Posted by: Vikram | September 13, 2011

Class Enemies. Why ?

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.


Responses

  1. Intellectuals are failing to see the anger of the middle class. And they turn blind eye towards failure of left front to support such mass agitation.

    And to say that only Indian middle class is castiest is laughable. Every community and caste in India is full of castiest people ….

    I also think the IAC mobilization is an example of the movement in the middle class…

    • Yayaver, I agree completely. There seems to be some amount of intellectual complacency within the academic community. Established assumptions are not being justified and challenged in a rigorous manner. This makes subsequent analysis devoid of any real meaning and substance.

  2. I, personally, am against anything which Indian corporate/joker media supports. This includes seemingly trivial things related to bollywood eg flabbergasting of ‘tees mar khan’ & RGV to serious matters like complete black out of trade union movements ( more than a million members of all the trade unions combined took a rally in Delhi, compare it to only few thousands gathered in Anna campaign).

    Indian electronic media, like that of everywhere in the world, is basically a spokesperson of Corporate class, because former is owned by the latter, much like DoorDarshan is the spokesperson of Indian Government.

    Politicians are villains because they are corrupt- this is the view portrayed by the media. Now by commonsense, how are the big conglomerates who give the bribe to netas are not equally gullible? Unless you are Satish Kaushik and think that bribe giving is legal!

    The main problem imo is ‘dumbing-down’ of the masses and the messiah-ism as has been aptly put by the current issue of Frontline. Vikram, I would like your views on the problems raised by Hindu,Frontline,EPW group.

    Regarding casteism and communalism, being oblivious of horrendous atrocities going around you, when you are capable of being ‘properly informed’, I think is no worse a crime.

    It is in this middle class that female-foeticide and dowry is increasing, It is this middle class that doesn’t participate in elections and is anti-political, it is this middle class that is against reservation, and so on.

    Its the policy of electronic media to prevent middle class from getting ‘properly informed’. Now the anger has to find a vent, in US its Tea-Party, in India its Anna-Party.

    Vikram, please go through the cover story of http://www.frontlineonnet.com/ . This is the criticism of Anna movement which is more prevalent in India rather than what you have commented on.


    Pega

    • Pega, please see below for my response to the criticisms. This is taken mostly from email debated with others.

      1) ‘Anti-politics’ tone

      Our social system has resulted in a political system based mostly on identity and community. While there is and there will be continual change in our country’s politics, in its current state it remains totally inaccessible to the general middle class, regardless of their ideological orientation.

      This charge, though fair, needs to be evaluated in this context. The IAC movement or indeed any middle class movement is not simply ‘anti-politics’, it is more ‘anti-politicians of today’. The IAC activists are not demanding the suspension of our basic political system, their aim is reform of our executive. There are indeed pockets of the middle class (both on the right and left) that support authoritarianism but they are an extremely small group, and have little influence over IAC.

      2) Unrepresentative nature of the committee

      This is actually little to disagree here. Anna Hazare’s team getting where it is today, is more a result of strategic thinking and plain luck than an electoral victory or a sustained movement. However, once the team did gain visibility, the support for it has been substantial. And the Lokpal Bill will be enacted only if passed by our elected Parliament,

      We all really need to understand something. The great Indian middle class simply does not see our politicians (and correspondingly our politics) as representative. And there are reasons for this. I have indicated some of them in point one. Changing this is not going to be easy but it is necessary. It will require changes in our society, politics and mindsets.

      3) Discomfort with ‘people IAC is close to’

      This is a somewhat vague accusation. All I can say in response is that Anna Hazare has taken on political parties of all shades and hues in his career, including the Shiv Sena and BJP.

      4) Media glorification of IAC

      There is little doubt that the corporate (especially English) media of India is middle class centric. No surprise really, since its workers (and income) predominantly come from the middle class. Therefore, one can expect wholehearted support for the IAC cause, which is primarily middle class driven. This has happened in the past with the Jessica Lal and other cases.

      But to discredit the IAC movement simply on the basis of its glorification by a self interested section of the Indian media seems premature.

      The IAC movement is a tremendous opportunity for us to inform our middle class peers about a whole spectrum of issues. It is our chance to get an important part of the Indian population to once again take ownership of a state they seem to have mostly abandoned.

  3. Pega, my goal in writing this post was to emphasize that one cant simply label the middle class casteist and communal and forget about or ignore them. They are quite likely to ally with the poor on a number of issues.

  4. I have no problem with this movement in principle, except for few demands in the JLP. Team Anna is a dedicated group with impeccable integrity. What if in the future, such demands grow for seemingly illegitimate demands? For eg Anti-Reservation. That time even you might be against it, but that is not the point. Insanity among an individual is an exception, among the mob its the rule. I have a problem with dumbing down of debate and using the fascist method of arousing the feelings and getting them to cheer for yourself.

    This middle class is fed with the ‘imagined India’ continuously which exists only in Bollywood. When they don’t find such India in reality the anger is natural. I wonder how many of protesting people participate in the local politics(zilla parishad), which is the legitimate place to organize the movement constitutionally, and make that the stage to bring some meaningful change.
    You rightly said that when rightly informed the middle class can be sensitive.
    But when 80% population live on less than Rs 20 a day, then with all the advantages of modern civilization, not being informed seems to be a choice.

    Also in India pressure groups politics is not in vogue (as in US). Every dissent is done on the institutional level , ie party politics etc. That is the reason why still majority of the politically oriented mass gatherings and movements (strike, dharnas) etc are directly backed up by the political parties. It shows the legitimacy of Indian democracy. So why is Team Anna shy of fighting elections, more so because indubitably they have the support of urban-middle class and the media? They can start with few urban dominated seats. Why is there a connotation of contempt for Indian polity? (Kejriwal has said many times that he will not fight elections) Is this just a ploy to gather the support of largely anti-political middle class or he really believes that constitutional methods are futile or both?

    • What if in the future, such demands grow for seemingly illegitimate demands? For eg Anti-Reservation.

      I understand the apprehension regarding the mobilization for demands one may be uncomfortable with. Indeed, we have had substantial mobilizations against reservation, but without much success. These are risks inherent with the right to protest. Indeed, no right comes without risks, but in a democracy this is an uncertainty one has to live with.

      This middle class is fed with the ‘imagined India’ continuously which exists only in Bollywood.

      Shwe, this statement might be true in a qualitative sense but needs to be better qualified for use in this context. IIRC, Bollywood movies invariably depict the police and other government functionaries as corrupt, which is not far from the truth. The solutions offered are quite naive but the ‘imagined India’ Bollywood showcases from time to time really has nothing to do with governance per se.

      But when 80% population live on less than Rs 20 a day, then with all the advantages of modern civilization, not being informed seems to be a choice.

      Perhaps, this is true. However, my experience has been mixed in this regard. I wouldnt be writing this blog otherwise. A lot of people do take a keen interest and listen to other viewpoints. Many others are indifferent, I agree.

      So why is Team Anna shy of fighting elections, more so because indubitably they have the support of urban-middle class and the media?

      I agree with you here. IAC offers no real political vision and has no plan to restructure social relations which drive a lot of corruption. But politically what IAC has achieved is that it has made urban, middle class India realize that it is a mass and (hopefully) realize that it can achieve substantial changes in alliance with the poor. Ashis Nandy’s views on this have been particularly helpful,

      http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/editorials/Push-comes-to-shove/Article1-737106.aspx#disqus_thread

      • By ‘imagined india’ i refer to movies of Karan Johar, Golmaal trilogy, ZNMD genre. This type of India exists only for may be top 1 % of population.

        There is a great debate on the movie preferences of the middle class multiplex going audience. What they prefer is the escapism to the wonderlands.

        I am pretty much sure that middle class will overwhelmingly support Modi for PM. It can obviously be extrapolated from past election results.

        Also your experience may be different than mine, but it depends. I am sure in US you doesn’t get to see all the Indian news channel live 24/7!

  5. Also can you suggest me a book on Ambedkar. Life, thoughts, struggle etc.

    • The two books I have read dedicated to Ambedkar and his thoughts are:

      1) Ambedkar on law, constitution, and social justice

      2) The legacy of Dr. Ambedkar (Bharat Ratna) – D.C. Ahir

      I have asked this question to a friend who is more knowledgeable in this regard than me. Will get back to you with his reply soon.

      Here also is the complete listing on works on Ambedkar at the University of Texas,

      http://catalog.lib.utexas.edu/search~S29?/XAmbedkar&SORT=D/XAmbedkar&SORT=D&SUBKEY=Ambedkar/1%2C314%2C314%2CB/browse

      • Any suggestions on Ram Manohar Lohia?

      • Here’s my friend reply regarding books on Ambedkar,

        “Dhananjay Kheer’s biography of Ambedkar is the standard work. There is also “From Periphery to Centre Stage: Ambedkar, Ambedkarism and Dalit Future” by K.C. Yadav. The best book on his thought is by Christophe Jaffrelot one of the top academics on India called – “Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analyzing and Fighting Caste”. Eleanor Zelliot also has a good collection of essays on the Ambedkar movement and Gail Omvedt’s “Dalits and the democratic revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit movement in colonial India” is also worth looking at.”

        About Lohia, I havent read any actually. However there was a recent EPW issue dedicated to Lohia. It referred to a number of books and articles.

  6. Thanks.

  7. Can I just say my piece. Maybe I can since I haven’t bothered you in a while :-) I find Mr. Hazare himself vile and undemocratic. Since he is just that to even talk about him adopting constitutional methods is sort of silly.

    • Nice to see you after such a long time Odzer ! I agree that one could call Hazare undemocratic, but why is he vile ?


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