Can I have an opinion on how to annihilate caste?

Social reform is too important an issue to surrender to an ideological monopoly

It’s twitter. So it should not be surprising that it didn’t long for my tweet supporting ACLU against Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees to turn into a debate on caste. I also found out that I am not qualified to have an opinion on the latter because, well, of who I am.

Responses from thoughtful, otherwise sensible and non-partisan people prompted me to write this post. It cannot be that on an issue that is so central to Indian society, we weigh arguments not on their merits, but on the caste identity of the people who make them.

This is not to belittle the sufferings of those who are at the receiving end of discrimination. Rather, it is to reject the dangerous argument that we ought to discount opinions of people based on the community they belong to. It is also to reject the dangerous argument that only members of a community or group have the legitimate right to debate issues concerning their group. I’ve criticised Islamism without being a Muslim, supported women’s rights without being a woman, commented on Pakistani politics without being a Pakistani and recommended military strategy without being a soldier. I could go on, but nowhere have I encountered people telling me I lack the legitimacy to have an opinion on these subjects. On caste, though, terms like “savarna” and “privilege” are flung about as disqualifications by some, and epithets by others.

It may well be that privilege allows some citizens the luxury to be identity-agnostic and caste-blind. Condemning them for this makes no sense: is it wrong to be privileged, to be caste-blind or both? Votaries of an egalitarian society ought to celebrate every additional child that is raised caste-blind. Instead, political correctness requires the caste-agnostic to feel guilty, stay silent and become caste-conscious. This leaves the field only to those who will fight, violently, to protect their social power. Such rancour and strife is counterproductive to the progress towards an egalitarian society.

So here’s my argument. As I wrote, “the annihilation of caste cannot come without the annihilation of caste discourse; you can’t erase it if you keep talking about it.” Now, progressive conventional wisdom is—as one well-meaning person pointed out—“constantly acknowledging and talking about it is actually a very powerful way to erase it.”

Unfortunately, this is not borne out by empirical evidence. Caste consciousness is much stronger today than it ever was. It has become the very currency of political power. I do not see it being erased — on the contrary, it is being reinforced in every generation. The social and political empowerment of historically weaker sections of our society is a wonderful achievement, yet caste-based policies cannot remain the primary mechanism to achieve this. A couple of years ago, for the first time in independent India, the state conducted a caste census. If it were on its way of being erased, this wouldn’t have happened. People even declare their castes on their car bumper stickers now. Given this trend, the best we can hope for is not the annihilation of caste, but merely a caste-conscious society with less social discrimination. It might be a realistic assessment of where we are going, but it’s not the destination I would like for my country.

Indeed, there is evidence that reminding people of their caste adversely affects their performance. One experimental study found that “there were no caste differences in performance when caste was not publicly revealed, but making caste salient created a large and robust caste gap.” A more recent study using NSSO data found that “that caste identity in contemporary India does shape perceptions of self-worth. Among the fully self-employed, we find that controlling for other characteristics, lower-ranked groups earn lower amounts and perceive lower amounts as being remunerative.”

There is enough here to suggest that perhaps not reminding people of their caste will make them perform to their true potential. It is morally repugnant to ignore such evidence merely to conform to conventional wisdom or worse, political correctness. It would be tragedy to dismiss such insights because the researcher is born into the ‘wrong’ community.

Finally, a point about of privilege: what we should care is not whether a person enjoys privilege (or sits in an air-conditioned armchair), but what he or she chooses to do with it. Most members of the Constituent Assembly were men and women of privilege. That didn’t prevent them from producing a Constitution that was far ahead of its times. Should we summarily dismiss their arguments as being the result of privilege?

The poet and social reformer Kabir offers the necessary wisdom:

Don’t ask what his caste is, ask what he knows
Value the sword, not the scabbard it came out of.

Why a Swachch Bharat cess is a bad idea

A tax break will work better

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to clean up the country showed that he was prepared to tackle the most difficult problems India faces—cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation are Mahatma Grade Problems, caused by a simultaneous combination of individual, social, market and government failures. The Swachch Bharat initiative has come about because he used both his popularity and power to try and change mindsets and attitudes. To succeed, it needs the government, business and social leaders to change peoples’ minds and moral incentives. If it becomes yet another government programme, it is bound to fail.

So the Modi government’s proposal to impose a cess on telecom services to finance the Swachch Bharat campaign should cause us disappointment and alarm. It is the wrong approach to the problem, using the wrong method. Here’s why.

Levying a cess dilutes the moral incentive that a borderline conscientious citizen faces. Instead of a gnawing feeling when she sees garbage in public places, the marginal citizen is likely to feel the same-old, “I’ve done my part but the government is not doing its job properly”. There is evidence that compliances rates (for tax payments and other rules) goes up when citizens see the government delivering honestly and effectively. Similarly, the perception that government is inefficient and corrupt reduces compliance. In other words, levying a cess on citizens is not only likely to cause them to outsource their guilt and responsibility, but also try and avoid having to pay the cess. Swachch Bharat should be about emphasising that hygiene and sanitation are about personal honour and dignity, not about pay-tax-and-forget.

That’s not all. A cess is a bad way to raise revenues. A cess on an unrelated activity is a terrible way to implement a bad way to raise revenues. As this blog commented on the previous government’s use of a cess on restaurant bills to finance education, there is no better way to signal that a government has confused public finance priorities than a cess. If a programme is important, it should be financed through the core budgetary revenues. Clearly, one of the prime minister’s most important priorities ought to be enough of a priority to be funded through the conventional budget.

If at all a cess has to levied, it should be on non-essential spending. Furthermore, a specific tax on an unrelated economic activity merely to raise revenues is a very bad idea. Telecommunication services are already subject to heavy price regulation, leading to very bad quality of services across the board. An additional tax on these services will burden consumers, impact telecom service provider revenues (and hence the license fees they pay the government) while doing nothing to improve service quality. Telecommunications services appear to have been chosen for the cess mainly because it is easy to collect from them, and people will have to make calls and access the internet anyway.

Why could the tax not have been levied on entities and industries that dirty public spaces? At least that would have attempted to recover the cost of the negative externalities.

But here’s an even better idea to implement Swachch Bharat: give a Swachch Bharat tax break to all income tax payers. When filing their taxes, let taxpayers tick a box saying “I have done my best to make India clean”. Of course, a lot of people will claim the tax exemption without changing their behaviour, but a some will. It is better to trust the citizens more to do the right thing, than to tax them more on the premise that they will do the wrong thing. That’s the only way Swachch Bharat can work–when the relationship between the citizen and the country changes into one of mutual trust and mutual concern. The campaign is about capturing hearts and minds, not more rupees.

The Modi government would do well to resist the temptation to use age-old sarkari methods to solve a nagging social problem.

Tagore on the welfare state

Why a welfare state will fail in India

I often argue that the fact that the Indian Republic arrogated to itself the task of social welfare has made the Indian citizen, at the margin, less inclined towards that cause. The argument goes something like this: “Why bother about doing something about the poor because it’s the government’s job. After all, most of our taxes and government revenues are allocated for social welfare, rather than providing us with public services.” Charity and philanthropy exists, but it is difficult to sustain an argument that the average citizen feels responsible for helping the poor and the less privileged.

Rabindranath Tagore had thought about this, long before India became independent and set itself up as a welfare state. Here’s an extract from Partha Chatterjee’s essay on Tagore’s views on nationalism. (Tagore, by the way, was opposed to nationalism, as he felt that it was contrived from the European historical experience and unsuited to the Indian context).


Rabindranath’s argument was this: before the English arrived in India, the samaj would carry out through its own initiative all the beneficial works necessary to meet people’s needs. It did not look to the state to perform those functions. Kings would go to war, or hunt, and some would even forsake all princely duties for pleasure and entertainment. But the samaj did not necessarily suffer on this account. The duties of the samaj were allocated among different persons by the samaj itself. The arrangement by which this was done was called dharma.

That which is callcd “the state” in English is now called, in our modern languages, the sarkar. The sarkar, has always existed in India in the form of the royal or sovereign power. But there was a difference between the power of the state in Britain with the power of the king in our country. Britain has entrusted the entire responsibility of looking after the welfare of the country to the state. In India, the state only had a partial responsibility‚Ķ From giving alms to the destitute to teaching the principles of religion and morality to the common people, everything in Britain depends on the state. In our country, such activities are founded on the system of dharma among the people. Thus, the English are happy when the state is alive and well; we are relieved when when preserve our system of dharma.

But even if it is true that we never had a universally benevolent sovereign power in the past, could we not through our own efforts build such a state now? Rabindranath’s answer is clear: “No, we cannot.” He says: “We must understand this: the state in Britain is indissolubly founded on the general consent of the entire society; it emerged out of a process that is natural to that country. We cannot have it here simply by the force of argument. Even if it is inherently of outstanding quality, it will still remain beyond our reach.”

Extracted from: Tagore’s Non-Nation, “Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy”, by Partha Chatterjee, pp99-100

This appears to be an argument for investing in social capital, rather than charging the state with the task of social welfare. Tagore was onto something. But it was Gandhi who carried the day.

Our problem is not spiritual but social

Rabindranath Tagore’s diagnosis of India’s problem

In this letter to a New York lawyer, Tagore accurately pinpoints the big problem—parochialism based on identity—and its unhappy consequences. It comes up again, in verse, in Where the Mind is Without Fear: “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments/By narrow domestic walls”. This letter was perhaps written around the same time (Gitanjali was published in 1912) and elaborates on the argument in high prose.

Letter to Myron H. Phelps (New York)
16 December 1911

In every age the spiritual ideal has found its highest expression in a few specially gifted individuals. Such are to be found in India even today, often in the most unlikely places—among the apparently sophisticated, as well as among the unlettered and outwardly uncultured—startling us with the wonderful depth of their spiritual perception and insight. I do not feel that India has lost her spiritual heritage, for it is clear to me that her highest thought and activity is still spiritual. In the old days, however, the simpler environment—the comparative freedom from so many diverse and conflicting interests—permitted of the easy permeation of this ideal, emanate though it did from a few isolated altitudes, through and through the lower strata—with the result that Truth was recognized and realized not only intellectually but also in the details of everyday life.

A distinguishing characteristic of this spiritual civilization, as I have explained in my former letter, was its inclusiveness, its all-comprehensiveness. Aliens were assimilated into the synthesis; their widely differing modes of thought and life and worship being given their due places in the scheme by a marvellous interpretative process. But while the evolution of the spirit thus proceeded upon highly complex lines, the growth of the material body went on in a simple unorganized fashion, so that the time arrived when the mesages of the spirit could no longer find their way unimpeded throughout, resulting in differences of spiritual intensity, and consequent compromises and aberrations in the character of its manifestations. That is why high thinking and degenerate living are seen side by side; ideals are converted into superstitions: and the finest of inspirations reduced to grossness in action, wherever the vitalizing spiritual stream is deprived of its freedom of onward movement.

The problem of India therefore does not seem to be that of re-establishing its lost ideals, but rather of reforming its overgrown body so as to harmonise with and give free and fitting expression to its ever-living soul. In other words our problem is not spiritual but social—that of reviving, by organizing and adapting to its more complex environment, our fast disintegrating social system. It is our disorganized society which prevents our ideas and activities from being broad, the narrower self from being merged into or sacrificed for the sake of the greater—and our national experiences are being dissipated and wasted for want of a storing and coordinating centre. The workings of the spirit are seen as flashes but cannot be utilised as a steady flame.

In the west the situation seems to bejust the opposite. There we see a highly organized body, as it were, of which the soul is dormant, or at least, not fully conscious. While our soul is in search of an adequate body for want of which it cannot give its inspirations effective shape, and succeeds only in displaying to the outside world various incongruities clothed in phantastic forms, we find the west deploring its lack of spirituality. But surely spirituality cannot be lacking where the larger self is finding such noble expression in comfort-scorning striving, in death-defying heroism. On what can this living for ideas be based if not on spirituality? As for the want of consciousness, does not that tend more and more to be remedied by the very activities to which so efficient an organism finds itself increasingly impelled?

It is only where life is petty and scattered, and society partitioned into mutually exclusive sects that the vision of the Great is lost—it is only there that the mental horizon becomes narrow, aspirations fail to soar high, and the spirit remains steeped in a perpetual despondency. Here and there some greater soul may succeed, like a cloud-topping peak, in rising into the serene atmosphere above; but the multitudes wallowing in the slough below are as devoid of material consolations as of clarity of spiritual perception, and an unmeaning repetition of ritual is the only lifelike response of which they seem capable.

If the spiritual genius of India is not to prove futile for the purposes of humanity then it needs must seek to acquire the art of body-building. May it not be possible, in that quest, to avail ourselves of the assistance of the West without treading that slippery path of imitation which leads only to self-destruction?

Source: The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore: a miscellany (Sahitya Akademi, 1994)