Periyar, Bhagat Singh, untouchability and poverty

And a very faulty analogy

In a piece commemorating Bhagat Singh’s hanging by the colonial British government, historian Irfan Habib describes how the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu interpreted his politics. Bhagat Singh’s views on the political use of religion struck a chord down south. As did his economics.

Periyar wrote further in the editorial that “to abolish untouchability we have to abolish the principle of upper and lower castes. In the same manner, to remove poverty we have to do away with the principle of capitalists and wage-earners. So socialism and communism are nothing but getting rid of these concepts and systems. These are the principles Bhagat Singh stood for.” [The Hindu]

The fallacy should be clear: one cannot change one’s caste, but one can get richer.

Now it is possible to argue, with some justification, that the social structure and colonial policies made it practically impossible for people of the early decades of the 20th century to break out of poverty. But the analogy was philosophically wrong then, as it is now. Economic fortunes of people did change, albeit very slowly. Instead of calling for economic freedom and individual liberty that would create avenues for upward mobility that generation of leaders fell for the easy seduction of Socialism and Communism.

Those short-cuts didn’t work. The tragedy is that almost a century later, with abundant empirical evidence that these short-cuts are cul-de-sacs, India’s leaders still fall for the same faulty premise.

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7 Responses to Periyar, Bhagat Singh, untouchability and poverty

  1. libertarian 22nd March 2008 at 19:59 #

    Nitin: socialism and communism are intrinsically associated with Big Brother government arbiters. That, perhaps, is the fatal operational flaw in the conduct of these theories. Wonder if anyone has attempted a theory of a more equitable society with lower state interference. Not that I would be interested of course :-) – it would still just spread the poverty more evenly …

  2. Nitin 22nd March 2008 at 20:06 #

    Libertarian

    a theory of a more equitable society with lower state interference

    Estate duties, perhaps?

    Most attempts to make societies equitable involve a third party: if not the state, it’s the church. So you donate money to your religious institution and they will distribute it among the poor. Like with the state, the money doesn’t quite end up making the society equitable, but the handlers do get rich.

  3. libertarian 23rd March 2008 at 21:18 #

    Like with the state, the money doesn’t quite end up making the society equitable, but the handlers do get rich.

    Yes, quite. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel) remarked that all governments were kleptocrats – just the degree determined whether they were rapacious or enlightened. Socialism and communism are on the “highly kleptocratic” side of the scale. An interesting fallout is when a “citizen” of a state decides to withdraw from the state (most usually to avoid paying taxes). There’s the sovereign citizen’s movement that is very interesting (and usually implies jail time!)

  4. xyz 24th March 2008 at 09:18 #

    I will not go into the merits of your argument.But the chindu’s columnist claims that periyar fought for dalits.Irfan Habib may not able to even locate TN on a map.

    Periyaar had contempt for any dalit rights.He famously claimed “cheri ponkal ravikkai potarathala thuni vilai eri pochu”-The price of cloth has increased because cheri( dalit settlement) women are wearing blouses”.

    I dont think there is a simple relationship between politics and economics,but the chindu would make Goebbels blush.

  5. scritic 24th March 2008 at 21:53 #

    The fallacy should be clear: one cannot change one’s caste, but one can get richer.

    The objection to “caste” isn’t only that it is rigid and unchangeable but also that its an unfair way of categorizing people: a kind of value system that assigns every person a “worth” and denies him certain social goods based on his status.

    Most attempts to make societies equitable involve a third party: if not the state, it’s the church. So you donate money to your religious institution and they will distribute it among the poor. Like with the state, the money doesn’t quite end up making the society equitable, but the handlers do get rich.

    My objection is not that the market assigns a price to a certain good that is unfair — most cultures have some value systems and will tend to reward some skills more than others. It is not even that some goods and skills are valued far more than others. The problem arises when one’s market price and status mix – when the separate spheres of “market value” and “individual worth” start to mix. To do this, I think, at that point, some third party (preferably the Government) has to step in. It could accomplish this with progressive income tax system – forcibly redistributing wealth. This can only take one so far (you cannot really tax more than 50% of someone’s income) and it has its risks (like you point out). But there are certainly other ways of intervening: the State can actively promote a vibrant public sphere (a culture of commonly celebrated festivals, holidays, public parks where classes can mix, compulsory public schools), or by regulating certain social goods (a military draft to regulate death during war time, universal single-payer health insurance so that everyone gets access to the same level of health care, compulsory national service, what-have-you). Of course all of these will infringe on individual liberty in some way or the other. There’s no running away from markets: markets will of course succeed in making everyone slowly richer (and some will be more rich than others) but there’s also no denying a fact that a market left to itself will almost certainly equate a person’s status with his market value. And to avoid this, Government intervention does not necessarily have to be in the form of forcible redistribution of money.

  6. Anand 26th March 2008 at 09:58 #

    1. The fallacy should be clear: one cannot change one’s caste, but one can get richer.
    Not quite so clear, in my opinion. In particular, many “low caste” or “bad race” people can be given more importance by the “upper castes” or “superior races”.

    An excellent example is the status given to Japanese by racist South Africans as “honorary whites”. So, indeed you can “change your caste” if you have money.

    2. Wonder if anyone has attempted a theory of a more equitable society with lower state interference.
    Anarchism or libertarian socialism is one such ideology, best illustrated in the Spanish Civil War.

    3. If you are a consistent liberal, you should oppose private concentration of power as well as state power. Indeed, as Adam Smith noted in bitter opposition to the “merchants and bankers” of the day,
    All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.

  7. WhirlMind 21st April 2008 at 16:52 #

    Find my response to the abovementioned article on Bhagat Singh and Periyar at my blog:

    http://whirlmind.blogspot.com/2008/04/dont-die-for-cause-live-for-it.html

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