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    Breaking The SilenceWhy we dont talk about inequalityand how to start againByPRATAPBHANUMEHTA|1October2012







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    1 The New Challenge of Inequality

    THE PRINCIPLE OF EQUALITY is having arevolutionary effect on life in contemporary India. This was the considered assessment of the eminentAmerican political scientist Myron Weiner, writing for Foreign Affairs in 1962. In a society still marked



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    by egregiously obscene forms of inequality, the term revolutionary seems extravagant, even fivedecades after Weiner pronounced his judgment. But determining what constitutes revolutionarysocial change depends on how that change is measuredand in the second decade after Independence,the distance that India had travelled from its starting point would have indeed seemed immense.Political equality had been enshrined in the Constitution, untouchability had been delegitimised,political representation was widely shared, zamindari had been abolished, a new developmentparadigm was instituted, and the state defined its goals in terms of common welfare.

    And yet by another measureof how much more India would have to achieve to become a minimallyequal societyeven this progress was small comfort. Formal political equality did not translate intosubstantive empowerment; abolishing untouchability barely cracked open the hierarchies of caste;political representation coexisted with deep prejudice; zamindari abolition did little to alleviate thevulnerabilities of small farmers and landless labour; development was shockingly slow at expandingopportunities; and the states promise of welfare seemed like a cruel mirage to hundreds of millions ofIndians condemned to poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and disease.

    Much has transpired since Weiners preliminary assessment of the career of equality in India.Economically, India has broken out of the paradigm of low growth that always seemed to makematerial prosperity so elusive. This new growth is producing far-reaching changes in income,occupational structures, lifestyles and aspirations. Politically, Indias democracy has deepened, givinghitherto marginalised groups impressive representation and recognition. Administratively, the statehas acquired unprecedented resources to spend on programs ostensibly designed for inclusion. Andthere is a palpable change in social consciousness: political democracy has induced a sense of agencyand empowerment across different groups in society; today inclusion is a demand of citizens, not a giftgiven from on high.

    Yet these very changes are compelling the debate over equality to take a paradoxical turn. On the onehand, there is impatience with the idea of equality. While an acknowledgement of formal equality isnow enshrined in Indias self-image, the politics of equality are often associated with hypocrisy andpretense. One camp in the debate blames Indias ills in large part on an excessive rhetoric of equalitytalk that is regarded as a license for maintaining outmoded forms of state control that for decadestrapped Indias economy. From this perspective, equality talk has always been a license for economicirrationality: it was used to justify all manner of subsidies, controls and patronage schemes that didnothing but retard development. Growth may be producing new forms of economic inequality, theargument goes, but at least it is more effective at reducing poverty. It is also creating the conditions fora more durable equality of opportunity, by providing the resources for things like education. An

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    The Emperor UncrownedFast and FuriousTalk Of the TownUnhealed WoundsThe Tempest

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    excessive preoccupation with equality is seen as a stumbling block: it produces policies that do nothingbut appease the conscience of Indias privileged, even as these policies do little to dismantle deepstructures of inequality. Let us get on with growth, it is argued, and the opportunities it produces will,somehow, at some point, take care of equality concerns. Equality, on this view, is both a ruse and adistraction.

    This sentiment captures a scepticism generated by Indias development experience. It is also of a piecewith new Indias self-image of tough-mindedness, not bound by pieties of the past. Yet, on the otherhand, this posture is deeply fragile. While equality talk may not have served us well, deep social andeconomic inequality remain obdurate realities in India. It may be a crude measure, but Indias Ginicoefficienta measurement of the uneven distribution of wealthis rising. Acute forms of socialsegregation remain a reality. A large number of social struggles continue to be animated by theindignity of inequality and powerlessness. Despite significant reductions in poverty, it is difficult todeny that India still breathes an oppressive atmosphere of social inequality. The idea that growth andeconomic development represent our best chance of unsettling fixed hierarchies of power has sometruth to it. But we cannot get away from the fact that growth is bringing in new challenges ofinequality, which we ignore at our peril. It is also true that much of the political discourse of equalityhas been hypocritical. But here we must acknowledge that debates over growth and equality rarelymanage to dent the psychological resistance we have erected to avoid confronting uncomfortable factsabout inequality.

    This essay is premised on the idea that the way we think about inequality matters a lot to the shape ittakes and to the prospects for its diminishment. At present, Indian thinking about inequality suffersfrom a triple burden. The topic is cloaked by a deep and pervasive culture of avoidance. But even whenit becomes a focus of political reflection, the outmoded idioms through which we imagine equalitybecome new straitjackets that impede solutions. And this, in turn, distorts the understanding of theinstruments we use to address the problem. This essay cannot do justice to the full complexity of theproblem; it is a modest attempt at clearing some cobwebs. But India urgently needs to confront thisissue anew. Or else inequality will remain Indias original sin: reappearing in the face of everyresistance, casting a shadow over all social relations, acting forever as a rebuke to the Indianexperiment.


    The Culture of Avoidance

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    THE TOPIC OF EQUALITY IS A DIFFICULT one in any society; it conjures up a complex of hopes andfears. The greatest modern theorist of the psychological burdens of equality, Alexis de Tocqueville,proposed that societies that enshrined formal political equality would find it difficult to talk about realinequalities, because formal equality allows us to throw a veil over deep social inequalities. But inIndia it is a particularly difficult subject to discuss. The experience of inequalityand its associatedindignitiesis commonplace and visceral. To confront it fully is so existentially disturbing that it isoften kept at bay by a whole series of interdictions and stratagems.

    For those at the bottom of a deep well, the mere act of looking up at the heights to be scaled can bedispiriting; for those at the top, the act of looking to the depths at which human beings are confined islikely to cause vertigo. The net result is a taciturn avoidance played out in Indian homes and streets. Itis not that the poor are not aware of the deep indignities they experience or the chains that bind them.It is not that the privileged are not aware of their deep complicity in a disfigured social system ofinequality. But any frontal representation of this reality is more likely to induce an intellectual andmoral paralysis.

    Powerful representations of this realitylike the astonishing literature produced by Dalitsarepolitely acknowledged, but rarely internalised in our consciousness. When books like Katherine BoosBehind the Beautiful Forevers, or even Hollywood entertainments like Slumdog Millionaire, entermiddle-class consciousness, they cause discomfort. This is not because they remind Indians ofsomething we had forgotten, but because they represent an assault on the elaborate psychologicalfortifications we have constructed to cope with a reality we know all too well. It is precisely becausethe indignities associated with inequality are so widespread that we find it hard to talk about them. Butthe avoidance has created a self-perpetuating system, which is rarely frontally challenged. Everyonehopes the system will change, but absolves themselves of the responsibility for bringing about thatchange.

    This deep existential discomfort with the topic might seem to be at odds with the fact that the struggleover equality defines a great deal of modern Indian history. Certainly it is impossible to imagine anymodern society that does not take equality seriously. But taking equality seriously only gets us so far.The nature of our foundational commitments to equality varies considerablyand even if we achievedclarity over those commitments, transforming them into a social reality requires confronting acomplex set of forces. Concepts do not automatically translate into reality: which is why equality canoften seem both normatively inescapable and socially impossible at the same timean ideal on whicheveryone agrees but one that can never be entirely fulfilled.

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    For similar reasonsthat commitments do not necessarily entail outcomesit is also a mistake tothink that foundational religious commitments explain much of the story of equality. In the canonicalstory of equality in the West outlined by Tocqueville, Christianity did provide a standpoint from whichto affirm equalitybut then it took almost two millennia for this discovery to be embodied in socialinstitutions. In India, this story is usually told in reverse: Hinduism, the dominant conceptualframework of the subcontinent, constructed a deep, enduring and disfiguring ideological edifice ofinequality. This framework, with its fusion of coercive, ideological, economic and religious power,pitilessly condemned large masses to the most insidious forms of subordination mankind has known.

    In fact, many of the ideological polemics against inequality in India are just critiques of Hinduism invarious formswhich have in turn spawned a series of reactions that attempt to sever the connectionbetween Hinduism and caste, or to point out that the tradition was not quite what its detractors made itout to be. These polemics have their place, even though they often fail to get historical nuances rightand simplify a complex historical inheritance to the point of caricature. But all these historicalarguments run up against one paradoxical and incontrovertible fact of Indian history. India hasproduced immense intellectual radicalism, heterodoxy and dissent, all of which could be put in theservice of equality. And yet this intellectual radicalismwhether in the Mahabharata, Buddhism, Kabiror Nanakhas been so easily reconciled with the orthodoxy of social structure; the facts of inequalityseem to swallow all religious or metaphysical attempts to escape it.

    So the obsession with the question of whether Indians believe in equality, or whether the concept hasany cultural roots here, is therefore somewhat misplaced. John Locke could believe in Christianityand equality, and yet put up with slaverythe issue is not so simple.

    As the philosopher Bernard Williams pointed out, in all societies the demands of equality and justiceare often immobilised in the name of something called social and economic necessity. The issue iswhere and how these lines of necessity come to be drawn. For example, all societies tolerate highdegrees of inequality in property and income, not because they are just, but because these are seen asnecessary, often for the preservation of other goals like efficiency. These institutions then come to beseen as necessary ones. What drives equality is not so much a series of abstract arguments aboutconcepts, or large changes in the character of people, but some inchoate sense of the boundaries ofsocial and economic necessity. It is rarely the case that arguments for equality move us towardsparticular social arrangements. Indeed, it is often the reverse: the degree to which particular economicand social arrangements are seen as necessary determine the boundaries of equality. We first justifythe structure of privilege in terms of necessityaccording to imperatives of economic efficiency orsocial stability, for exampleand then limit our commitment to equality to adapt to that necessity. The

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    issue is not a belief in equality, but how its demands are immobilised in the name of some necessity.

    ONE MODEST ACHIEVEMENT of modern India is that gross inequalities are no longer legitimised. Westill put up with them as a reality; often as a deplorable necessity, but a necessity nonetheless. As aresult, our conceptual innovations, ideological entanglements, or appeals to traditionour ideas aboutequality, in shortseem to mean very little when they come face to face with an unyielding socialreality.

    As the renowned Dalit writer Om Prakash Valmiki once asked: What possible meaning could anyonegive to an oft-quoted phrase like Vasudeiva KutmbakamThe World is My Familyin the face of anoppressively suffocating experience of subordination? How can we explain the persistence of countlesssites that inflict needless indignityforms of domestic servitude, manual scavenging, inhuman labourconditions? Instead of occasioning a discourse of justice, these very realities seem to silence itsdemands.

    To be sure, all societies experience versions of this silencing; this is not Indias monopoly. But one mustadmit that the scale of this silencing is unusual in a society that has so many other things going for it:pluralism, a reflective and argume...