Professor Emeritus, Centre for Political Studies, JNU
Deep cleavages of the Indian society came into the open as violent clashes broke out when the Dalits were attacked in villages around Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018. They sparked angry Dalits to launch strong protests all over Maharashtra, which also spread to Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Opposition parties and leaders blamed the BJP governments of these states, alleging that they had failed to protect the life and property of Dalits.
However, political blame game does not help identify the real causes of the deep social unrest and anger which exists, especially among the millions of deprived, exploited and suppressed classes like the Dalits, the rural and urban poor labour classes and small shopkeepers in every village and town. More than 500 million poorest of the poor Indians are engaged in a struggle for sheer survival, and to keep the kitchen fires burning. The Wretched of the Earth, as Fanon calls them, come on the streets to protest when they feel angry and frustrated with their living situation.
A few facts need be highlighted about the “unjust and unequal” social order in which the majority of the labour classes feel completely left out and ‘disempowered’.
1First, independent India inherited poverty, backwardness and underdevelopment. The Royal Commission of Inquiry on Rural Indebtedness and eminent economists like Jathar and Berry, Gyan Chand, Brij Narain, AR Wadia, JJ Anjaria and others have informed us that on the eve of Independence, the villagers lived in poverty and the poor “Indians were born in debt, lived in debt and died in debt.” If on the one hand India inherited “poverty and underdeveloped sectors of economy”, on the other, it also inherited an “unequal social order” which was dominated by zamindars, jagirdars, feudal landlords, rich merchants and big traders and industrialists. Thus the absolute majority of poor co-exist with the minority of socially and economically prosperous and dominant castes and classes. However, this “inherited inequality” should not have continued till today, 70 years later, because every government and party which has come to power had committed to eradicate poverty and establish a just and equal social order. India continues to remain an “unequal society”. An economic survey shows:
(i) “Between one-third and one-fourth of Indians live in absolute, subhuman poverty”. How can social harmony remain intact in a country where more than 350 million people 'live in below poverty line' defined by the government?
(ii) The Global Wealth Outlook (2014) informs that top 1 per cent people held 37 per cent of the wealth of the country which increased to 53 per cent by 2016. This concentration of wealth exists because there is no public policy of 'redistribution of wealth'.
(iii) Post-Independence India did not have any 'billionaire' and only one was identified in 1991. However, the Forbes List and Oxfam inform that in 2017, India had 84 billionaires with a collective wealth of $248 billion. The rising social group - which is about 300 to 350 million - consists of professionals, entrepreneurs, technocrats, middle and upper middle classes, capitalist farmers and surplus owning rich peasants.
This reveals how the uneven distribution of income and wealth among different segments of society has led to an increase in the levels of “absolute inequality” and those at the "bottom" of this social hierarchy are the absolute majority of the labour classes.
2Second, if on one hand Indians have to face the reality of existing social order based on ‘economic inequality’ on the other, caste-based ‘inequality’ is also a cruel fact of society. The Dalit castes and marginalised backward castes whose status is 'lowest' in caste hierarchy especially are victims of both poverty and caste-based discrimination. How can such an unequal society be at peace with itself? How can such a society of deep social cleavages be conflict- and violence-free? Despite the 'changing' character of the caste system because of modernisation and democratisation, the essential feature of “inequality” on which caste system had been built remains intact because “economic inequality” has strengthened the system of “caste-based inequality”.
The Dalits and Other Backward Caste labouring sections of society are not only victims of 'economic deprivations' they are also victims of 'caste-based coercion and atrocities'. Hence, they are learning to fight for their rights and dignity.
3Third, the present party-in-government is responsible for creating a serious crisis situation by following wrong economic policies. The ‘demonetisation’ in November 2016 directly hit the daily wage earners, small shopkeepers in the villages and small towns and informal sector of economy which constitutes the major component of Indian economy. The spectre of unemployment haunts the Indians, whether skilled and trained engineers and craftsmen or the unskilled or semi-skilled labour classes. There has been a great loss of employment opportunities for 'daily wage earners' because important sectors of employment generation have come to standstill after demonetisation and the falling rate of economic growth has further blocked employment opportunities for the youth who are in the job market.
What is the explanation for the dominant Jat caste of Haryana, or Patidars of Gujarat or Marathas of Maharashtra or Gujjars of Rajasthan to launch aggressive struggles in support of their demand for ‘reservations in public institutions of education’? The job opportunities are shrinking and the dominant backward peasant caste and their children want assured entry to “public institutions” for jobs and education.
4Finally, it is a historically validated sociological insight that economic crisis creates situations of social conflict and disruption. The real burden of economic crisis is borne by the most vulnerable strata because they do not have any safety net or social security. Only a democratic government which is responsive to the felt needs of the poorest of the poor can intervene to help the deprived to face the challenges of poverty and unemployment. This does not seem to be happening and that is the reason that the suffering people have decided to come on the streets. The daily wage workers and migrant labourers observe the richness and prosperity of a section of the elite and it makes them react and, sometimes, violently.
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