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Interrogating Religion and Development in South Asia

Plural Societies and Imperatives of Change

Development has been an attractive and powerful idea. It has dominated the political landscape of countries in the South ever since their decolonisation, mostly after the second world war. Notwithstanding criticisms and condemnations it continues to be an important component of state policy in most of these countries. Poverty-related programmes are still among the most heavily-funded government schemes. International funding agencies and charities in the developed North also spend a significant proportion of their resources on developmentrelated activities in low-income countries. Even in popular political rhetoric, development is invoked by almost everyone. This is particularly so in democratic societies like India, where absolute poverty and disparities have persisted despite high rates of economic growth.

However, over the years, the concept and its practices have undergone some profound changes. The old notion of modernisation and the evolutionist theories of social change based on binaries such as traditional/modern, in which the process of economic development was seen as being inevitably linked to a process of cultural change and the emergence of a completely new set of values, has slowly lost its appeal. Development is no longer seen as being inevitably tied to, or premised on, a process of secularisation. It is now widely recognised that cultural traditions and religious beliefs do not simply disappear from public life with the onset of economic change. Religious identities or beliefs may be important constitutive elements of the notion of well-being that people have in a given context. Similarly, community identities are not always based on “irrational” collectivist ideologies; they can be a source of security and sustenance for individuals and groups located on the margins. Nor do they necessarily represent the past. The process of development can also produce collective identities based on religion and other forms of ascription.

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