LOOKING AWAY: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New Indiaby Harsh Mander. Speaking Tiger, Delhi, 2015.
SITTING in rooms air-conditioned by heavily subsidized electricity, India’s rich complain about subsidies to the poor because India is a land where islands of California float in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa, Amartya Sen once said in an interview. J.K. Galbraith’s term ‘secession of the successful’ was never more in evidence in our country where the private world of the rich is premised on the invisibility of the poor. A right wing Hindu nationalist government now rules with accelerated economic growth as its mantra, its majoritarian aspirational message having brought it a thumping majority. In his new book, Looking Away, former National Advisory Council (NAC) member Harsh Mander repeatedly asks whether the growth mantra alone can heave 1.2 billion towards reform and progress. Growth proponents led by Jagdish Bhagwati swear by trickle down, but to quote Galbraith again, trickle down occurs rarely and is akin to feeding oats to horses, so some of it trickles down to the sparrows.
Amartya Sen counters Bhagwati with the argument that without massive investments in health and education, growth itself will be imperilled. Also, if India’s radical founding constitutional ideals of perpetual war against poverty and prejudice are not upheld, we will only inherit a failed 1947 project, where illiberal darkness will reign in the place of freedom and modernity. These are the main themes of Harsh Mander’s Looking Away, a powerfully written lament against market-led neo-liberal economics and its present-day companion: a prejudiced and divided society. Mander is firmly rooted in the philosophy of Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, and echoes their vision of the welfare state as practised in some of the welfarist policies of the previous UPA government.
Yet this is not a book of political partisanship; instead it is equally a work where the search for a moral order amidst rampant inequality is also revealed as a uniquely personal struggle. Born and raised in social privilege and an alumni of elite educational establishments, Mander could easily have, like so many in his generation, wielded power and influence in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the service from which he resigned to pursue his calling among the hungry and the homeless. It’s a journey that has brought candour and courage to his voice, and given him a remarkable tenacity of purpose. Mander’s own anguish at the ‘scandal of inequality and poverty’ has marked a lifelong commitment to democratic activism and this book is as much a cry from the soul as it is about marshalling the hard statistics of the poor’s ‘non-existence’.
A complaint against the book could be that it follows a rather well worn media script, and all the right boxes are ticked in neat sections from the Food Security Bill to Right to Education to Old Age Pension to Muzaffarnagar riots to Khairlanji killings, so at times the book reads like a series of essays on the news of the day and a recycling of well trodden public debates on Dalits, Muslims, women and bonded labour, with too few forays into uncharted territory where new insight is shone on the many grey areas that exist between reported truth and underlying tectonic shifts. The struggle for gender justice is as much a sign of rapid change as it is of repression; prejudice against minorities needs to be offset by the complex rough coexistence seen in the interstices of the new economy. There is little reflection on endemic corruption as an assault on human rights, nor is there enough attention paid to the competitive politics that sometimes underlie horrors like the Muzaffarnagar riots. Instead, the rather standard tropes of discrimination and poverty are constantly reiterated, making the book occasionally into a manifesto rather than an exploration. More often than not ‘correct’ values of equality and secularism cannot be imposed by diktat from above, but must be recognized when they grow, mushroom-like in the wilderness, in the rough dirt of social upheaval. Love jihad and ghar wapsi were firmly repudiated by most of civil society, in Trilokpuri in Delhi residents themselves stood up to political communal mobilization, the media is creating an unparalleled awareness of government misdemeanours, Dalit women today feel empowered to register an FIR, and while India may still not have a Melinda Gates, scores of middle class citizens are turning into small time philanthropists. The story of poverty and inequality in India is not always a black and white one.
But this is only a minor cavil. In times when democracy is on the retreat, when millions have no access to the basics even as a razzle-dazzle India is marketed as an investment destination, when religious and social apartheid is driving communities apart, Mander’s work serves a higher purpose. Mander hears the voice of the toad as he is crushed under the harrow. In Isaiah Berlin’s words, ‘If the defeated are never worth attending to because history is the history of the victorious, then such victories will prove their own undoing for they will destroy the very values in the name of which the battle was undertaken.’
India’s invisible and exiled poor, those who the rich must ignore to sustain their own narrative, are brought alive through deeply moving portraits. Mander writes about ‘Rajesh’, the mentally broken boy separated from his mother whom he cared for in his NGO, Unnati. He tells us about a father who tried to drown his beloved daughter because he could not pay for her treatment. He effectively captures the suffocating prejudiced toxicity of Ahmedabad after the 2002 riots, and tells the story of Shahid Azmi, the lawyer who was shot dead because he defended innocent Muslim men accused of terror crimes. He relates the heartbreaking story of the Marathi film Fandry, where a lovelorn young boy is ostracized by his schoolmates when his caste is revealed. He reminds us that 250-427 million people in India still live in desperate poverty. He builds a case for compassionate capitalism, for a society based on empathy and love through a retelling of his own experiences not only as former National Advisory Council member when he was part of the process that helped shape crucial United Progressive Alliance (UPA) legislations such as the Right to Education, but also through lived experiences such as taking a group of young homeless kids to watch the film Slumdog Millionaire.
One of the most telling passages in the book is when Mander describes the change in his own belief systems from someone who believed in the power of state to alleviate all ills, to a conviction that it is society and not the state which must take the lead in spearheading change. ‘The change within my own thinking is my growing recognition that a just and caring state can be located ultimately in a just and caring society …the failures of the state are due to the social sanction given by the influential middle and upper classes to inequality and prejudice.’ In a society where even the affluent and highly educated abort their girl children, this is acutely true.
Looking Away is a powerful comment on the self-contained world of privilege in India and an avalanche of deprivation outside the gated colonies that, unknown to them, threatens their own survival. It is a clarion call to create a society based on ‘public compassion’. Mander also challenges the notion and semantics of ‘reforms’. Away from the notion of ‘big bang’ reforms propagated by the media, from Kabir to Gandhi India has always been a land of popular reformers, because reform is not just about financial markets and ease of business but about changing the lives of the poor and the excluded. Reforms become truly meaningful when they are taken to street and slum, and do not remain a subject imprisoned in the air-conditioned rooms of the Confederation of Indian Industry. Harsh Mander’s formidable experience and lifelong study of social and economic poverty has led to a timely, important and forcefully written book.
CASTE by Surinder S. Jodhka. Oxford India Short Introductions. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014 (2012).
THE book is divided into five chapters, which are summed up in a ‘postscript’. The first three chapters outline three views that present caste as ‘tradition’, ‘power’ and ‘humiliation’. The popular view of caste, Jodhka writes, interprets it as ‘tradition’. It is seen as an ‘institution of the Hindus’ based on the idea of varna as explained in early Sanskrit texts (p. 2). Its central feature is a structure of hierarchy, shaped by the religious ideology of ‘purity and pollution’ (p. 2), with Brahmans at the top and the so-called untouchables at the bottom. Constructed initially by the Orientalists, this view of caste has travelled to us through the writings of later colonial administrators as well as the leaders of the national movements.
Rejecting this view, Jodhka asserts that caste is not merely about religious ideology; it has a basis in ‘materiality’ (p. 4). Many social anthropologists in the course of fieldwork have indeed shown the linkages of caste with ‘power and economy’ (p. 172). Two sets of example, Jodhka writes, illustrate the situation further. First, ‘the context of democratic and electoral politics’ (p. 36), in the present times, provides the most visible connection of caste with power. The connection is also evident from the situation of Brahmans in Punjab; in the province, they do not own much land and are also placed low on the social scale (p. 44).
The third chapter provides a ‘perspective on caste… from below’ (p. 66). Here, Jodhka explains the significance of the practice of untouchability within the institution of caste, the formulation of the ‘line of pollution’ (p. 70) in the late nineteenth century in the course of deliberations by colonial officers, and the views of the so-called untouchables on caste. The important point that the author makes is that the so-called untouchables often do not accept the superiority of Brahmans or even the ‘legitimacy’ of the caste system (p. 173).
After outlining the three views on caste, Jodhka moves on to the fourth chapter titled ‘contesting caste’. The contestation of caste is discussed with reference to the non-Brahman and Dalit movements in the last two centuries, and the various measures introduced by the state in independent India. The final chapter offers a nuanced analysis of ‘caste today’. Here, the author discusses economic transformations after independence; the rise of Dalit movements and ‘representational’ politics since the 1990s; and, against this backdrop, the continuing deprivation of the scheduled castes.
From a conceptual point of view the book makes several important interventions. First, Jodhka asks that when caste continues to exist and exist resiliently, why have so many assumed that it would die a natural death in modern India? This assumption, he explains, is based on an erroneous understanding that caste is merely an ideological component of a religious tradition that would give way when confronted with the forces of modernity. Similarly, questioning the belief in the irreconcilability of caste with capital, he demonstrates how caste and its discriminatory tendencies reappear, hidden in the garb of culture, in seemingly modern spheres of capitalist entrepreneurship and labour market. Implicit in these points is the need to re-conceptualize the relationship of caste with received ideas of citizenship and capitalist market.
Though written as a ‘Short Introduction’, the book is more than an introduction to the subject of caste. The canvas it covers is quite large: sociology, politics and even history. However, there remain a few issues, which the author, perhaps because of the vastness of the subject of caste, has not been able to deal with in depth. For instance, while stressing that caste is rooted in power and not merely about religious ideology, Jodhka seems to accept the premise that there is ‘no dissonance between power and status’ (p. 173, p. 35). This does not match with the observation made by many scholars that the social status of Brahmans, as well as that of the so-called untouchables, is not proportionate to the material resources they possess. Second, we still need to unravel and decode why, even after two centuries, the Orientalist explanation of caste continues to prevail.
Dr K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and
Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi
ENTANGLED URBANISM: Slum, Gated Community, and Shopping Mall in Delhi and Gurgaon by Sanjay Srivastava. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2015.
Sanjay Srivastava’s ethnography explores the collective imagination of the city and politics of contestation over urban space at various sites in Delhi and the National Capital Region. Taking forward Jennifer Robinson’s argument on the ‘locatedness’ of the concept of modernity and the need to understand Third World urbanization independent of western imagination, Srivastava attempts to develop multiple accounts of modernity, shaped ‘through a complex interplay of class, nationalism, and a variety of shifts within political and cultural economics’ (p. xix).
Arguing that ‘the city is a series of overlapping meanings produced at points of conjunction’ (p. xxi), the author broadly divides the book into three sections. In the first section, ‘the city …is experienced as a series of connections across varied spaces’ (p. 82), which is described through ethnographic details of fieldwork carried out in Nangla Matchi (a settlement which was located on the western banks of Yamuna river near Pragati Maidan before its demolition in 2006) that narrates the city as imagined by the slum dwellers, their efforts to stop the slum demolition in this area, scout for resettlement colonies and navigate through political structures. As ‘the modern history of "improvement" schemes in Delhi is closely tied to colonial and post-colonial projects of producing clean spaces… and the making of urbanized bodies to occupy urban spaces’ (p. 3), by exploring life-histories of those located at the margins of the city, the author attempts to connect these narratives with the categories of ‘nation’, ‘state’, ‘city’, and ‘class’ (p. 4). The ‘fragile certainty of basti life’ revolves around the illusion of permanence, the urban poor consider that proof of identity is necessary for various purposes, even if that calls for an engagement with the cultures of duplicity and acts of deceiving. Moving on the author then elucidates that the post-colonial state’s promises of urban ‘renewal’ and ‘beautification’, in order to attain the status of a ‘global city’, is often achieved through sustained practices of demolition and this leads to ‘the indirect transfer of resources from the poor to the rich’ (p. 60).
In the second and third sections, the discussion revolves around the imagination of the city ‘as a series of discrete space(s), and one where the distinctions between "private" and "public" life are beginning to be reinforced through a variety of mechanisms’ (p. 82). Drawing from fieldwork conducted in Delhi and Gurgaon, the narratives of ‘clean’ spaces encompass the aspirations and desires of consumer-citizens who encourage real estate developments, with the belief that urban spatial transformation is an important part of contemporary Indian modernity. ‘It is in this context that the book explores connections between new urban spaces, ideas of cosmopolitanism, gender politics, new forms of religiosity, middle class family life, and the place of the urban poor within imaginations of ‘global’ cities’ (p. xxxi). Be it the RWA activity that is itself a claim on ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ middle class, or its role in producing ‘an urban consensus around middle classness, and the politics of space’ (p. 86), the gated residential enclaves that are rapidly developing in the city and surrounding region primarily function on exclusionary politics.
Thus a significant part of the urban middle class imagination is related to ‘the rising hostility towards "debased" villagers’ in the city, i.e. the urban working classes and slum dwellers (p. 96). Giving the instance of the Bhagidari programme of the Delhi government, Srivastava argues that it has altered the ideas on urban citizenship and space, thereby moulding visions of the contemporary city and ideas of legality and illegality. The politics of space that is being generated has an immanent logic of separation engraved on it.
Since a restructuring of the urban and politics of urban redevelopment becomes pertinent when placed along with the development pressures associated with global integration and national growth patterns, the effort to present Indian cities as ‘global cities’ has been altering not only the spatial structure but also the social and economic composition of the cities. While ‘the nationalist project of producing modern citizens related to external spaces’ such as town planning (p. 119), the new spatial strategies facilitated by the neo-liberal forces have increasingly been promoting divisive policies through gated communities and condominiums that focus primarily on domestic and intimate spaces. In these cocooned spaces of gated enclaves, ‘a significant aspect of contemporary middle class identity is inextricably linked to an accumulating discourse of private and public spaces, the privatization of public spaces…’ (p. 127).
Closely related to this social production of space, facilitated by a real estate boom, is the discourse of consumerism. The plethora of choices that are being offered in shopping malls and in the new urban spaces of religiosity, elucidates processes of surplus and moral consumption, thereby continuously linking ‘Indian consumer culture to "global" standards, experiences, expectations, and styles’ (p. 221). Thus the modern Indian urban imagination and planning of urban space, even in all its fragments, as the title of the book suggests, seems to gather around the trope of urban entanglement.
Though the author wants us to see the book as being ‘properly anthropological’, its in-depth ethnographic detailing and analytical focus has a wider implication for debates on urban restructuring.
Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, Delhi
BEYOND CASTE: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present by Sumit Guha. Leiden, Brill, 2013.
THIS book is about caste but it is much more than just another academic treatise on the subject. Written by a historian, the book explores several subjects besides caste, some directly related, some not. They include the political dynamics of spatiality, historical trajectories of village life, the role of household and family in the making of Indian history, the politics of the state’s modes of knowing its subjects and the nature of identity formations in the South Asian region.
Along with exploring these subjects historically and arguing for their relevance in obtaining a better understanding of the contemporary Indian context, the book also makes several theoretical interventions that have larger implications. Like many others have done before Guha, he too challenges the western and Orientalist assumptions about India and South Asia as somehow being unique and different, with a ‘social essence’ of their own, ‘the indic avatara of Hegel’s absolute spirit.’ As a scholar he attempts an alternative interpretation of the history of all these regions by invoking already available frames and adding to them his own bit. While he uses a large volume of literature produced on India by western scholars to develop his critique of the Orientalist essentialism, he also consciously foregrounds writings by scholars from the subcontinent. These include historical research, sociological and anthropological works by Indian scholars and Dalit biographies.
How does he do this and what is new about his approach to the subject of caste? Like many others, Guha too began by challenging the popular textbook view of caste which looks at it as primarily a Hindu religious and ritual system. Besides presenting caste as a homogenous system of ritual hierarchy, such a view also fails to take into account the obvious materiality of caste, its close association with structures of social and economic inequality and those of domination and power. Such a view also fails to look at caste as an evolving reality, with regional variations and its intersections with other aspects of social and economic life. It ignores the fact that caste is not unique to the Hindus. Caste-like hierarchies have been actively present among followers of other religions as well – Sikhs, Christians or Muslims in the subcontinent and beyond.
Joining ranks with sociologists and historians who fundamentally reject the Orientalist view of caste, formulated most comprehensively by Louis Dumont, Guha too argues that the idea of caste as we understand it today has its origin in western discourses on Indian society. Invoking Merton Klass’s classic work, he underlines the point that the term ‘caste’ does not easily translate into any of the Indian languages. This, however, is not to suggest that inequalities of status did not exist in the pre-colonial period or that the material reality of caste was produced by colonial discourses.
His argument, as of many others, is to reject the colonial and Orientalist understanding and theorization of local hierarchies, which puts excessive emphasis on religion and ritual life, as if caste had nothing to do with everyday materialities and existing structures of power relations. However, he does not suggest that caste is the local variant of class, as some Marxists may wish to conclude. Guha defines caste as ‘bounded and status ranked ethnic communities.’ To further his argument and locate it in the comparative sociological scholarship on social inequalities, he invokes Max Weber and his notion of status and ethnic groups. Weber had famously argued that the Indian caste system was only an extreme form of status-based communities, a dimension of inequality found in most societies of the world. Guha also invokes Fredrik Barth and his work on ethnicity and the manner in which ethnic groups constructed boundaries in relation to each other and through a principle of distinction.
As perhaps Weber and Barth would argue, the categories of ‘status’, ‘ranking’ or ‘ethnic boundaries’ are not uniquely Indian. They have existed in other societies as well and they undergo changes over time, with changes in the wider social world. The challenge for social scientists is to understand the manner in which those boundaries are ‘defined and reproduced through historical time.’
Such a formulation of caste thus would not only help in understanding caste based inequalities in a comparative framework, but also enable us to make sense of its persistence in the present-day context. As Guha argues, using Abner Cohen’s work, ‘forms of symbolic action may be survival of the past, but live in the present because they play important roles within the contemporary social settings.’ Thus caste exists and persists in active interaction with the wider social, economic and political world.
As mentioned above, there is much in this book besides caste, all of which is worth engaging with. The book opens up new questions and invites us to imagine India and its pasts afresh.
Surinder S. Jodhka
Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, Delhi