Whatever one thinks of the Anna Hazare led IAC movement, I think the mobilization will continue to generate a great amount of intellectual discourse. One hopes that this can shed light on India’s emerging social structure and forms of political expression. A great deal in particular has been said about middle class involvement in the IAC movement by the academic community. Indeed, a substantial chunk of the negative commentary around the movement has centered on the middle class. The aim of this post is to question some of the assumptions underlying this negative commentary.
Let me first present some examples that point to the assumptions I am referring to. Mitu Sengupta of Ryerson University writes,
His movement has been portrayed, so far accurately, as a narrow, middle-class, upper-caste phenomenon that is dangerously tinged with authoritarianism and Hindu nationalism.
Another commentator on The South Asian idea blog wrote,
The demand is real. But I have serious doubts on the moral fabric of the Indian crowd that is demanding this.
Similar ideas were seen in a number of articles and comments from academics critiquing the mobilization. I would summarize the key assumptions underlying their understanding of the middle class as follows:
1) The middle class is casteist.
2) The middle class is communal.
3) The middle class lacks moral values and is itself aligned with the corrupt elite.
Note that these assumptions might indeed be well justified but the task of verifying them is itself a rigorous academic exercise. Today’s scholars however, dont even agree on a definition for the middle class, let alone identify key characteristics of it.
Assumption one is perhaps the easiest to justify. After all, wasnt it the middle class that led the anti-Mandal agitations and the less violent 2006 anti-reservation protests ? I think that the middle class is indeed anti-reservation, often on quite flimsy grounds. However, this is not enough to derive the conclusion that the class is casteist. The opposition to reservations is driven more by the insecurity of scarce higher education rather than caste discrimination. Urban middle class India is indeed caste-insensitive but it is (mostly) not casteist. In fact, this section of the society possibly sees the most intercaste marriages !
The second assumption has a firmer ground, although, one would question how secular the Indian masses themselves are. A paternalistic view of minorities, homogenized within the Hindu mainstream seems to have found widespread acceptance in the middle classes. As I have said before, India’s secular space, constructed carefully over hundreds of years of co-mingling is being steadily eroded, with decreasing space for the non-urban and non-Hindu. I would still argue that the IAC movement is actually a secular one, however that is a separate discussion.
The last assumption is interesting. The silence of the middle classes on many issues has been galling. But does this silence imply complicity ? In fact, there is much anger against India’s corrupt elites within the middle class. The reasons are not hard to understand. The middle class is not immune to the excesses of the elite. A lot has been said about the Jessica Lall, Priyadarshini Mattoo and Nitish Katara murders, especially the middle class nature of the protests following them. However, these very incidents highlight how powerless the middle class really feels front of the political and economic elite. How much more vulnerable can one get than getting shot for not making a rich man a drink !
I think that India’s intellectuals need to evaluate the relationship of India’s middle class to the masses with analysis independent of their own ideological biases. My own opinion and experience is that, when properly informed and sensitized the middle class in India is a natural ally of the poor, and I think the IAC mobilization is an example of the same.