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Makarand Paranjape – A Re-Brahminised Brahmin?

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It seems Prof Makarand Paranjape has taken upon himself the task of eliminating the rightist intellectual vacuum of which left-liberal scholars have recently been talking about. He is actively posing himself both as a rightwing liberal and a genuine scholar, especially with his recently published work on Gandhi’s murder, The Death & Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi. Here, he succeeds as a rightwing intellectual, both in his omissions and commissions.

In this book, Paranjape undoubtedly demonstrates a credible scholarship. However, like any right-winger, he unabashedly displays his inability to comprehend the structure of an event, a conjuncture or a catastrophe – conflating facts and fiction (literary facts), reality and virtuality. The conceptual asyndesis that the right wing discourse suffers from flattens the structure of reality. The analytics of the destructed reality are reinforced at the immediate level of discourse, oblivious of the fact that they are differentially located in the composed structure of the event. In his endeavour to come to terms with Gandhi’s murder, Paranjape literally makes everybody responsible for it, even future generations. He absolutises relative responsibilities and makes the regenerated Oedipal guilt of the empowered Hindutva forces a collective absolute of the history of independent India . Ultimately, Godse emerges merely as an executor.

In the epilogue for the Indian edition of the book, Paranjape has clearly indicated his choice against “hypocritical and cynical” “Congress-style secularism” “pandering to and appeasing minorities”. He is not at all dismissive against the “majoritarian political formation. Of course, he wants some actions to see if “Hindutva-Hinduism [is] a better guarantor of religious and cultural pluralism than pseudo-secularism.” He asks, “will the new realism of pragmatic majoritarianism succeed better?” It seems he got his answers very soon.

Similarly, in his video-graphed “lecture” on nationalism in JNU  before an “openminded” left-liberal audience desperately looking for their own variety of Indian nationalism at the time of neoliberal “post(modern) fascism”, Paranjape, like any right-wing street-fighter, goes on poking the left to make their choice among binaries – constitution or revolution, etc, demonstrating once again his ignorance of the complexity of the question of legitimation.

***

Paranjape continues to display the rashness of anti-left tirade in a recent article in Indian Express too, where he blunders on both levels – of arguments and of facts. However, here, he is engaging in manipulations typical of a conservative intellectual and poltician, to defend his recent activism. He starts with some commonsensical utterances to justify adding his name to a petition against one of the best Sanskritists of our times, Sheldon Pollock.

Paranjape jealously questions the exorbitance of the investment by a ‘Swadeshi’ investor in a project to create Murty Classical Library under the editorship of Pollock. As he admits, he doesn’t seem to know more than home economics, and thinks investment in scholarship as similar to buying underpants and vegetables.

In this era of global capitalism, when Indian rulers are busy playing beggar-beggar with other late capitalist economies to make Make-in-India campaign legible to investors, Paranjape and his herd are trying to contribute in it by selling their cheap intellectual labour. But they don’t know that the economic considerations for big industries in modern capitalism are not those of village sahukars – where buying cheap and selling dear are immediately interlinked, immaterial of the nature of products in consideration. Stooping down to the level of Prof Paranjape’s home economic sensibility, we can merely plead that he should have some sense to know that the long term credibility of the investor also matters at least in the field of academic production.

Reasonably, Paranjape tries to win the argument by complementing his home economics with inciting a nationalist inferiority rage. Here he is in a quite good company, as this provoking of bruised nationalist consciousness has always been a hallmark of jingoists and has once again become rampant – Trump, Berlusconi, Le Pen & c, and of course not to forget our own Modi. It effectively generalises, mobilises and instrumentalises anxieties and precarities produced by dispersed Fordism leading to the emergence of post(modern) fascism.

***

Now, coming to what Paranjape calls “the more controversial demand to sack Pollock”, we find him deliberately misinterpreting Pollock for his academic-political ambitions.

Pollock’s essay which Paranjape and his coterie are misquoting to discredit him and to project him as any Orientalist is one of the finest works on traditional Indian intellectual practices, where he displays his knowledge of not just the hegemonic Shastric tradition but also of oppositional scientific and secular voices, who had to regiment themselves by indulging in ritual nodding to the Shastric authority.

To the extent that Pollock demonstrates the intransigent and transcendent nature of the Shastric tradition in prioritising theory, along with its attempt to homogenise and hegemonise practice, his originality is only in the extent of his scholarship, not in his idea. There have been alternative traditions right from the Upanishadic times that have been questioning such ritualisation, many times in shrill voices, and in recent centuries quite openly as by many late Medieval poets and numerous anti-caste fighters like Phule and Ambedkar. 

Moreover, in the very initial paragraphs of the essay, Pollock declares his thesis, “everywhere civilisation as a whole – and this is especially true of art-making – is constrained by rules of varying strictness, and indeed, may be accurately described by an accounting of such rules.” And then he goes on to compare Manusmriti and Amy Vanderbilt’s Everyday Etiquette (definitely, an outrageous comparision from the perspective of a refounded Brahminism of Hindutva), and concludes, “such cultural grammars exist in every society; they are the code defining a given culture as such.” Of course, he credits Shastras for their unique expanse and influence.

Paranjape must remember if he wants to (though it is difficult given his allegiance to particular political projects in recent days), that orientalism happens not simply when whites exorcise brownies, it is also when whites and brownies combine to exoticise and eternalise the orient. Let me remind Paranjape of his own remorse at the “politics of misreading” in 1991 (Economic & Political Weekly), when he was troubled by what he saw the “tendency to indulge in the commonest argumentative fallacy of irrelevance: ad hominem or name-calling,” At that time, he was accused of having represented himself as a “de-brahminised brahmin” by, as he claimed, his student (it is clear that this fact hurt him the most). That “student” today is himself a well-known literary scholar and activist, K Satyanarayana.

However, in recent days Paranjape himself, along with his less-sophisticated ilk, has mastered this politics and is indulging in “the commonest argumentative fallacy” of name calling. He clearly dislikes them with whom he disagrees. Whether he had actually de-brahminised himself earlier or not is debatable, but it is clear, at least for the time being, he has re-brahminised himself, and he feels empowered.

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Written by Pratyush Chandra

April 13, 2016 at 10:41 pm

Notes on Rohith Vemula’s Suicide

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1. “It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear, with these immortal words uttered on a similar occasion by Vaillant, a French anarchist martyr, do we strongly justify this action of ours.” These were the opening words of the leaflets that Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt threw after bombing the Central Legislative Assembly in New Delhi on April 8, 1929. By the massive reaction across India to the suicide committed by Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student at the Hyderabad Central University, it is not an exaggeration to say that this action of his was justified – as a loud voice or explosion that we all heard. If murder is justified as a politico-legal act (in case of executions, as legal murders), why not self-murder? It is ethically far superior or noble too as it is directed towards oneself – as a samadhi, both in brahminical and anti-brahminical traditions.

2. One might say that the revolutionary terrorism of Bhagat Singh challenged the state, by openly defying its laws. One might further admit that in revolutionary terrorism, the nobility of the cause is objective and evident. Revolutionaries are distant to their acts and their effects, which are fully under their command. It is for the emancipation of humanity, workers or nations that the revolutionary terrorists live and die – a mark of extreme selflessness. They standout among the masses, they are heroes whom we all look up to – kind of supermen. If they are democratic and responsive to people, it is their humility, which further adds to their stature.

But suicide? How can it be revolutionary? It is an act of extreme selfishness and cowardliness. It is this belief that shows up slyly even in the massive pro-Dalit and Dalit responses to Rohith’s suicide, even in their bid to disprove it. Of course, they will not call this act selfish or cowardly. They will explain it to disprove all this, but ultimately the paradigm to demonstrate its something else-ness is same, whether you sanctify it as a kind of protest, in which you must add, suicide when nothing else works or call it an “institutional murder”, or a desperate act of a depressed individual. Rohith must be either a victim (of the system or of groups/individuals) or depressed or even, at least for the status quoist forces, a desperado.

3. Marx had published a peculiar write up in 1846 on suicide, which is not much studied. Till recently it was thought to be merely a translation of a French police administrator, Jacques Peuchet’s work on suicide cases. The fact that why on earth Marx translated a piece on suicide too was not touched upon. It was its retranslation in English, its comparison with the original one by Peuchet along with short studies by Kevin Anderson and Eric A Plaut revealed the importance of the text. Marx’s omissions, commissions and editorialisation in his translation transformed it into a very significant text where Marx directly deals with women’s issues, bourgeois family and a generalised system of alienation. He twisted the text which was already very graphic and condemning with his powerful unattributed insertions. One of them is:

“Those who are most cowardly, who are least capable of resistance themselves, become unyielding as soon as they can exert absolute parental authority. The abuse of that authority also serves as a cruel substitute for all of the submissiveness and dependency people in bourgeois society acquiesce in, willing or unwillingly.”

What Marx does in the text is to show how cowardliness and impotence of people in authority and power lie in their inability to make sense of suicide. Marx thus translates Peuchet:

“What characterises courage, when one, designated as courageous, confronts death in the light of day on the battlefield, under the sway of mass excitement, is not necessarily lost, when one kills oneself in dark solitude. One does not resolve such a difficult issue by insulting the dead.”

Marx pushes the argument further by inserting:

“One condemns suicide with foregone conclusions. But, the very existence of suicide is an open protest against these unsophisticated conclusions.”

4. At least the state, as the collectivity of ruling interests, is well aware of the lethality of the self-afflicted terror, suicide. It knows how this act is a powerful means of undermining it. That’s the reason, suicide is a crime. Foucault succinctly put, suicide was a crime “since it was a way to usurp the power of death which the sovereign alone, whether the one here below or the Lord above, had the right to exercise.” He proclaims, “This determination to die, strange and yet so persistent and constant in its manifestations, and consequently so difficult to explain as being due to particular circumstances or individual accidents, was one of the first astonishments of a society in which political power had assigned itself the task of administering life.”

5. An act is not just its grammar, it is a performance – when, where, who, before/against whom etc all characterise it. Hence, the divide between revolutionary and reactionary acts. A “revolutionary suicide” is an act enmeshed in politics of experience, like any self-murder. It is a response grounded in the personal self-full experience of the perpetrator. It is devoid of the nobility and selflessness of a declassed revolutionary or a self-flagellating noble liberal, volunteering to think about them who can’t think for themselves. Only a black revolutionary could have conceptualised this concept, and a Dalit can very well understand it. When “bereft of self-respect, immobilized by fear and despair, [an individual] sinks into self-murder”, it is, according to Huey Newton, “reactionary suicide.” On the other hand, revolutionary suicide is not a result of “a death wish”, therefore, it is a suicide which is not even suicidal. “We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible.” The desire is so strong that we seek to satisfy it “even at the risk of death” – “it is better to oppose the forces that would drive me to self-murder than to endure them.”

Addendum

6. Pitting knowledge and reason against experience constitutes what can be called an arrogance of determinism and abstraction. It is immaterial if scholars are aware of this or not. Until and unless this abstraction is re-derived from experience, that is until this duality is resolved in the dialectic of practice, it will have an affinity to the brahminical Cartesian prioritisation of abstracted science. This is where many theorisations and historicisation of oppressed identities fail them. In their attempt to explain the experience of caste and race in terms of its determinations, many times they simply write off the question of the reproduction of the caste system or identitarian hierarchy in everydayness – how it is reproduced in social practice, where, let’s admit, it is nothing short of a conspiracy.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

February 19, 2016 at 10:50 pm

Marx, Ambedkar and Indian villages

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I used to wonder whether there can be a common explanation for one of the varieties of post-Independence Indian Socialists’ discomfort towards both Marx and Ambedkar (obviously to be politically correct, they have to keep mum on the latter, diverting all their anger towards Marx). I think there is one commonality between them that seem to disturb our champions of village democracy and rural communitarianism – Marx’s and Ambedkar’s powerful indictment of the Indian village system.

While Marx can easily be accused of orientalism for saying the following:

“we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies… We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman [Hanuman], the monkey, and Sabhala, the cow.”

What accusation can be hurled upon Ambedkar, a sufferer himself?

“It is said that the new Constitution should have been drafted on the ancient Hindu model of a State and that instead of incorporating Western theories the new Constitution should have been raised and built upon village Panchayats and District Panchayats. There are others who have taken a more extreme view. They do not want any Central or Provincial Governments. They just want India to contain so many village Governments.

“I hold that these village republics have been the ruination of India. I am therefore surprised that those who condemn Provincialism and communalism should come forward as champions of the village. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.”

Written by Pratyush Chandra

January 10, 2011 at 11:48 pm

Class Struggle, Development and Revolutionary Politics

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1. What happened in China? Isn’t it capitalism that is being nurtured by the ‘Maoist’ party in China?

The course of development is determined by class struggle (at least the Chinese communists were emphatic about it, when they said that this class struggle goes on in their own ranks as well). The Chinese economy where it stands today too is not a result of any linear development; without deliberating on contradictions of the development process that revolutionary movements trigger, we generally tend to impute successes/failures of the revolutions or movements to the subjective choices of the leadership – their goodness and badness.

2. What is happening in Nepal? The Nepali Maoists are quite vocal about their aim to nurture capitalism in their country.

Even in the case of Nepal, we should try to understand the Maoists, by grounding their politics in the wider political economic processes which limit their ‘dream’ of an uninterrupted revolution, of ‘bypassing capitalism’. Their problem is at least partly our patriotism – like the anti-patriotic Zimmerwald Conference we should first of all decry and call for the defeat of the Indian state and capitalists who virtually hold half of the Nepali economy to ransom; then only can we see a proper anti-capitalist revolution emerging in landlocked Nepal. We should just go through news reports of the past five years, how threats from Indian capital and state (which Indians, including the leftists, generally understand as an expression of big brotherliness, rather than that of imperialism, because we ignore the economic basis of India-Nepal relationship) have regulated the Maoists’ radical initiatives.

3. What is the development strategy of the Maoists in India? Don’t they profess to compensate for lack of capitalism?

About our Maoists, I believe, our so-called movement people are waiting for their failure to be the proof of their wrong ideology, strategy, tactics or even ignorance about the development process. But that is not the way for the revolutionaries – they have to understand every struggle caught up in the particularisation of class struggle in various localities, first by affirming it to be part of the same movement. What will be the development strategy ultimately is determined by the articulation between various local (particular) struggles, and the class hegemony that directs that articulation.

4. How have non-Marxist socialists in India faired on this count?

The socialist movement (here I include many communist organisations too) in India today – because of their populist political base and vision (‘populism’ in a definite theoretical sense) is caught up in the cartesian binaries of big vs small, agriculture vs industry, village vs city, india vs bharat etc etc, in which the hierarchised composition – internal differentiation – of the preferred half (the ‘small’ or the agrarian community etc) are simply wished away, ultimately for the benefit of the well-to-do within this ‘small’/agrarian community (in practical terms increasing their bargaining power). (A parallel example in the urban areas could be the trade unionists protecting sectional interests or labour aristocracies by not taking account of labour segmentation). We have seen how socialists in rural areas have been reactive to any talk of class differentiation, and independent labour mobilisation, since they tend to divide, not unite the rural community.

5. But don’t you think every movement has to have a central focus that can broaden its base? A peasant movement will be homogeneous in this regard.

I think within the peasant movement, even before Independence, there were a few socialists who were quite clear about the complexity of the peasant question – how differentiation within peasantry determined the trajectory of even seemingly “homogenized” peasant struggles: to name some of them, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati (see his “Maharudra ka Mahatandav”) and Indulal Yagnik/Dinkar Mehta (in Gujarat) who understood the task of re-envisaging the rural struggles around rural labourers (which include those sections of the “landed” peasantry who simply reproduce their labour-power by engaging in farming). For a historical review of this aspect please read Jan Breman’s “Labour Bondage in West India”. The recent overstress on peasant homogeneity is phenomenon which is related with a definite rise of the kulak lobby (I am using this term in a purely objective sense).

6. At least the socialists have a clear vision about alternative development.

Yes, the socialists have a clearer vision about development alternatives, but much of that has to do with their dualistic conceptualisation; they can remain happy with utopian anti-capitalism, by choosing one pole in the binary. The problem with communists is that they try to develop a labour standpoint – and labour-capital relationship does not constitute a cartesian contradiction, they are opposites in a dialectical contradiction – “capital is labour”/”labour is capital”, as Braverman said, “working class is the animate part of capital”. The development strategy is constituted through this continuous contradiction, through a generalisation or a political systematisation of the alternatives emerging in the daily experiences of the working class. The question here is to go beyond capitalism, to overcome capital as accumulated labour dominating the living labour – to overcome the subsumption/ alienation/ accumulation of various forms of labour by capital (capitalism expands not just by wiping away the “vestigial” forms of production and exploitation, but also by resignifying them). We cannot have a predetermined development strategy in this struggle, except that which will sharpen the class struggle.

7. But class struggle between capital and labour too leaves aside many other conflicts.

Not exactly. The issue before us perhaps is to understand how ‘other’ struggles (struggle between classes, not just labor and capital but other classes also; struggle within classes; struggles against the State, caste and gender struggles) are related to capital-labour conflicts. Why cannot they be seen as particularisations of capital-labour conflict? Labour does not mean just wage labour. Labour-capital relationship resignify the whole stratification of the society, even castes and gender are posed as specifications of that relationship:

a) Ambedkar can be helpful in understanding the caste system in this regard, when he talked about caste as not just a division of labour, but a division of labourers. In this framework, anti-casteism becomes a working class struggle to create unity among labourers.

b) An Italian-American activist-scholar, Silvia Federici has succinctly put:
“If it is true that in capitalist society sexual identity became the carrier of specific work-functions, then gender should not be considered a purely cultural reality, but should be treated as a specification of class relations…In capitalist society “femininity” has been constituted as a work-function, masking the production of the work force under the cover of a biological destiny. If this is true then “women’s” history is “class history”.

8. So are you against community level struggles, as communities are generally composed of diverse class interests?

A “Community” is not simply an aggregation of horizontal interests; it arises out of an articulation (which includes hidden and open conflicts) between various levels of interests. Its critical edge is determined by the nature of interests that dominate that articulation. We are not even hostile towards the idea of rural community, but the point is to see how it is internally constituted, and which class interest dominates it.

(I thank comrades, interacting with whom I wrote much of the text.)

The Meaning of Anti-Casteism

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Ambedkar clearly defined the meaning of the struggle against the caste system. For him it was not simply a petty bourgeois assertion of identity, a struggle for mere representation, as many exponents for and against the dalit movement have propounded. In his ILP days and again in “Who were the Shudras” (1946), Ambedkar essentially viewed the origin and function of caste (and therefore casteism) as conversion of “the scheme of division of work into a scheme of division of workers, into fixed and permanent occupational categories”. So the revolt against caste system (or casteism in a capitalist society) is a revolt against the material and ideological division of workers, against labour market segmentation, against the individualist-competitive ethic (a petty bourgeois tendency) among workers (which frequently takes identitarian forms). Only by questioning and destroying the whiteness of the “white” workers, a larger united working class movement could be posed in the racist societies like the US. Similarly in a casteist society like India, only by attacking the “upper/middle-caste-ness” among workers, a working class alternative could be posed. A drastic reorientation of the dalit movement (and therefore of the working class movement) is needed if it has to pose a real challenge to the caste system and casteism, as Ambedkar understood them. Dalit Movement has to re-emerge as the vanguard of the working class movement.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

January 16, 2009 at 1:52 am

Capitalism and Caste

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Economist Nirvikar Singh in his latest column in Mint questions the exclusive focus on the rural-urban divide in policymaking. He points out at a more “pernicious” “social and economic divide” – which divides even the villages.

At the bottom of the heap are India’s Dalits, whose traditional social status is so low that they are outside and below the country’s complex caste hierarchy. Even when government spending reaches down into villages, the Dalits, living in segregated neighbourhoods, with the worst access to health and education facilities, may see little of the benefits.

However he finds that “Capitalism is beginning to break the caste system”. In fact, Dalits in India have more opportunities than African Americans in the US (the latter being permanently stigmatised due to their colour) because

Dalits in cities far from home have the opportunity to change their names and reshape their identities. This may be the first step in getting an education, participating in stronger social networks than their own, and eventually climbing the economic ladder.

So Sanskritization – cultural aping – is of course according to Singh an opportunity for Dalits!

Singh acknowledges that “capitalism is not a guaranteed destroyer of discrimination”, but he also stresses capitalism’s potentiality to neutralize caste. Once again he quotes Chandra Bhan Prasad that “Economic expansion is going to neutralize caste in 50 years. It will not end caste.” He concludes,

Maybe neutralizing caste is good enough: Caste can remain like the markers of national origin (Irish-, Italian-, or Indian-American)in the US, without being a basis for oppression

Singh is correct – capitalism does neutralize every difference to the extent that under this system based on generalised commodity production

Everything becomes saleable and buyable. The circulation becomes the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as a gold-crystal. Not even are the bones of saints, and still less are more delicate res sacrosanctae, extra commercium hominum [consecrated objects, beyond human commerce] able to withstand this alchemy. Just as every qualitative difference between commodities is extinguished in money, so money, on its side, like the radical leveller that it is, does away with all distinctions.

As Singh himself says, migration (“circulation” of human beings as “variable capital”), along with Sanskritization, will have “positive knock-on effect”. Definitely the qualitative difference is extinguished between castes, they are all equally levelled as labour inputs. Castes are increasingly reduced to “markers” as of a 100 dollar note, a 10 dollar note etc – they are all ultimately various quantities or denominations of the same currency, the dollar…

But then the difference between a 100 dollar note and a 10 dollar note does remain – these “markers” allow the system to locate you within itself according to your ‘worth’. The difference between the excluded and the included is ‘extinguished’ – everyone is ultimately included even if differentially.

Yes, Singh and Prasad are correct – the caste system will be perhaps finished as the hierarchy of status in “next 50 years”, as a new caste system has already emerged based on the competition between “markers” – as between Godrej, Lux, Rexona and Palmolives.

This is

in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

However, should we give Singh the benefit of doubt that as an economist he knows that these “markers” have vital roles to play in construction and dynamics of the labour market?

Written by Pratyush Chandra

September 8, 2008 at 12:58 pm

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?’

Written by Pratyush Chandra

May 7, 2007 at 10:11 am

Posted in Caste, Economy, Identity, India

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