How long, O Lord, how long?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi confused cause and effect when he recently told National Democratic Alliance legislators that poverty is India’s biggest caste. Poverty is certainly the biggest cause of inequality in a land where the Adanis and Ambanis wax richer every year and the government prefers fancy Vande Bharat expresses to ordinary passenger trains. But poverty is not the cause of India’s plight, says Parthasarathi Shome, a distinguished economist who was an adviser to Mr Modi’s predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh. Shome argues in his new book, The Creation of Poverty and Inequality in India, that poverty is the product of a unique form of stratification that is not only India’s Achilles heel but shackles Indians with “societal barriers and obstacles that eat into their capabilities”.
The beef controversy is one feature of the “conundrum of confusion” that is India because Sangh Parivar stalwarts who proudly lynch defenceless youths and men on suspicion of storing or consuming beef may be barking up the wrong ecclesiastical tree. Shome cites the Rig Veda, the Taittiriya Brahmana, the Pachasaradiya Seva, the Apastambha Dharma Sutra and several other authorities for not just permitting, but positively encouraging, its consumption. True, Manu’s Prayashchit Mayukh sternly warns against even touching a beef-eating Buddhist but this may have been a strategic move in Hinduism’s reconquest of Buddhist India. Since expedient actions often seek religious sanction, linking beef with untouchability could have both reinforced the ban and helped to create a new army of wage slaves for the dirtiest menial jobs. Dr B.R. Ambekar saw untouchability in terms of the old adage about giving a dog a bad name and hanging him -- forced by their social superiors to handle beef, carcases, leather and night soil for minuscule payment, the poorest communities had no option but to eat the dead animals they handled.
An old Calcutta Medical College joke is pertinent in this context. It claimed that when a stroke killed a man in a public lavatory, neither Dom nor Chamar, who ranked lowest in Bengal’s pecking order, would touch him. One was averse to corpses; the other to lavatories. Eventually, the authorities sent for a doctor who was as impervious to dead bodies as to defecation. There could be a hint there of how to tackle some of our most intractable problems, although without a Swachh Bharat Mission’s yield in political propaganda.
Views on caste differ. A writer-administrator like H.H. Risley of the Indian Civil Service, who organised India’s first definitive caste census in 1901, saw caste as “the cement that holds together the myriad units of Indian society”.
Christopher Bayly, the eminent historian, thought colonialism “consolidated” traditional hierarchies; a Commissioner of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes blamed reservations for creating a “vested interest in backwardness”.
Echoing the militant Justice Party in the old Madras, Shome blames “the role of Brahmanism in shaping a society that designs social and economic exclusion and isolation”. As he explains with an abundance of charts, graphs, tables and figures, caste “has disabled capabilities in basic education, primary health and lifetime earning capacity, in turn affecting freedom and happiness by stratifying society”.
Not that the top three castes -- the “dwija”, or twice-born -- complain of congenital disabilities. Their grumble is that preferential treatment has tended to favour the traditional underdog ever since the Mandal upsurge under V.P. Singh.
Shome’s evidence doesn’t quite deny this. Although many compensatory benefits are diverted by society’s traditional leaders, the system does encourage a process called “Brahminisation”, thereby creating a “creamy layer” among the previously depressed. A village mukhiya in Bihar once lectured me that only free firearms for the “forward castes” would eradicate the threat of Naxalism presented by uppity Dalits. At the same time, thanks to their statutory privileges, the lower castes are up for grabs; Shome holds that “the consolidation of Dalit political power [has] translated into their supporting the Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party whose platform seeks to unite all Hindus, including Dalits, in the fray”.
There is poetic justice, therefore, in the “Hindu supremacist” BJP, the principal beneficiary, being caught in the cross-hairs of a peculiarly Hindu dispute: was the ninth century Raja Mihir Bhoj, whose domains straddled the Malwa region of today’s Madhya Pradesh, Gujjar or Rajput? If castes are up for grabs, vote-catcher heroes (never mind if they lived more than 1,100 years ago) are even more prized. Haryana’s Rajputs account for five per cent of the population and are influential in 15 out of 90 Assembly seats which will elect representatives next year. Gujjars may be similarly consequential in western Uttar Pradesh.
This recrudescence of an old dispute erupted too late for inclusion in a meticulously researched account of the dire impact of caste on economic growth and political balance. But other controversies expose both the farcical nature of many caste claims and the hypocrisy of some profoundly held religious postures like the supposed ban on beef. One concerns the Kayasthas. Asked whether they were Kshatriyas or Shudras, the Calcutta high court ruled that they were Shudras and could therefore inter-marry with Doms and Tantis. But according to the Patna high court, which now sees no objection to a caste census, they are indeed Kshatriyas.
Many will endorse Shome’s conclusion that “unless the entire gamut of required economic, social-economic, anthropogenic and political reform measures are considered holistically and sincerely, poverty eradication and inequality alleviation will not be achieved comprehensively and will remain shrouded in obfuscated statistics and feckless intellectual noise”. In other words, effective reform demands a revolution. But a revolution is ruled out since he also admits that “India’s poor do not loot”. Moreover, if a highly respectable visiting senior fellow at the International Inequalities Institute of the London School of Economics, like the author, advocates only discreet legislative measures of the utmost propriety, politicians on the make are equally circumspect.
Therein lies India’s dilemma. When Egypt’s Gen. Mohamed Naguib demanded King Farouk’s abdication, the monarch replied enigmatically: “You have done what I always intended to do!” Egypt and the world would probably still have been waiting if they had relied on Farouk’s intention. The doctor in the College Street lavatory analogy comes back to mind. If the answer to India’s problems lies in the emergence of a scientifically-educated professional class that is free of religious dogma and political opportunism, Indians might well echo Shaw’s St. Joan and ask: “How long, O Lord, how long?”