Sometime in the first quarter of 2005, I attended a talk on "Challenges to International Justice" by Morten Bergsmo, a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. Before his stint at the ICC, Bergsmo had been a prosecutor at Slobodan Milosevic's trial at the Hague war crimes tribunal. The work of that body, he felt, was a striking complement to the Bush administration's flouting of international norms. For most of his talk, in fact, the general tenor was to highlight the need for a European alternative to American 'bullying'. Being neither an American nor a European, I couldn't help but notice that Bergsma appeared to see the world through those eyes only. This was especially striking, since the International Court is supposed to be ... international!

After the talk I went up to Bergsmo and asked him what contributions Indian law had made to the ICC. In what way had we been consulted by a court that claims to represent our interests too? His answer to my question was more interesting than anything he said in his talk itself. He said, (and I am paraphrasing here), "We are always open to new ideas, but Indian law is derivative; Therefore we don't need to take it into consideration."

I took his answer to mean the ICC adequately represented the interests of Indians and other non-Western nations. Besides, his implication was that India didn't have any new legal ideas to offer to the world. We had lost the battle of ideas twice: first when European modernity took us by surprise and colonised us, and the second time when the end of the Cold War gave birth to political post-modernity. With state socialism no longer vying for our attentions, market democracy - with its competing American and European variants - was the only game left in town. While we were still awakening up from our colonial slumber, Francis Fukuyama declared the 'end of history', written largely in American and European terms.

As you might expect, I do not agree with that assessment. The Indian experience offers new interpretations of key modern concepts such as nationhood, democracy, citizenship and individual freedom. We have also pioneered original ideas like swaraj and ahimsa that have no real counterparts in the west as political doctrines. We need to reflect on the political and social possibilities that India has contributed to the modern world. These possibilities come in the form of norms and ideals articulated by various Indians over the last hundred years; norms that give us typically Indian but strikingly modern ideas about how to live our lives.

It is important to remember, in this discourse, that norms do not always reflect lived realities. The current liberal-democratic orthodoxy draws its ideals from Locke and Hume, who lived in a monarchy. Similarly, while non-violence has not been the rule in post-independence India, we can still claim that Indian politics made non-violence a politically viable concept in the modern world. My basic claims are simple:

  • Like the sage Agastya, India has swallowed and digested the beast of modernity that it can no longer re-emerge in its original shape.
  • New possibilities have been opened by the Indian digestion of modernity in many domains; not only for us, but for the rest of the world as well.

What are these possibilities? How can one make them real? In this article, I set the stage for a discussion of India's contribution to new ideas and ideals of nationhood, freedom, autonomy and non-violence.

Swallowing the beast

India has been grappling with modernity for 150 years, at least since Raja Rammohun Roy. The digestion and internalisation of the modern world has gone through many phases, which is not surprising; it takes a long time to absorb new ideas. Two things need to happen for a culture to incorporate outside influences. First, the external idea has to be given an indigenous cast that makes it a new conception. And second, the external idea needs to move from elite enclaves to the street. I believe that Indian culture has done that successfully in many domains.

While non-violence has not been the rule in post-independence India, we can still claim that Indian politics made non-violence a politically viable concept in the modern world.

 •  Swaraj in ideas

For one, modernity has spread from Bengali elites in colonial Calcutta to the lives of people in mofussil towns. Let me give two examples: the Indianisation of the English language (and the Anglicisation of Indian languages) and the adoption of western dress. It is now possible for Vikram Chandra to write a novel, Sacred Games, without italicising the Hindi words, of which there are many. Hinglish sounds and reads normal to most of us. On the streets of Chennai, Tamil has so many English words and phrases that a purist would cringe, but street Tamil is no poorer as a language of communication than its DMK variant. We have Indianised the English language and spread it throughout the country.

Similarly, I find that younger Indians look good in Indian as well as Western clothes. Earlier generations of middle class Indians carried themselves gracefully in Indian clothes and awkwardly in western clothes (if at all they wore them), but now jeans and shirts fit naturally on our bodies. Indigenous aesthetic preferences have started raising their head; you can see various hybrid Indo-western clothes on the streets of Bangalore. The Kurta-Jean combo is both Indian and modern at the same time. If our bodies are the terrain on which cultural battles are fought, the shifts in garb signal shifts in our thinking.

From Formal to Living Systems

Moving away from culture per se to political innovations, let us consider the most important political idea of modernity, the nation-state. The normative ideal of a Western nation-state is that of a formal system. By a formal system, I mean a social system whose behaviour follows from a rational and explicit system of rules, starting with a bible-like document, the constitution. The term 'the rule of law' has two, equally important meanings: one to do with the power of the law and the other to do with its universality.

The conceptual innovation involved in the rule of law is breathtaking – instead of leaving social affairs to the whims of rulers, they are dictated by abstract universal rules. The democratic potential of the rule of law is clear to us all. However, universal systems come with their own baggage: they are hard to change piece by piece – for one rule often depends on other rules. Replacing one universal system with another needs a revolution, which may be catastrophic rather than emancipatory: as so happened in the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions. Further, a universal system is easier to set up in societies that are ethnically homogeneous to start with (or in "melting pot" societies like the US, where homogeneity is not the price of entry, but necessary for participation).

Another problem with the formal approach to society is that it divides the world into two: us and them. The rule of law is for 'us', while anything goes in our dealings with 'them'. International relations are the best example: from the first World War to the Iraq invasion, most major wars and genocidal forms of violence in the last 100 have been started by nations ruled by the law.

India has absorbed some of the lessons of formal system making. We have a constitution and we have a judiciary, though it is galling when western experts call our system derivative. Original or not, the partial rule of law has made matters easier for us on occasion. But I am surely not the only person who has noticed we are notorious law-breakers. From traffic rules to business contracts to election promises, it seems as if we observe the rule in its breach. If exceptions prove the rule in the west, then rules prove the exception here.

It is simplistic to condemn our bad behaviour as the conduct of a primitive nation entering modernity through the back door. While some of the chaos is because of our unease with rapid change and 'development,' perhaps some of the problem is with our analytic lens as well, which focuses on the extent to which Indian society resembles a formal system. I think that a formal system is not our normative ideal; instead the normative ideal for us is a living system, i.e., a system whose norms come from the experience of family life and other life-based metaphors.

Families are not governed by explicit rules; even an ideal family does not invoke rule-making as a central tendency. Families, like biological systems in general, follow rules, but the rules are expedient and in the service of larger goals, namely, autonomy and survival. While power hierarchies are present in living systems and can be as ruthless as anywhere else, the centralisation of power characteristic of rule based systems is not as extreme in living systems. A living system is characterised by distributed networks of power, local rather than global hierarchies, tolerance of difference with localised violence wherever there are clashes over resources.

In the modern age, we can tolerate diffused power but the local hierarchies and localised violence has to go. Caste prejudice and violence is unacceptable, but Panchayati Raj is welcome. India's contribution to the modern world should be a nation governed by a living system which equalises local hierarchies of caste, gender and religion.

There are some signs the Indian political system is moving in the right direction. Electoral politics is turning caste from being an expression of local jati hierarchies to being a marker of difference. The one-party Congress state has decidedly given way to coalition politics. As the integrity of the Indian nation becomes assured, I think we are moving further and further away from the Indian nation as a formal system. In the western imagination, the Hobbesian nation-state is a counter to a primitive, "nasty, brutish and short" existence driven by a "perpetual and restless desire of power after power." But the modern nation-state has not been able to end violence; it has only exported it to other parts of the world.

The Indian experience suggests otherwise, that one can imagine and construct a living system neither exploitative nor short-lived. We are at the beginning of our modern history.