritualistic aspects of religion, and

(c) following from (a) and (b) the recognition by both the state and the voluntary agencies that religion is not only a force for cultural persistence and status quo but also for change and liberation. An accent on mediaeval bhakti tradition of India which still powerfully influences the weaker sections of society and the incorporation and welcoming of such tendencies as liberation theology in Christianity are signs in this direction. It has been rightly pointed out that a fundamental tenet of all spiritual quest for change is the mutual respect between various religions.

This brings me to the second focal aspect of culture, namely language which is seen primarily as a factor for fissiparous rather than synthesising currents in Indian society. Here it must be emphasized that a diversity of mother tongues spoken by the Indian population is a source of tremendous strength rather than weakness. The preservation of mother tongues not only makes the problem of spreading literacy much easier (cf. in Kerala); as in the biological world the ecologists have come to value the diversity and preservation of multi-form species, as students of culture we should value the preservation of linguistic and cultural diversity. A culturally homogeneous world will be an unbearably boring place to live in. It only needs a moment’s reflection to appreciate how richly the diverse written and unwritten languages of the country have contributed to our cultural heritage. The experiment carried out by the Bharatiya Jnanapitha is a point in that direction.

Finally, we shall try to show that diverse languages far from creating tendencies for disunity will merge into a common stream. Our argument rests on the fundamental cultural discovery that Indian languages, though they may be syntactically diverse, are semantically similar. They furnish an exciting proof of the unity in diversity that is the Indian culture.

I have often been asked as to what I think of ‘national integration’ — what is the import of what I have said for this acute problem? I think that the whole question of ‘national integration’ is abstruse, primarily because of its monopolization in a politicized universe of discourse. Not the least difficult is the fact — in that political perspective — that the very idea of nation is a Western import. I think in a decentralized framework, such as I am pleading for, one may strive for the ‘culturalization’ of the idea of national integration.

The East Indian Culture in a Caribbean Context

Crisis and Creativity in a ‘Settlement Society’

A. I now wish to come back to the paradigm of settlement societies about which I had spoken earlier. It would be seen at once that the whole exercise would be self-defeating, and I shall be undoing what I said in my critique of the great tradition — little traditions construct — were I to impose the hegemonic framework or meta-narrative of civilizations on our understanding of settlement societies. The logical drift of my argument on the other hand is to derive the principle of ‘becoming’ — creativity out of a crisis — from the consideration of a settlement society, namely the Indian community settled in Trinidad and Tobago since the mid-nineteenth century.

B. The outstanding feature for a theory of socio-cultural change which I discern in this society is inter-culturation — the real give and take of cultures which has been the bedrock of composite culture in this society. Let us make no mistake. Even here the bedrock of inter-culturation has been overlaid by models of plural society and acculturation but as I propose to show these are hegemonic ideologies very largely consciously propagated by the political processes of colonial rule. They represent the politicization of culture as against the culturalization of politics that I am going to explore through a probe into the processes of inter-culturation in Trinidad and Tobago.

C. The process of inter-culturation is symmetrical and based on reciprocity. Before the entry of the Indian element into the population of Trinidad and Tobago in 1845 it had been going on in terms of creolization, a synthesis between the earlier Spanish, French and British cultures on the one hand and the culture of the West African blacks (original slaves) on the other. A unique Caribbean culture had been fostered, including a distinct type of language — the Creole.

The Indian element entered this scene as indentured labourers. Much has been written about the interaction between Creoles and Indians from a politico-economic angle, specially the competition for jobs, the predominance of Indians in the economy and of the blacks in politics, and mutual suspicion and antagonism between the two ethnic groups. What the plural society and acculturation to the Anglo-Saxon norm-models have completely covered up is the process of inter-culturation between the ‘kirwal’ and the ‘coolies’ — both being at the same lowest rung of the racially structured stratification in this society. From the Indian side, there were new cultural developments as regards the racial interpretation of caste, dress, food habits, language etc. And on the other side, the elements of folk culture, for example, Tassa Drumming, Gadka (playing with sticks) and participation in Hoesay (Moharram) by the blacks or Africans are evidenced. That the process of inter-culturation by its very nature was reciprocal can be illustrated by many examples. To give a single instance, in Trinidad today, what they call the pilau is considered to be a Creole dish and the roti and Indian one. If we examine the cultural roots of these two items of the cuisine, we find that in fact pilau, both in its preparation and name, is Indian and the roti, though Indian in nature, is typically prepared in a creole manner with no counterpart anywhere in India; This example clearly shows that the process of inter-culturation was largely unconscious, for if someone today points out to a Trinidadian actual origins of the items of cuisine mentioned above, his statements would be greeted with utter puzzlement.

D. However, neither culture got absorbed into the other and hence cultural pluralism was retained. Yet, the mutual influence of Creole norms over Indian elements and vice-versa is there to see even today. For example, there were three models of cultural change in historical succession — the Christian, the Indian great tradition and Westernization for the East Indian community in Trinidad. And we find examples for each of these models in a very clear manner even today.

For a variety of reasons — of which we need not go into the details — the early Catholic and Anglican Churches in Trinidad had neither the motivation nor any success in proselytizing East Indians. A common reason given was that the Indian was merely a bird of passage and that any time and effort spent on converting him was a waste since we would necessarily revert to his heathenish ways back in India. It fell to the lot of the Canadian Presbyterian Church to successfully initiate and sustain the process of evangelization among the East Indians. The instrument used was education and the form that guaranteed its success was Indianization. The history of Presbyterian Indian education dates back to March 23, 1868 when Dr. John Morton began to teach Kunjah’s three little children at his door and as the numbers increased he took them to the Church. Within the next decade scores of primary schools for Indian children were opened by the Presbyterian missionaries, and they made sustained efforts to introduce Secondary education in the opening decades of the present century. To the extent that the products of this educational stream provided the initial core of the educated East Indian middle class — the elite — the specific contribution of the Canadian Presbyterian Mission has to be recognized. The auspices was typically ‘white’ and in that sense colonial. To this day many informants confess that though they were originally Hindus, they got their children baptized and gave them Christian names in order to reap the material benefits of education! In so much as this was an imposed mode of adaptation, the early Christian influence was an example of acculturation.

However, the point I wish to emphasize is that though this was overtly a process of acculturation, it was founded on the bedrock of inter-culturation. The initial success of the Canadian Presbyterian missionary effort was based on the fact — well documented — that they spared no effort to indigenize the Church for the East Indians. Hindi and Bhojpuri were adopted as the media for preaching and the services in the congregation were deliberately modelled after the ‘folk’ patterns of the immigrants. Not only the singing of bhajans (devotional songs) and kirtans (musical offering to the deity) retained, but the musical instruments were also the ones brought over from India by the immigrants. Thus, with the early Christian influence on the East Indian group, we are in the twilight zone — so to speak — between acculturation and inter-culturation. And typically, it was a reciprocal process. The Christian pattern of sitting in congregations on wooden benches (with shoes on), the notion of a pulpit, a pandit almost like a parish-priest, ‘God-fatherhood’ and a Sunday service in Hindu temples etc. are just visible marks, to this day, of how much syncretism has taken place between Hinduism and Christianity in the Caribbean context.

The so-called Hindu revival, forming an integral part of what Professor K. N. Sharma has called ‘reinstitutionalization’ (1871-1930), has got to be placed in the above context of historical succession for its cultural symbolism to be properly understood. There can be little doubt that with a large number of Indians leaving the barracks and forming their own villages at the end of the indenture contract, Hindu temples and Muslim mosques appeared and there was an urge to find Hindu pandits and Muslim Kazis for the performance of life-cycle rituals. Initially, this posed a problem. Although some Brahmans did immigrate to the Caribbean it is a well-known fact that not all Brahmans in India are pandits or well-versed in the task of performing priestly roles. It is on record that sometimes local Brahmans were instructed in the task of performing religious rites by old women. When these pandits conducted the East Indian sacramental marriage rituals — the form still known as ‘bamboo marriage’ — neither they themselves not the others for whose benefit the ceremonies were being conducted, could explain the symbolism and meaning of these rituals. No wonder, therefore, that the Hindu sacramental wedding, already unrecognized as a legitimate union by law, came to be derived by the East Indians and the creoles alike as a makeshift arrangement, no better and no worse than the ‘common law’ unions of the other groups. The point we wish to highlight, is the fact that in Trinidad (for example) the folk or village forms of Hindu institutions existed divorced from the great tradition which gave the former legitimacy and acceptability in traditional terms. The solution which the Hindus in Trinidad gradually found was through the expedient importing pandits from India (and the Muslim, their Kazis) who could train a battery of local priestly officials. While historians (Jha) and some sociologists (e.g. Sharma) have recorded the process of formation of Indian associations, revealingly called ‘pressure groups’, like the East Indian National Congress of Couva and the Indian League of Tunapuna around 1910, the social and cultural characteristics and aims of this movement have not yet evolved the scrutiny that they deserve. Here I can attempt only a bare outline of the sociological feature of this movement but it deserves in-depth study.

I have already observed the initiative taken by the Presbyterian Church towards the evangelization and educational upliftment of the East Indians. All evidence points to the fact that it had the support and blessings of the colonial authority. Paradoxically enough, the East Indian leaders of the movement for reinsti-tutionalization were typically the members of a newly emergent middle class who — though in some measure spearheading Hindu revival — were at the same time deeply imbued by the Christian and colonial ethos which had given birth to it. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that what these East Indian leaders were aiming at was a recognition of Hindu marriages in exactly the same terms as the already legally recognized Christian marriage in Trinidad. Given the syncretism between Christianity and Hinduism in the Caribbean setting, it is no wonder that the cultural form in which the reinstitutionalization of Indian way of life was proposed and effected was strikingly different from India and had specifically Trinidadian features. For one thing, the pandits — either imported from India or trained by the newly-acquired Indian ones constituted a distinct ‘sub-class’ of the newly emergent middle class of East Indians. Far from the usual Indian model in which the Brahman pandit though ritually and spiritually ‘higher’ than the other castes is materially of a low and dependent status, in this case the pandits of Trinidad had at once status, wealth and power in the community. One is not trying to make a value judgement here, but the ‘difference’ is worth remarking. A Brahman pandit, who in ‘off-work’ hours drinks scotch, may even eat non-vegetarian food, drives a car and sends his children to foreign schools and universities is an entirely different creature from his Indian counterpart — even in modern India.

A word needs to be said about the growth of ‘denominational’ Hinduism (and Islam) in Trinidad during the next phase, that of the ‘emergence of distinct forms’ (1931-50). Here too, I believe, that the Christianization process referred to earlier casts its shadow. The manner in which the Hindu Sanatan Dharma Mahasabha and the Arya Samaj formed themselves and got recognition both from the colonial authority and their followers — and the manner in which a variety of small bodies like the Divine Life Society, the Hindu Seva Sangth etc., continue today to proliferate, strongly suggest that we have here a re-enactment, in cultural terms, of the process whereby various Christian denominational sects were introduced and vied with each other for following and support during the nineteenth century and even earlier. I do not wish to open up, on this occasion, the fascinating subject of relationship between religion and politics in contemporary community of East Indians in Trinidad, but in so much as it touches on the cultural manifestations of adherence, alliance and rivalry this is an ‘embedded’ process which has everything to do with the constituted social and economic processes of Trinidad and the Caribbean and hardly anything to do with India. Indeed the ‘Indian location’ of this process may have an instrumental use for ‘embedded’ politics as in the famous imputation by the late Dr. Eric Williams quoting Nehru that the Sanatan Dharma Hindu Sabha (which he deliberately or otherwise confused with the arch-reactionary Hindu Mahasabha of India) was the epitome of reaction and conservatism (cf. Ryan, 1974) The point simply is that the various Hindu bodies in Trinidad are either the carry-over of folk forms inherited from the immigrant past (e.g., Kabirpanth, Sieunaraine, etc.). or they are political ‘pressure groups’ in a community which faces an acute identity-crisis. The latest manifestation of a typically middle-class religious movement — perhaps as yet not jelled into a pressure-group — is the Sai Baba cult. It is another good example of a cultural import from India, typically reinterpreted in terms of a syncretist and plural Trinidadian reality.

While considering the non-religious or secular acculturation of the East Indians with reference to the ‘traditional’ Indian model, one should centrally take into account what may be called the ‘neo-traditional’ forms. The most important of these, beginning in the 1930s was the impact of Indian movies, spreading out eventually to video-cassettes, records of Indian music and lavish receptions accorded to visiting star actors and actresses of Indian movies. The reason for calling this a ‘neo-traditional’ process of acculturation is the fact that the themes, characterizations, and the entire depiction of Indian culture in these forms is shot through and through with fantasy and the constraints of growing commercialism. It is indeed a travesty of modern culture in the Trinidadian context when the dress and adornment of brides in Indian movies is duplicated in the actual marriage ceremonies of East Indian men and women, or when the highly sexy and culturally inauthentic dances shown in the popular Hindi movies are performed as though they were specimens of authentic Indian culture. And all this is enacted without an understanding of the meaning of the words of the songs and dialogues because Hindi has all but died for the young generation of East Indians. I realize that in his bitterness towards these imitational forms from India, V. S. Naipaul has called the Indian culture in Trinidad and other Caribbean countries as the culture of ‘mimic men’. Fortunately I do not share his anger, but looking at this process objectively one is reminded of an earlier phase of creolization in Caribbean society when many of the European culture forms in the slave society were simply ‘imitated’. Indeed, Braithwaite has discussed ‘imitation’ as a prominent feature of the inter-culturation process in plantation societies of the Caribbean. A similar tendency in respect of contemporary East Indians is exhibited in creating ‘duplicates’, such as a Trinidadian Mohammad Rafi, rather than throwing up artistes of their own. But in making this broad generalization I am not wholly correct. There are, at the same time, schools of classical Indian dancing, classes like those of Bharatiya Vidya Sansthan where classical Indian music is systematically taught and artistes like Mungal Patessar who have taken to playing sitar in the genuine Indian tradition. My contention, however, is about the kind of Indian ‘neo-culture’ which is attracting the majority of the younger generation. It is a highly ‘processed’ Indian tradition which finds great popularity in Trinidad.

This brings me to the third major process of acculturation, namely, ‘Westernization’ which corresponds to what Professor K. N. Sharma has called the phase of ‘destabilization’ (1951-83). I do not think there is any big need to dwell on this aspect at great length. Its manifestations are constantly being evaluated as either negative or, exceptionally, as positive, in the debates in contemporary Caribbean in the press, on television, and in many associational and group discussions.

E. The important element in the inter-culturation between blacks and the Indians was a philosophy of ‘we agree to disagree’. There were instrumental uses too of cultural differences for political purposes and there was quite a bit of bickering and mutually unfavourable stereotypes. But this became politically significant only when incitement was provided by extraneous factors or, in other words, when there was politicization of culture. By and large, there has been harmony, tolerance, peaceful coexistence and an attitude to ‘live and let live’. Cultural pluralism is a marked characteristic of this society. In Trinidad and Tobago — in contrast to Fiji for example — the two major ethnic groups, Indians and Africans, lived in close interaction while at the same time preserving their cultural distinctiveness. Indeed, as Chandra Jayawardena has pointed out, Indian ethnicity is more ‘public’ in Trinidad, whereas in Fiji it is more ‘private’, since their relative isolation from ethnic Fijians has called for little display of symbols of difference. The jhandis on Indian houses in Trinidad and Guyana are one such public symbolic manifestation of cultural difference.

F. It is interesting to note what a black scholar, historian-cum-poet of the Caribbean, Edward Braithwaite has to say about the modernization of the East Indian group:

. . . .following the post-indenture emancipation and urbanization, has come a new Indian development, stemming from the cultural dispositions (of) selective creolization. Here, the Indian relates his own notion of cultural norms to the master-culture of Euro-America, and selects/adapts in order to modernize. The Afro-Saxon ‘imitates’ not modernizes, because, unlike the Indian, he has no core culture to adapt from. (p. 54)

I feel that this is an over-optimistic appraisal of the East Indian culture in Trinidad today. As I have already pointed out there are certain pseudo neo-traditional and imitative aspects in this culture. Also, sometimes use is made of their culture by the Indians as a stick to beat the creoles with. However, the creativity of the settlement society — a culture in ‘becoming’ — is very marked. You may read it as flexibility or the capacity for syncretism. At the same time the way tradition of a civilization continues to haunt its modernization is very conspicuous.

G. This, then, is the lesson from our comparison. In this post-modernist, post-Marxist and post-structuralist intellectual ambience we have learnt that politico-economy and culture are the two faces of day-to-day living and that understanding consists not in reducing one to the other but in realizing their juxtaposition.

This brief comparative experiment shows how we may proceed from the dominant paradigm of the politicization of culture to a culturization of politics in the understanding of plural society and cultural change.

Civilizations and Settlement Socities in the Dialectic

Between ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’

In a paper published in 1986 (The East Indian Culture in a Cribbean Context: Crises and Creativity, In 1986, I suggested an anthropological distinction to be made between civilizations and settlement societies. While civilizations have had a continuous history of cultural development for a millennium or more, the settlement societies were formed only after the European contact with certain islands or plantation societies throughout the world. In historiography and anthropological writings, civilizations seem to have been taken as the ideal of culture and the settlement societies are treated on the peripheries of cultural development. But, the concept of civilizations besides being hegemonic also lacks a politico-economic dimension, as for example in the case of studies of Indian civilization according to a ‘great tradition’ and ‘little traditions’ interaction. On the other hand, whenever politico-economic dimensions and hegemony are considered in the context of civilizational encounter between Europe and the colonized people, there is always (in contemporary writing) an anti-colonial bias.

In this paper I have taken up the case of settlement societies, specially Trinidad and Tobago, as an example of responses to colonialist expansion. I emphasize in this discussion the cultural frame of the politico-economic expansion. This enables comparisons between, diverse responses by the colonized to European colonialisms. For example, in Trinidad and Tobago, there was a succession of Spanish, French and British colonialist influence. The exploration between self and the other in such settlement societies can be done from the Third World or the ‘south’ point of view.

Such a comparison throws up the cultural process of ‘creolization’ in these settlement societies which, I believe, has a lesson to drive home for the valorized civilizations in anthropological and historical literature. The creation of a Creole culture in situations such as those of Trinidad and Tobago and Mauritius shows the process of ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’. Such a process is relevant to an appreciation of modernity and post-modernity even in the world of civilizations like those in India, China or parts of Africa as well as Europe. In other words, I wish to emphasize in this paper a reversal of points of view, viz., the relevance which settlement societies have in cultural terms for the ongoing processes of socio-cultural change in a civilizational country like India.


Braithwaite, Edward, 1974. Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean, Mona, Jamaica.

Clifford, James, 1988. The Predicament of Culture, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Drummond, Lee, 1980. "The Cultural Continuum: A Theory of Intersystems", In Man, 15, pp. 352-74.

Furnivall, J.S., 1948. Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India. New York: New York University Press.

Jain, R.K., 1986. "The East Indian Culture in a Caribbean Context: Crisis and Creativity", In India International Centre Quarterly, 13(2), pp. 153-64.

Jha, J.C., 1974-75. "Indian Pressure Groups in Trinidad, 1897-1921", In Quarterly Review of Historical Studies, 14, pp. 138-56.

Marriott, McKim, 1955. "Little Communities in an Indigenous Civilization", In McKim Marriott (ed.), Village India: Studies in the Little Community. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Sharma, K.N. (n.d.). Changing forms of East Indian Marriage and Family in the Caribbean, Mimeographed.

Singer, Milton, 1972. "The Social Organization of Indian Civilization", In When a Great Tradition Modernizes, London: The Pall Mall Press, pp. 250-71.


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