India/ 2. General objectives and principles of cultural policy  

2.2 National definition of culture

Section 5 presents a more detailed outline of the legal and constitutional framework within which India deals with cultural rights. Part of the problem has been the expanded definition of culture that India has had to handle. This problem has existed from the early debates on the Indian independent state, as we see in the amount of time the famous Constituent Assembly Debates give to how an all-inclusive culture could make it a legally judiciable area. As one of the speakers at the Constituent Assembly debates of 1948 said, ‘Speaking of culture, I think it is not a single item, either of area, language or script. It is a vast ocean, including all the entirety of the heritage of the past of any community in the material as well as spiritual domain. Whether we think of arts, the learning, the sciences, the religion, or philosophy, culture includes them all, and much else besides.’ (Prof. T. K. Shah: Constituent Assembly Debates – 8 December 1948). And another, speaking of an early draft of Article 29(2) of the present Constitution, made the proposal (one accepted by the drafting committee), said that the word ‘community’ should be removed as it has no independent meaning: ‘Community is sought to be removed from this provision because community has no meaning. If it is a fact that the existence of a community is determined by some common characteristics and all communities are covered by the words religion or language, then community as such has no basis. (It) is meaningless’ (Pandit Thakur Das Bhargava: Constituent Assembly Debates).

Constitutionally, there has been a tacit understanding that when bringing culture into the sphere of legal justiciability, it should be limited only to two key aspects: one, language, and two, religion. Supreme Court Judge Hidayatullah famously says: ‘Differences on grounds of language or religion are understandable but it is difficult to define the word culture. A valuable study cited 164 definitions of culture taken from writings of anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and philosophers. A number of the definitions stress the idea that culture is a collective name for the material, social religious and artistic achievements of human groups, including traditions, customs and behaviour patterns, all of which are unified by common belief and values. Values provide the essential part of a culture and give it its distinctive quality and tone. Since culture means so many things and there is so much cultural variety in India, it is difficult to determine culturally who is in minority and who is in majority. ‘Language and religion or a combination of both, therefore appear to provide a more stable basis for determination of the question.’ - Justice Hidayatullah (Constitutional Law of India, 1984, pg 560-61)

In recent years, India has seen a vastly expanded civil society, comprising numerous NGO groups, community-based organisations (CBO) initiatives, and even new political parties, advocacy bodies and other groups working with cultural rights. Although historically these groups have tended to be either on the religious Right, or have argued along linguistic or other neo-traditionalist lines for artisanal or crafts practices, in recent years a more directly neoliberal ideology is evidenced, focussed on bringing tradition, livelihoods and development together into a single unified cultural developmentalism. 


Chapter published: 22-04-2014


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