A critical analysis of the discourse on Culture and Privacy in India
There is a perception that privacy is a western concept, and other cultures, particularly the eastern world, lack an understanding of privacy. Privacy is considered a virtue of a modern liberal democratic civilisation with roots in western political philosophy. The liberal tradition of the west is idealised as a harbour for individual privacy. The attachment of privacy with modernity and the liberal democratic west is considered a benchmark for understanding privacy in other parts of the world. This dominant understanding believes that traditional societies, like India, do not have the required environment to house modern virtues such as individuality and privacy. Contrary to this dominant view, a set of scholars argue that privacy is not unique to a particular culture and they emphasise the concept of ‘cultural plurality of privacy’. They provide a more elaborate explanation of individualism and privacy, which is opposed to the simplistic Eurocentric explanation.
Culture and Privacy in India
There is a perception that privacy is a western concept, and other cultures particularly the eastern world, lack an understanding of privacy. Privacy is considered a virtue of a modern liberal democratic civilisation with roots in western political philosophy. The liberal tradition of the west is idealised as a harbour for individual privacy. The attachment of privacy with modernity and the liberal democratic west is considered as a benchmark for understanding privacy in other parts of the world. This dominant understanding believes that traditional societies like India do not have the required environment to house modern virtues such as individuality and privacy. For instance, a recent (2017) article raised the question ‘what does privacy mean in the Indian cultural and behavioural context?’. The article answers this question as ‘well, it means little’. It suggests that the community practices and social diktats have an overwhelming role in the personal lives of Indians. It also notes that ‘Indians have a habit of interfering in other people’s lives’, and hence, there is little understanding of private life in India. This research critically examines this half-hearted stereotypical understanding of privacy in the Indian context.
It is pertinent to note that such stereotypical perceptions are also popular among policymakers. The governments from post-colonial societies claim that privacy is a Western concept and was imposed by colonial masters on them, so, the citizens should not claim a right to privacy. The government of India has also made such claims in several instances to discredit the citizen's right to privacy. In October 2010, the government published an approach paper to formulate privacy laws. The paper notes: “India is not a particularly private nation. Personal information is often shared freely without thinking twice. Public life is organized without much thought to safeguard personal data. In fact, the public dissemination of personal information has over time become a way of demonstrating the transparent functioning of the government” (quoted in Marda and Acharya, 2014).
This research revolves around the question of privacy in Indian society. It has two prominent parts. The first part of this research describes the arguments of some scholars who highlight an overwhelming role of social structures in the private sphere in Indian society. This school of thought believes that the social structures completely colonise the private sphere. The second part presents some alternate conceptions of privacy. This understanding of privacy is more inclusive and culturally pluralistic as opposed to the culture-specific understanding of privacy.
1.2 Individualism in the West and Holism in India
The individual is found in both the eastern and the western societies. Individuality has been debated in both cultures. In the West, Jacob Burckhardt argues that the modern individual was born in Renaissance Italy; individuality, according to Burckhardt, is specifically a renaissance phenomenon. Burckhardt (1860 in Martin, 1997) argues, in the Middle Ages, the man was conscious of himself only as a member of a group such as race, party, family, and this veil first melted in Renaissance Italy. Burckhardt has been severely criticized by Stephen Greenblatt. Greenblatt in Renaissance Self Fashioning suggests human subjects are a product of social-cultural and power relations in a particular society. Other scholars such as John Martin have debated the question of individualism in the west.
In the Indian context, Louis Dumont’s conception of individualism is interesting. Louis Dumont applied the comparative method to study Indian society. Dumont argues, the organizing principle of Hindu society is ‘Dharma’ or social order. He notes that in the traditional Indian way of life there is no division between Man and Nature, and the human order is realized by confirming the universal order (Madan, 2006). He further suggests that while the two societies (the western and the Indian) are directly opposite in their ideals, still in reality they might have something in common. There might be something of ‘Dharma’ in modern society and something of individualism in Indian society (Madan, 2006). Dumont notes that the individual as a value-bearing person is found in the Hindu Brahminical thought but only as a ‘renouncer’. He argues that traditional Hindu societies are based on absolute order and do not provide any space for critical individuality. An individual should confirm the absolute social order and whoever wants to assert their independent individual identity should renounce the social order (Madan, 2006).
The individual has been found in both the western and the Indian cultures but, there is a critical difference between them. The individual in the west is part of the social order, but in India, he is outside the social order, at least principally (Madan, 2006). The West has also known the individual outside the society but in the pre-modern times. Dumont differentiates between premodern outwardly individuals and modern in worldly individuals. Louis Dumont’s ironic thesis suggest that individual in India has been subsumed under the weight of absolute customary order. There is no worldly individual in traditional Indian society. The ironic part of Dumont thesis is the incongruous treatment of individualism in India.
The overwhelming role of customs, joint family, kinship network, caste in the traditional Indian way of life and the subordination of individuality is further elaborated by Bhikhu Parekh. Parekh (2009) observes:
“In the traditional Indian way of life, the social realm consists of the joint family, the kinship network and the caste which plays a dominant role, and colonises both the private and public sphere”.
Parekh (2009) compares and draws a contrast between the Indian way of life and modern western life. He suggests that modern western society celebrates individual privacy but Indians are still occupied with the traditional structures of family, kinship, caste, which colonise the private life in India. Parekh starts the discussion by describing the status of privacy in modern western societies. He suggests, in modern western societies, privacy is greatly valued, individuals are their masters and they are free to make important decisions about their life. They are free to choose their spouses, their sexual preferences. These choices are regulated by social conventions but the social sphere does not dictate individual choices. Parekh highlights the role of ideological advancements of the 18th century, the spread of ideas propagating individual autonomy, and liberal values. Due to this unique history, western societies have developed a unique way of conceptualizing the public and private spheres.
After briefly discussing the western way of life, Parekh notes, “it represents important values and provides a necessary backdrop to the discussion of the Indian way of life”. He considers the western way of life as a benchmark to analyse the traditional Indian way of life. He suggests that the traditional Indian way of life is significantly different from its modern western counterpart because, like the pre-modern west, Indian society does not attach much value to individual autonomy. Parekh highlights the overwhelming role of the family in the Indian way of life. The individual is bound to his parents, his brothers and sisters by the bond of love and commitment. The family also makes great sacrifices for the individual; they prioritise the individual over their life so that he can achieve a good life. Parekh suggests, given the sacrifices and love of the family, the individual becomes indebted to his family. The individual does not see his life as his own, which restrain him from doing whatever he likes. Given the overwhelming influence of family, the individual does not consider his life as his own, so his decisions regarding career, marriage, residence, the pattern of life are all expected to be driven by the interest of the family. Parekh also notes that the modern idea of individual autonomy is gradually taking roots in India but still family values and kinship networks play an overwhelming role in India.
Bhikhu Parekh and Louis Dumont argue that there is an overwhelming role of social customs and social institutions in the private life of an individual, in traditional societies like that of India. They suggest that the influence of customs, family is so dominant that it impacts almost all the important decisions like whom to marry, the career preferences of an individual’s life. Then they compare the conception of the public and the private spheres in the west and the traditional societies. Finally, they conclude that western societies attach a unique value to their private lives while this is conspicuously absent in traditional societies. Parekh and Dumont want us to believe that traditional societies lack an understanding of privacy or privacy itself.
Contrary to the above Eurocentric understanding of privacy, a set of scholars emphasize the cultural plurality of privacy and argue that privacy is not unique to a particular region or culture. They also present credible evidence of the existence of privacy or private life in traditional societies.
1.3 Alternate Conceptions of Privacy
Cultural Plurality of Privacy
Acharya and Ashesh (2014), and Acharya and Marda (2014) offers an alternate picture of privacy. This picture challenges the claims made by Parekh and Dumont. The most notable thing about Acharya, Ashesh and Marda is that they emphasize the ‘cultural plurality’ of privacy. They do not aim to privilege one understanding of privacy over others, they aim to illuminate the presence of the alternate notion of privacy pre-dating the common law and modernity. Ashesh and Acharya (2014) argue that by the time of the enlightenment Islamic and Hindu law were well-established legal systems with diverse schools of law and rich histories of jurisprudence. They argue while both legal systems did not use words that directly translate into privacy the idea of privacy did certainly exist and can be found in both legal traditions. Ashesh and Acharya (2014) highlight the following concepts of privacy in classical Hindu law:
1) Privacy of physical space: The Naradsmriti and Arthashastra prescribed rules for building a house. The Arthashastra suggests that a person’s house should be built at a proper distance from his neighbour’s house to prevent inconveniences. The windows and house doors, in an ideal condition, should not face their neighbour’s door and window directly. The household should cover their doors and windows sufficiently. Interference in a neighbour’s affair without a valid reason was penalised. The Naradsmriti accords institutional primacy to a man’s house, which is similar to the castle doctrine in the common law. The castle doctrine suggests “An Englishman’s home is his castle”, it demonstrates the inviolability of the home and the privacy of its residents. The Naradsmriti offers a religious understanding of privacy driven by the notions of pollution and purity. While the Arthashastra highlights a secular notion of privacy.
2) Bodily integrity: Ancient Hindu texts have commentaries on the bodily integrity of women. Yajnawalkya Samhita states “if many people know a woman against her will, each of them should be made to pay a fine of twenty-four panas”. Arthashastra recognizes the right of commercial sex workers, it says commercial sex workers cannot be forced into sexual intercourse, it grants sex workers the right to not be held against their will. Ironically the modern Indian legal system does not criminalize marital rape but Manusmriti did, implying the rights of the wife not only against the wider society but against his husband.
Further, Marda and Acharya (2014) highlight specific instances of privacy in the traditional Islamic Law:
1) Bodily Privacy: The value of the bodily integrity of an individual is well recognized in Islamic law. The Quran demarcates some periods in a day for individuals to spend private time. Quran indicates the need for prior permission before interacting with another individual in his private times. Such periods are before the prayer at dawn, during the afternoon when one rests and after the prayer at night.
2) Territorial Privacy: The Quran prescribes that one should ask for permission before entering into another’s house, and it seeks to ensure that a person visiting others house is welcome in that space. Quran suggests visitors enter other houses only through the front door. Muslim scholars argue that such rules aim to safeguard one’s private sphere and allow people to modify their behaviour to accommodate visitors in the private domain. It is interesting to note that the right to privacy within one’s home extends to ‘SINFUL’ acts performed within his private sphere. The accountability of a Muslim to his fellows is only concerning his public actions. This has been narrated by an interesting story in the Hadith of Umar Ibn al Khattab. Khattab climbed the wall of a house on the suspicion that wine was being consumed in that premise. His suspicion is confirmed and he scolds them. Then they remind him while he is pointing out their sins, Khattab himself was guilty of three sins: 1) Spying on them. 2) failing to greet them. 3) Not approaching their house through the front door. Khattab agreed with them and walked away.
Now, we have different sets of scholars presenting two completely different understandings of privacy. On one hand, Parekh (2009) and Dumont argue that traditional societies like India lack an understanding of privacy. On the other hand, Acharya and Ashesh (2014) and, Acharya and Marda (2014) presents credible evidence to highlight a well-developed understanding of privacy in traditional legal and religious systems. Their research highlights the limitations of Parekh and Dumont’s thesis. Hence, we will now critically examine the limitations of Parekh and Dumont’s sweeping claims about traditional societies.
Limitations of Dumont and Parekh
A peculiar feature of the Eurocentric system is the appropriation of progressive and highly valued ideas of that particular historical period. We have seen a trend wherein every progressive or highly valued concept is, by default, considered western. There is also a strange tendency to create a difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the west and others, to discredit non-western civilizations of ‘history’ and ‘philosophy’. Much before Hegel, Europe was familiar with Indian, Chinese and other thought traditions due to colonial encounters. So, Europeans started asking, whether these non-European traditions were also philosophy? The obvious answer was no (Banerjee, Pandey and Nigam, 2016). The European intellectuals made a strange distinction. The classical Greek philosophia or the love for knowledge was defined as the quest for knowledge and as an end in itself, this knowledge is not connected to political motive, social interest or personal desires. They distinguished it from other thought traditions which were contaminated by vested interests (Banerjee, Pandey and Nigam, 2016). The result of this distinction was that Europe was considered to have philosophy while other traditions had religion and myth (Park 2013 in Banerjee, Pandey and Nigam, 2016). Similar is the case with privacy, in classical Athens, political life was eulogized as a virtue but in modern times, private life is greatly cherished. Since privacy has become a virtue in our times, it becomes an obligation in the Eurocentric structure to appropriate privacy, and most importantly, deprive others of it.
The arguments made by Parekh and Dumont hint towards a Eurocentric bias. This is visible on three fronts: 1) Similar to Jacob Burkhardt, both these scholars believe that privacy is a modern value. They attach privacy to a specific time, modernity. 2) Their understanding of privacy and individualism in India is developed by contrasting the Indian way of life with the western way of life. They place west as the benchmark for their analysis of public-private, individuality and privacy. 3) The claim that only western democracies value privacy and privacy, and that individuality as a western concept reek of Eurocentrism.
It is a widely held notion that privacy is a western value and other traditional cultures lack an understanding of privacy. The advocates of this position argue that social structures like family and customs play an overwhelming role in the personal life of an individual. The role of social structures is so dominant that it completely colonises the personal sphere of an individual’s life. Louis Dumont argues that the individual as a value bearing person is found in Hindu Brahminical thought but only as a renouncer. Dumont suggests there is no in-worldly individual in the traditional Hindu society. Continuing this tradition, Parekh also highlights the dominating role of customs, joint family, kinship network in the traditional Indian way of life. Parekh echoes the argument that traditional societies lack an understanding of privacy.
The arguments made by Parekh and Dumont are not free from their Eurocentric biases. They consider the west as a benchmark to study privacy in other societies. They overlook the cultural plurality of privacy and difference in the public-private divide in different cultures.
On the contrary, a different set of scholars emphasize the cultural plurality of privacy. They present evidence of a well-developed understanding of privacy in religious, customary practices of the traditional societies. P. Arun, a research scholar elaborates on the cultural plurality of privacy as ‘privacy as a concept is deeply contextual and historical, mainly because the distinction of public and private varies in different regions. Although as per the popular notion- privacy is a western concept. This is, however, a misconception as, every society has its own understanding’ (Arun, Personal Interview 2021).
Martin, J. (1997). Inventing Sincerity, Refashioning Prudence: The Discovery of the Individual in Renaissance Europe. Oxford University Press.
Parekh, B. (2009). Private and Public Spheres in India. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy. Routledge.
Madan, T.N. (2006). Holism and Individualism: Louis Dumont on India and the West. In Images of the World: Essays on Religion, Secularism and Culture. Oxford University Press.
Marda, V. and Acharya, B. (2014). Identifying Aspects of Privacy in Islamic Law. The Centre for Internet and Society. https://cis-india.org/internet-governance/blog/identifying-aspects-of-privacy-in-islamic-law
Ashes, A. and Acharya, B. (2014). Locating Constructs of Privacy within Classical Hindu Law. The Centre for Internet and Society. https://cis-india.org/internet-governance/blog/loading-constructs-of-privacy-within-classical-hindu-law
Banerjee, P., Nigam, A. and Pandey, R. (2016). The Work of Theory: Thinking Across Traditions. Economic Political Weekly.
Arun, P. Personal Interview, Date 20 May 2021