Beyond Capital

Polemics, Critique and Analysis

Untouchability and Indian capitalism

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Below is an interesting story published by The Observer. It shows how stratification specific to a society is reproduced and even intensified under capitalism, with competition being generalised. Caste, race and all other hierarchical identities of yesteryears are transformed into competitive identities, as well as inducing market segmentation – the upper caste/race seeks to maintain its supremacy utilising every brutal means, while the lower caste/race tries to assert itself. A schematic radical would call this situation semi-feudal, as it seems to him/her an aberration to “pure” idealised capitalism. Is there anything like that? But who can argue with the convinced ones – ever afraid of dropping the coloured glasses that their fathers lent them? This forces him/her to go in all kinds of ‘bourgeois democratic’ alliances – in order to sweep away the “vestiges” of “pre-capitalism”, before removing capitalism and the capitalists. So much for his/her utopianism and idea-lism.

India’s untouchable millionaire

Entrepreneur who escaped the rigid caste system warns that it is becoming more divisive as India grows richer

Amelia Gentleman in Agra
Sunday May 6, 2007
The Observer

As a child, Hari Pippal slept alongside his six sisters and eight brothers on a stretch of pavement. As a teenager, he pedalled a bicycle rickshaw to help feed the family. Now the owner of a large, profitable private hospital, a shoe factory, a motorbike dealership and a successful restaurant, Hari Pippal has become a symbol of the enormous possibilities available in new India to anyone with entrepreneurial flair.

The fact that this self-made millionaire has risen to the top despite being a Dalit (an untouchable) has prompted some to promote his achievements as proof that, as India races towards economic transformation, a more egalitarian society is emerging. Magazines feature him as a Dalit success story. Pippal, however, is uneasy with his status as poster boy for a casteless modern India. He believes his triumphs have come in spite of his caste and warns that, as India becomes richer, caste divisions are becoming ever more pronounced. At the headquarters of his business empire, he said: ‘As a rule India’s economic boom is only enjoyed by high-caste people. This is a great tragedy for India, because so much talent is being excluded. I feel real despair.’

The Hindu concept of untouchability was abolished in 1950, but the challenge of eradicating prejudices dating back thousands of years has defeated successive governments. Last week in Delhi the issue of caste-related inequalities divided politicians as they argued over the merits of extending affirmative action programmes in universities for backward castes. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has compared the caste system to apartheid South Africa. ‘Untouchability is not just social discrimination; it is a blot on humanity,’ he said.

Pippal believes that the government needs to force the blossoming corporate sector to introduce positive discrimination schemes of the kind which have existed in the public sector for decades.

‘The government believes the scheduled caste [the official term for Dalits] is coming up, that the caste system is disappearing. That is wrong. The gap between the scheduled castes and the higher castes is increasing,’ Pippal said. ‘Lower castes are still very poor. Without money it’s hard to take advantage of the new opportunities, so they stay poor and everyone else gets richer.’

Pippal became conscious of his status on the first day at school. His teachers would mutter in his direction: ‘You people are ill-educated, badly dressed and don’t know how to behave’. Consigned to do the jobs no one else wants – latrine-cleaners and roadsweepers – Dalits have traditionally been forbidden from touching the food or water of upper castes. Pippal, 56, remembers how teachers would never ask him to bring them water or invite him to eat with them, as they did other higher-caste pupils.

‘I responded by deciding I had to be better than the others – cleverer, better dressed, better behaved, more successful,’ he said. But the snubs and subtle insults have lasted a lifetime. His surname identifies him as a Dalit, so when he opened his first company he called it ‘People’s Export’ – which sounded about the same, but did not have the same negative connotations.

When he opened his hospital in 2004, it was difficult to recruit high-caste doctors, many of whom would not contemplate working under him. Because the hospital, a few kilometres from the Taj Mahal, swiftly gained a reputation, attitudes changed and he now employs 25 upper-caste doctors. Even now, several of the Dalit doctors avoid revealing their surname, relying on initials so that they don’t alarm higher-caste patients.

When the oldest of his five sons said that he was engaged to a girl from a higher caste, Pippal was happy that his son had found someone he loved. Her parents, too, made no objection to the match, but a few days later about 100 people from her community arrived at Pippal’s flat, threatening to kill the girl’s parents if the marriage went ahead. ‘I told my son that he would destroy their whole family if he persisted in the marriage, and he understood,’ Pippal said. The son recently married a Dalit doctor from his father’s hospital. ‘Now I believe my children should marry within their caste. It’s better that way.’

India has a number of Dalit role models who have battled their way to the top. This year KG Balakrishnan was sworn in as chief justice of India, the first Dalit to hold the post. Narendra Jadhav, the chief economist of India’s central bank, is a Dalit. Yet the social mobility which usually accompanies rapid economic growth has barely touched this 150 million-strong community, the bulk of whom remain deprived and oppressed. Dalits die sooner and are more likely to be malnourished, unemployed and murdered than others.

Pippal knows how exceptional his life has been when he meets his contemporaries from primary school. ‘All of my school friends of my caste are still sitting on a pavement making shoes,’ he said. ‘They are angry with the system, but what can they do?’

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Written by Pratyush Chandra

May 7, 2007 at 10:11 am

Posted in Caste, Economy, Identity, India

2 Responses

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  1. Very interesting writeup. THe original caste system was based on merit- it was talent and temprament that determined who and individual was and not birth but vested interests distorted the original system as it suited them. For every pippal who has the talent to move upwards there must be upperclass indians who are probably not suited to their “high profile” roles and do not want to move down. Talent also has a different connotation-
    Make your passion your profession

    Hiren

    May 7, 2007 at 11:50 am

  2. […] Indian Capitalism Published by bhupinder May 9th, 2007 in Dalit, Capitalism and Prejudice. Pratyush Chandra reads The Observer’s story about Dalit entreprenuer Hari Pippal and wonders i… not so much of capitalism  but of semi- feudalism. It shows how stratification specific to a […]


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