The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page

Equality and Universality: Essays in Social and Political Theory By André Béteille, Oxford, Rs 545

This book is the product of André Béteille’s years of concern with equality and inequality, and how these ideas are constructed and implemented in democratic societies.

The two striking features of contemporary Indian society are the insidious inequalities in social practice and the assertions of egalitarianism in political ideology. The book derives it focus from the interplay of these two contradictions. The author examines various forms of inequality as well as the limits to the pursuit of equality. Although the focus is on contemporary India, Béteille’s general and comparative approach makes his arguments richer.

The author begins lucidly by providing a broad survey of the field. He discusses inequalities arising from gender, caste, race, wealth and occupation in simple and complex societies, including nomadic bands at one end and industrial orders at the other. In the process, equality as an ideal and its friction with stratification as a social reality is revealed.

Béteille goes on to discuss the relationship between class and status, with reference to modern Britain. While dealing with inequalities of wealth, income and other forms of material advantage with surety, British sociologists hesitate to discuss disparities of honour and dignity. But in examining inequalities, we have to look at the distribution not only of material wealth, but also of symbolic capital. Béteille points out that equal rights of citizenship can supersede traditional symbols of status; but even modern societies are prolific generators of new modes of exclusion. Thus, equality of legal status, no matter how important in modern societies, cannot cancel out inequalities in esteem and prestige.

In contemporary India, Béteille asserts, the meaning of caste has undergone several changes. In classical Hinduism, caste was represented in the language of varna. But when people refer to caste today, they use the language of jati, which in turn undermines the irrevocability of caste regulations. Also, caste is losing its hold over areas of social life. Sanctions against inter-caste marriages, the dissociation between caste and occupation, and the stringent rules of purity and pollution have been decisively broken. Here, Béteille draws out another contradiction: relaxing of caste fetters is more prominent among the middle classes, which grabbed new educational and occupational opportunities. Yet, it is the middle classes which have revived caste loyalties for mobilizing political support.

Béteille points out how the public sphere became important in civil society through the creation of new rights for individuals. But the detachment of individuals from bonds of caste and kinship did not lead to extensive social equalities.

The author also assesses the social costs and benefits of positive discrimination policies, and whether these attempts at social rearrangement can lead to greater equality. He draws attention to the two clashing sides of the Mandal agitation, who were arguing their case from the premise of equality.

In his earlier work, Antinomies of Society, Béteille talked about the difficulties of transforming a hierarchical society into an egalitarian one, and in the process, exposed the disjunction between political ideals and social constraints. He explored how establishments (the university, the civil service) and ideals (Marxism, nationalism, secularism) contributed to and countered processes by which inequality was reproduced in modern India. In Equality, he assigns an additional role to the family in transmitting not only material capital, but also cultural biases.

In the concluding sections of this book, Béteille examines the challenges in attaining that heaven and warns the readers against condemning all forms of inequalities. Disparities of income and occupation can be controlled. But Béteille stresses on the importance of making certain basic rights universally available to contest inequalities. He makes a case for universality, as against equality, arguing that the aim of achieving the former is often diluted by overemphasis on the latter.

Inequalities take many forms, and equality has more than one meaning. The search for a utopian equality is an integral feature of modern societies. That quest can be limited by various social oppositions. This book hopes in parts to curb conflicts over economic programmes, since differing perceptions of equality have been “put in the heads” of policy-makers and their critics. Béteille is, as usual, scrupulous in his scholarship. Even though the “contents” of this book appears to be puzzling, it will leave the reader enlightened about the nature and significance of examining uniformity and difference in social practice.

Email This Page