Promise of equality : Andre Beteille

By Andre Beteille

IN THE past, Indian society was unique in the extremes to which it carried the principle and practice of inequality; today Indian intellectuals appear unique in their zeal for promoting the adoption of equality in every sphere of society. Marxists call for the liquidation of the class structure, feminists demand the abolition of patriarchy and citizens in general want to put an end to bureaucratic hierarchy. Most persons would place themselves on the side of equality, and few would like to speak of the limits to which it can be attained.

Nehru had said on the eve of Independence, “The spirit of the age is in favour of equality, though practice denies it almost everywhere”; and, being an optimist, had added, “Yet the spirit of the age will triumph”. More than 50 years after Independence, the spirit of the age has not triumphed, at least not to the extent to which Nehru had hoped. Despite some changes, much inequality still remains; and along with it the persistent rhetoric of equality. When one examines this rhetoric and the sources from which it comes – university vice-chancellors, judges of the higher courts, newspaper editors, and not just politicians and social activists – one may be excused for suspecting a certain lack of seriousness if not of sincerity in public discussions of equality.

If there is anything distinctive about the Indian approach to equality, it is its continuous oscillation between the utopian and the fatalistic modes. The utopian mode is most in evidence in public presentations. At workshops, seminars and conferences where important social issues are discussed, one can always count on hearing stirring calls for an end to all inequalities, at least in the inaugural and valedictory sessions. There prominent persons in public life speak as if all the accumulated inequalities of the past can be made to tumble down like the walls of Jericho at the blast of the trumpets.

The opposite or fatalistic mode is characteristically expressed in private. There people are inclined to lament that nothing changes in India, or, if anything changes, the change is always for the worse. They point to the capitalist class, the bureaucracy, the elites and now of course the multinationals as the irremovable obstacles to the advance of equality. It is not as if the utopian and the fatalistic orientations are characteristic of two distinct and separate sets of persons. They co-exist, like the two sides of a coin, in one and the same person.

The combined operation of the utopian and the fatalistic attitudes distorts our understanding of what is happening around us and obscures our view of the horizon of possibilities. Some forms of inequality are undoubtedly in decline while other forms of it are probably on the rise. Ours is a large, complex and changing society. So long as we continue to think of inequality as a single indivisible phenomenon that operates uniformly all across it, our understanding will remain clouded. There is no modern society in which inequalities are either rising or declining in every respect. Unless we discriminate between the major forms of inequality prevalent in our society – those inherited from the past and those of more recent growth – we will fail to discern any trends of change.

It is important to distinguish between the inequalities due to occupation, education and income from those due to caste and gender. The two types of inequality are no doubt intertwined in their operation, but they are different in their origin and in their legal and moral bases. One’s caste and one’s gender are unalterable. Where they are the main bases of inequality, the scope for changes in social position is severely restricted and the individual is encouraged to accept the position assigned at birth. The inequalities of caste were in principle transmitted from generation to generation. However large the inequalities due to occupation and education may be, the individual can always hope for a better social position, if not for himself, at least for his offspring.

Although they have not by any means disappeared, the inequalities due specifically to caste and gender are in decline and have been so for the last hundred years. The ritual idiom of purity and pollution through which they were expressed has weakened, though not to the same extent in all sectors of Indian society. The hierarchical conception of society which led men and women to accept their allotted positions in society as a part of the natural scheme of things has also weakened although it has not disappeared. All of this is obscured by the rhetoric of equality which has scant regard for secular, incremental changes.

New inequalities have arisen and extended their scope in Indian society in the last hundred years. The most important among these are the ones based on occupation and education. A new occupational system, quite different from anything that existed before the 19th century, has emerged in India. It is the basis of the modern Indian middle class as well as the organised working class. Along with the new occupational system there has emerged a new system of formal education. The educational system provides the credentials for entry into the new middle class including the higher levels of the occupational system.

Modern economic systems are characterised by the continuing differentiation of occupations. There are tens of thousands of individual occupations. A major line of division is between manual and non-manual occupations. Manual occupations are divided into skilled, semi-skilled and un-skilled ones. The non-manual occupations are legion, ranging from lowly clerical and other subordinate ones to superior professional, managerial and administrative ones. Thus, modern occupations are not only highly differentiated, they are also elaborately ranked. Occupational ranking is correlated, though not in any simple or straightforward way, with educational attainment and qualification.

Modern societies work through a variety of political administrative, economic, financial, educational, scientific and other institutions. It is impossible to think of any such institution – a secretariat, a bank, a hospital, a laboratory or a university – without a set of graded occupations, manual as well as non-manual, enjoying unequal esteem, authority and income.

The social grading of occupations is a response to the demands of the institutions to which I have just referred. It is difficult to see how a bank can function if the manager and the peon are given equal authority, equal esteem and equal pay. The same holds by and large for a hospital, a laboratory or a university. If a university is to function effectively, the vice-chancellor must have more authority than the dean and he in turn more authority than the research assistant. This is not to say that anyone, the head of the institution included, should be invested with unlimited authority. The fact that authority in institutions is often abused cannot be an argument against the gradation of authority as such. Again, to say that in a hospital doctors are expected to receive greater esteem than laboratory attendants is not to suggest that the latter, or any other staff, may be treated with contempt.

Democratic societies of the present call for the equal consideration of all human beings as human beings, irrespective of race, caste and gender. But this does not mean that such societies can dispense with inequalities of authority, esteem and income in the institutions on which they depend for their sustenance.

Inequalities due to income, education and occupation cannot be eliminated, but they can be regulated. Regulating the inequalities of income may be difficult, but it is not beyond the reach of policy. Similarly, a great deal can be done to expand educational opportunities, although it will be difficult to provide education of the same quality to all members of society and impossible to ensure that they all achieve equal success in their educational careers. Again, while no social policy can eliminate the social ranking of occupations, it should be possible to provide a minimum of security and dignity to all positions, including the lowliest, within the occupational system. But the formulation of sensible policies for the regulation of inequality is obstructed by the rhetoric that all inequalities are dispensable and should be ended.



About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
This entry was posted in Andre Beteille, Equality and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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