Ch 8- Ternary Societies and Colonialism: The case of India
First paragraph has a reference to the caste system and its "rigid and extreme type of inequality". This is accepted knowledge now. But I want to deep dive and understand the history of Caste system- both from the historical (sociopolitical) perspective as well as the from more, for the lack of a better word, mythical perspective (Vedas, Smritis etc.). From both the left and the right, if I may. Because I'm curious to see how such a social structure came about and more interestingly, how it survived/es for as long as it did.
Oh, well, looks like Piketty is going to give a brief tour of exactly that.
If the British came in and sanctioned, even entrenched, the caste system within the state, then does it mean that prior rulers didn't consider caste in their dealings?
"The course of Indian inequality was profoundly altered by its encounter with the outside world in the form of a remote foreign power."- Does it mean that 1. the British was the first foreign power which leveraged the caste system for its benefit or 2. British was the only remote foreign power because almost everyone else who came in stayed back and thereby are not foreign powers?
Fernand Bruadel argues that India and China have always had more people live in those areas than Europe because the latter are predominantly meat eaters and it takes more acres to produce animal calories than plant calories.
The same claim of India being a recent (post-1947) political entity. Contrast that with the idea of Bharatvarsha, the stories of Yogis and Sadhus who have walked across the length and breadth of the country for centuries, and what Diana L Eck refers to as India's Sacred Geography (I haven't read the book yet). The fact that Republic of India survives, and occasionally thrives, is proclaimed with admiration and it would be interesting to understand why it does. Did we come together after the British arrived because it is easy to differentiate between the whites and the browns, and coalesce as one. Or are there deeper forces at work. Is it Hinduism and its correspondent mythology, or Sanskrit, Prakrit and closely related languages, or is it cultures and customs (food, dressing, even music) that somehow tie so many of us together? Or infact is this idea of unity my retrospective superimposition on a set of disparate societies? The only parallel I can think of to India is Europe, with its seemingly common ethos, and I need to search if someone's written about this parallel.
Difference between secular and multiconfessional?
Note to self: Read Willaim Dalrymple's Anarchy to get an understanding of how a trading company managed to take over the administration of a huge kingdom(s). If I remember correctly, Niall Ferguson alludes to the immense power EIC held came from the the new inventions of capitalism in that era- limited liability and shareholders without executive power; Other developments being fractional reserve banking and promissory notes.
Piketty briefly states the relationship between Indian Hindus and Muslims from the 12th century, since the inception of the Delhi Sultanate, till the advent of the British.
"Hinduism is more explicit in linking religion to social organisation."
"Other religions purport to be egalitarian, atleast in theory."
Origins of the Caste System
Earliest European organisation of society- 10th and 11th century
Trifunctional- religious class, warrior class, labouring class
Vedas talk about Varnas from 2nd millennium BCE
Though the fundamental text was Manusmriti(written between 2 BCE to 2 CE): I think it was in one of the episodes of the Seen and the Unseen podcast that there is a discussion regarding the arbitrariness of putting Manusmriti on a pedestal. The speaker argues that when the British came to India, they were confronted with a bewildering medley of social groups and to make sense of it, the orientalists looked at the texts and were led by some Brahmins to the Manusmriti. Because it seemed to roughly map to what they could see on the land, they assumed that this was the primary guiding ideology and thus used it to arbitrate Indian cases. Most Indians didn't know about Manusmriti and caste was apparently a more fluid entity; There were many examples of kings from lower castes who, with the help of the right priests, could be instated to the level of the twice-borns. This seems like an interesting argument to me, a hypothesis that could be explored further.
paused at the end of page 311
Notes from the class-
Inequality and Indian democracy
You can pick apart Piketty's chapter in many ways but it is a good summary.
Paradox in all democracies: Prior to the 19th century, one of the critiques of democracy (universal suffrage, electoral politics) has been that it will cause equality. If you give poor people the vote, the most likely thing that'll happen is that they'll appropriate property from the rich. Without stable property relationships, you can neither have freedom nor economic investments. If democracy is bad to property, ergo, approach it carefully. That's why there were no qualms of tying suffrage to property.
France of 18th century- Clergy, Bourgeoisie, Nobility
But in reality, democracy has become compatible not only with property rights but also with immense social and economic inequality.
What explains this fact? Ambedkar- Why doesn't political equality lead to social and economic equality?
Adam Przeworski- Political scientist
Elites realised that democracy not only challenges our power, it also legitimates that power.
Gregory Clark Big Data book on Sweden
Taxation is an instrument of both development and redistribution; historically Tax to GDP ratio has been low. WWII lays the foundation for the New Deal, for somewhat equal social welfare countries.
The levels of political will required for progressive taxation come only after major calamities.
Escaping from Rome- Walter Scheidel
Land Reform- the second big instrument of some kind of Economic justice.
Atul Kohli- Comparitive Colonialism
British Colonialism relied on intermediate Zamindari class. Japanese Colonialism was suspicious of these classes, so they wiped them out. So Japanese Colonialism lead to better land reforms. And democracies are quite bad at LR too.
"Conservative parties legitimise their power by outflanking the Left"- So they end up doing more for the poor.
Piketty's chapter in a nutshell; three macro-theses:
a. Historically, almost all societies have been divided into three classes
These three classes have been remarkably stable.
India: Relationship between class and caste. Because Brahmins are not celibate like the European clergy, they've validated endogamy (core institution of caste). Most of Indian political theory: Function of the king is to protect the order of caste, and thereby property. Contrarian examples: Shudra kings. But even if they are kings, the primary "Propertarian ideology" remains.
You can destabilise that social order by:
a. external shock- for India, most external shocks have worked with existing structures
b. diffusion of human capital (Eg: education)- Ambedkar- "This is the resource that's most protected"
c. disjunction b/w status and identity (like in Europe where there's tight coupling between social status and economic status)- in India, crudely oversimplifying, social fight between Brahmin and Kshatriya. But because of endogomy, status remains secure (Eg: poor brahmin without economic and political power is still socially powerful)
Indian society had a deeply durable structure of inequality. Even now, rates of inter-marriage are extraordinarily low. Most class situation can be mapped to caste.
"British colonialism was called Brahmin Company Raj"
Democracies seem to be bad to inequality and India's caste structure. What do we do about justice in India?
Amit Varma's question of liberal constitution imposed on an illiberal people comes to mind.
Ambedkar, principally four mechanisms for social equality:
a. equalisation in education (worldover public schooling is a great equaliser but not in India)
b. John Dewey's endosmosis (inter-marriage which usually follows the previous point). Joke that most universities function for assortative mating (refer to Raghuram Rajan's Fault Lines)
c. land reform
e. representation, affirmative action (creates a more diverse elite, changes aspiration because of promise of ability but does it produce far-reaching structural transformation)
Why are we unequal?
My hypothesis: Because people's identities are more tied to their caste and communities. What we generally celebrate about India being a thousands of years old continuing civilisation is what is hampering equality. Because we are too entrenched in our particular caste lifestyles (food, culture, dressing etc.)
Right now people vote for politicians who vote for policies. Why can't people directly vote for policies?
(referred in P Sainath's Everybody loves a good drought)
Poverty as a living experience is different from poverty as data. People who're poor are fighting with each other for the little pie instead of getting together to demand more.
Sanskritization is one of the modalities of social reform. If the lower castes are trying to aspire to a Brahminical lifestyle, then as much as it has its problems, if that assimilation is allowed, then it should break the barriers. But we don't see that happening either.
Why did we think that democracy was the right vehicle to bring about social and economic justice (Tocqueville's bittersweet take on American democracy)?
When the economy is growing so fast, people assume that they have a good chance to get rich next, so they're not willing to ruffle too many feathers in the existing structure. Also, even though real incomes have remained stagnant, the purchasing power has increased because of cheap technology.
Politicians don't have an incentive to work towards long term changes because their vision is only for the next five years.
Political mobilisation is specific to local reality. A dalit from TN won't vote similar to a dalit from UP. And a dalit and a brahmin will probably vote against a yadav. So, in that sense, the on-ground reality is different from the macroview.
One participant: What if the caste system was meant to be horizontal with spread of specialisation, all equal, and it has somehow been 'corrupted' into this vertical structure?
Fairly standard upper-caste view.
Prof: Paradox of India is that poor turn out in almost as equal numbers as the rich unlike other developed countries.
Mukulika Banerjee- "Elections are the only religion left to the people of India"
Why do we expect democracy to bring us justice anyway?- It is a framework with three very important characteristics:
a. framework itself ideologically states equality. "Think of the thrill of democracy." aah! "One of its great existential charms is that even rulers rule at my suffrage". The idea was that this idea itself is a deeply destabilising thought. We believe that authority is a provisional grant.
To underestimate the degree to which that has happened is not right. There is only surface obsequiousness- cynical and instrumental.
b. accountability incentive- you have to come seek my vote every five years, that's incentive enough to perform atleast to some level. It is a responsive framework.
Amartya Sen argues that democracy avoids famine, not at avoiding chronic problems like malnutrition.
c. democracy's historical relation with nationalism- We now think that nationalism is a diversion from more pressing issues. But historically democracy and nationalism have a deeper bond because we are equal.
Piketty- Stronger welfare is empirically proved to happen in a more horizontally identifying population.
Prerna Singh's book on Sub-nationalism and welfare states in India: States formed with a strong sub-national identity (linguistic etc.) perform better in markers of welfare. Mutual identity between citizens. So TN and AP better than UP and Bihar.
Caste and identity: Ambedkar- "Caste was a division of labourers, not of labour". Some nationalists during the freedom movement argued about the horizontal, functional, uncorrupt view of caste (Retrieving from the past while divorcing from its odious aspects). But you can't sustain that argument as a historical thesis. Also it runs against individual rights.
BR: The logic of caste was a form of involution. Almost everybody had someone they could dominate. You could find psychological recuperation for being dominated by dominating someone else.
Logic of fragmentation would make collective action too difficult.
Politician incentives: India has a high anti-incumbency rate. In a low-wattage economy, no politician can make much change to an individual. Health and Education are peculiar because they involve high resources, a large number of actors and the results can be seen only in the long run. Countries where these work better is either in Communist regimes or for some exogenous reasons, elites commit to it (for instance, national pride).
Eugene Weber- Peasants as Frenchmen. You convert them by focus on education. What is it about Indian nationalism that we still don't get a take-off for common public education while all other nationalist movements focused on this.
Example of AAP- Which won on reforms in Education and Mohalla clinics.
"In North India caste is more cynically used. South India takes it more seriously."