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More of the Same in the Global India

More of the Same in the Global India

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Braj Ranjan Mani

The tyranny of capitalism in India cannot be grasped, let alone resisted, in isolation from its wider social context. Capitalism is far more dangerous in India than in the Euro-America because of the culture and economics of caste.

Today, India (after China and the US) has the world’s third largest middle class (250-300 million); 49 enlisted dollar billionaires (black market economy and overseas banks allow some crooks to remain unlisted); and the single largest concentration of the world’s poor (800 million), most of them illiterate or semi-literate, considering 70 per cent in India’s 1.2 billion are either illiterate or have no more than a primary education. A political analyst, representing the views of Indian elite, calls this “a new triad of India’s political economy,” and adds, “The poor were always with us, but billionaire businessmen and a huge middle class were not. They constitute a historical novelty for India.” A more empathetic view with compelling stories and statistics, delineating the depredation of the elite and the suffering of the people, is brought home in a new book which demonstrates that the economy “may be in good statistical health,” but “it is by no means in good social or ecological health.” Unravelling the social consequences of the growth story, the authors point out that the footprint of the wealthiest Indians is 330 times that of the poorest 40 per cent; and that with each new Special Economic Zone, India loses the capacity to feed 50, 000 to 1,00,000 people each year. * [Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari, Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India (New Delhi: Penguin, 2012).]

Till 1991, that is before the economic liberalisation, India was supposedly a socialist state which actually worked to empower and educate the privileged sections of society, and since then, the same caste and class groups, hiding behind the middle class identity, are reaping the benefits of free market bonanza while the poor are fully exposed to the relentless inequalities of capitalism. As India is producing thousands of millionaires, it has one-half of the world’s malnourished children and one third of the world’s absolute poor. India produces 100,000 students a year in global top 10 per cent and also churns out millions with zero skills. Millions of children, despite the recently introduced the Right to Education legislation, are unable to go to school. And those who do continue to be trapped in underfunded, brutal and ineffective state schools which are among the worst in the world. Denial of basic facilities deprives the poor children of early acquisition of fundamentals. The good-for-nothing education gives them zero skills and robs their life chances. Their lives, like that of their parents and ancestors, remain cheap.

The story of the making of brand India—the subject of hundreds of academic as well as popular tomes mostly written by, or on behalf of the corporate houses—conveniently leaves aside the vital question of who has collared the benefits and in what proportion. That India is a great democracy and witnessing momentous changes is the trajectory of the fortunate few who have reaped the most from the neo-liberal policies, subverting democracy and reinforcing their privileges in the new power structures. For those who remain bereft of bare minimums of life and constitute 70 per cent of the population, India is a very limited, if not a sham, democracy. It is also notable that by keeping millions of people in subhuman conditions, India is performing way below its potential. What is the socio-cultural and political imperative of such lopsided development? Is violence only by killing, maiming, imprisoning (though even on this score Indian state is guilty of large-scale crimes against the less fortunate), or does it also include displacing, dispossessing, and sentencing people to a lifetime of starvation, deprivation and humiliation? A 2012 United Nations report on India’s human rights record says, “The country’s economic policies, driven by the neo-liberal economic paradigm, continue to perpetuate ‘exclusion’ and violate Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of the Constitution.” * [Quoted in “Growth Pangs,” The Times of India, New Delhi, 3 June, 2012.]

The key to grasp India’s woes can be found by recognising the underlying causes that reproduce such inequalities. Contrary to the elitist refrain that economic growth and expansion of middle class alongside new opportunities of individual mobility have made caste irrelevant (as “its hierarchy is replaced by competing equalities”), the ground surveys and statistics show the reality of huge reproduction of inequalities in caste terms. Two outstanding studies of existing data on caste and occupation and standard of living of caste groups—Blocked by Caste (2010) and The Grammar of Caste (2011)—contradict the elitist claims and affirm the persistence of economics—and discrimination—of caste. * [Sukhdeo Thorat and Katherine Newman, eds., Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010); Ashwini Deshpande, The Grammar of Caste: Economic Discrimination in Contemporary India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011).] As the author of The Grammar of Caste puts it,

…[D]ata point more towards continuation of traditional hierarchies rather than towards their dissolution, with upper castes at the top, Scheduled Castes-Scheduled Tribes at the bottom, and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) somewhere in between… What is very revealing is that lip-service to merit notwithstanding, contemporary, formal, urban sector labour markets show a deep awareness of caste, religious, gender, and class cleavages, and that discrimination is very much a modern sector phenomenon, perpetuated in the present. So it is neither a thing of the past nor confined only to the rural areas. * [Ashwini Deshpande, The Grammar of Caste, pp. xiv-xv.]

Another offbeat scholar who has studied caste seriously makes a point which helps us better grasp why things are as they are: “There can be no denying that for centuries they [dalits and other lowered castes] have been at the receiving end of all communication—information (nay, disinformation), sermons, commands and the like, and compelled into a position of powerlessness. Not surprisingly, the legacy [of caste and domination] persists.” * [Debi Chatterjee, Ideas and Movements Against Caste in India (Delhi: Abhijeet Publications, 2010), p. 285.]

Ambedkar, a prophetic figure for the caste-oppressed and framer of the Constitution, was prescient in grasping that “democracy in India is only top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.” He tried hard to integrate progressive elements of social justice into the Constitution, but also underlined that rights are protected not by law but by the social and moral conscience of society. At the euphoric dawn of democracy, his was the lone voice that warned against the life of contradictions that India was going to enter with equality in politics and graded inequality in social and economic realm. He strove to make the national leadership recognise that caste and brahmanism were structural and ideological obstruction to the idea of democracy, and that without eliminating them, India could never become a society where freedom and equality were available to everyone. But the national pundits colluded to ignore caste as far as possible. Only the question of untouchability was debated as its presence was too glaring and Ambedkar too insistent to leave it to the mercy of caste elites. Even this charity was cynically exploited to reduce the whole question of caste to the question of untouchability. Thus, in a height of hypocrisy, even today, the Indian Parliament debates caste-based reservations and atrocities based on caste, (and all political parties play caste card and distribute electoral tickets mostly on caste basis) but Parliament, thanks to the overwhelming casteist influence in the body politic, has never ever debated caste as an institutionalised discrimination, let alone doing something about making India caste-free.

A sociologist has pointed out “the official and social-moral ban on public discussion of caste in the decades after Independence,” but the ruling castes moulded the state apparatus and body politic in such a way that caste was reinvented as a modern institution capable of reproducing caste inequalities. * [Satish Deshpande, Contemporary India: A Sociological View (New Delhi: Penguin, 2004).] Transition from colonial to Independent economy and introduction of development plans had generated new economic and educational opportunities, but confirming Phule-Ambedkar’s worst fears, these were usurped by the dominant social groups. The investment priorities of the successive Five Years Plans under Nehru and his successors were enormously biased in favour of upper caste-class sections of society. * [N K Sarkar, Social Structure and Development Strategy in Asia (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1978), p. 25.] A nexus of brahmanic-feudal-bureaucratic influence reinforced the hold of the traditional power structure through manipulations of the newly introduced participatory democracy. Hidden behind the innocuous labels of traditional Hinduism or modern secularism, the new brahmanism was equated with nationalism and the shaper of Indian unity, with the corollary to pigeonhole the majority—dalits, adivasis, OBCs, Muslims, Sikhs, and other ethnic-religious categories—into different categories of minorities. It is notable that upper castes, barely 15 per cent of the population, have never presented themselves as a minority. Also, this group—which controls different levers of power and possess the lion’s share of country’s wealth—remains “the most elusive social group in modern India in statistical terms.” * [Satish Deshpande, Contemporary India, p. 110.]

The many faces of new dominance developed the communal, secular and liberal discourse in such a manner that it subsumed all national space, eliding or evading all issues concerning empowerment and education of the vast majority. All these forces colluded to subvert the new participatory democracy and reinforced a new hierarchy of caste and class. The caste elites utilised their money, muscle, and intellectual knavery to debase the new politics as a matter of perception which blurs reality and elections as the ability to project credibility, thus reinforcing a new oppressive power structure.

Dollops of reservations, subsidies, grants, cultural tokenism, and the rhetoric of democracy, justice and unity in diversity notwithstanding, the basic economics—and politics—of caste remained by and large intact. All these factors affected the nature of the new classes that have emerged in new India. Though the castes are increasingly getting separated from their former assigned tasks, the link between privilege and high caste status remains strong. And so is low caste status and assignment of most laborious and non-intellectual tasks. Politics is the only arena where traditionally subjugated social groups are far better represented, and this reflects in the mounting anger of the privileged groups towards parliamentary politics and politicians. But here, too, dalit-adivasi-OBC-Muslim politicians, with some exceptions, have become mere tools in the hands of powerful vested interests. Arithmetic of elections and dependence of parties and politicians on corporate houses for fighting elections turn them into worst kind of power players.

The fact is, the locus of power has decidedly shifted from Parliament to the corporate towers. This is the fundamental debasement of democracy, not the deepening of democracy, as political pundits wax eloquent to keep the excluded multitude in good humour. India’s procedural democracy and progress paradigm are fattening a “favoured minority” and multiplying inequalities with reproduction of caste and class. The democratic promise of the passage from exclusion to inclusion, from corruption to honesty, from bad principles to good ones remains, by and large, confined to the realm of the Constitutional provisions and public rhetoric. Life remains oppressive in India for a large number of people who struggle daily for sheer survival.

If the Indian democracy does not seem to be failing the people, it is because the situation is no different in the rest of the world. What kind of democracy prevails in the world that produces 10 million super millionaires and one billion hungry and homeless children? Do the ruling set really want “health, education, dignity and justice for all” as they crow in public, in the glare of limelight? The truth is, the globalised upper classes and techno-managerial elites in every country are obsessed with making money, for which they connect with their counterparts in other countries. Thus, Indian elites are not connected with the suffering Indians but with elites from other parts of the world. They are bound up with the corporate economics and politics to plunder the people and the earth under the banner of globalisation. They have rendered democracy hollow:

Modern democracies have been around for long enough for neo-liberal capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the technique of infiltrating the instruments of democracy—the “independent” judiciary, the “free” press, the parliament—and moulding them to their purpose. The project of corporate globalisation has cracked the code. Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities available on sale to the highest bidder. * [Arundhati Roy, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (Massachusetts: South End Press, 2004), p. 3.]

Such developments have a long background, but it is not just the neo-liberal capitalists who have made democracies hollow. Such perspective tends to obscure the long-standing complicity of a corrupt intelligentsia in subverting democracies around the world, especially in a country like India. After all, how free and fair were elections, judiciary, the media and academia in India before the economic liberalisation of 1991? The point is, the larger brahmanic forces had already taken control of “democracy” in India before the “project of corporate globalisation” entered the country of caste. Earlier, the hierarchies of caste and gender institutionalised graded inequalities, and were sanctified by the brahmanic scriptures the majority were forbidden to read. In the brahmanic eyes, there was no greater sin than education and equality of dalits, lowered castes and women. Despite resistances from below, caste continued to retain its ideological-cultural dominance, and its prescriptions went on to become social attitudes and cultural common sense. This state of affairs continued in the modern times due to hypocrisy of the caste elites. In fact, brahmanism got a new lease of life during colonialism; first by colluding with the colonial powers (which allowed it to rejuvenate and refurbish its old cultural resources), and then by emerging as the political-ideological engine of nationalism and capturing power after the Independence. That is why the tyranny of capitalism in India cannot be grasped, let alone resisted, in isolation from its wider social context. Capitalism is far more dangerous in India than in the Euro-America because of the culture and economics of caste.


Braj Ranjan Mani is the author of Debrahmanising History (Manohar, 2005). His new book, Reconstructing Knowledge: Transforming the Self and Society, is due soon.