The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Amartya Sen does not say what constitutes class in new India

The archaic English term 'pukka sahib' was once defined as someone whose father had been to the same prep and public school as yours. The quintessential snobbery of that emphasis, not only on old money and heredity but also on its cultural expressions, is meaningless in this country. Told that Jawaharlal Nehru's father was a pleader, V.S. Naipaul wondered why Indians called a middle class family aristocratic. But since the word class is bandied about almost as frequently as it used to be in England before it became fashionable there to be a yob, I pounced on the chapter titled 'Class' in India in Amartya Sen's The Argumentative Indian for what I hoped would be the definitive exposition.

It is no reflection on an erudite and thought-provoking commentary to have to say that my particular expectation was disappointed. Worse, I was left with the dismal suspicion that far from signifying any kind of sophistication, class in India stands for only money and oppression. The class division Sen condemns is thus Disraeli's notion of two nations, the Privileged and the People, whom Karl Marx locked in perpetual struggle. 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.'

The essay is based on Sen's Nehru Lecture, given in Delhi in November 2001, and takes it cue from Nehru's tryst with destiny pledge 'to remove the barriers of class stratification and their far-reaching effects on inequality and deprivation in economic, political and social spheres'. No one will quarrel with that aim, but if only abolishing class divisions can attain it, we must know what are its benchmarks in contemporary India.

Once upon a time, class might have been synonymous with caste. But even then, did the priest with all the theological sanction at his disposal rank above the Kshatriya monarch and his nobles' India rendered unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto god the things that are god's long before St Matthew thought of dividing the spoils. No wonder a group of Karnataka Brahmins applied to the Mandal commission for recognition as backward. As if in confirmation, a 1981 report on the minorities pointed out that 'the high caste Maithili Brahmin is best known today as a cook'.

But since Sen speaks of the 'class background' of 'the lower castes', the two are now separate. What then does determine class' Traditional China ranked a peasant above a merchant (as John Kenneth Galbraith reminds us, being 'in trade' was a serious disqualification even in Europe) because the former produced something while the latter only skimmed off the profit between buying and selling. Yet, society was far from according the peasant his due. The Chinese aversion to dark skin (evident even in today's Singapore) harks back to a time when only the peasant laboured in the sun and became sunburnt in the process. Similarly, the old Manchu style of long fingernails was intended to demonstrate distance from any kind of physical effort.

Britain's class structure, regarded as one of the world's most complex, is further exemplified by the story of Margaret Thatcher's sacked minister who retired to the country where he gave a series of small housewarming parties. Curious about his lifestyle, a neighbour who had not yet been invited asked someone who had what the furniture was like. 'Bought!' was the contemptuous dismissal. The true pukka sahib does not have to be rich or powerful. But his family must have a past.

Nancy Mitford's point in Noblesse Oblige ' the difference between U (upper class) and non-U (not upper class) ' was that only its secret language could identify this elite. To quote H.B. Brooks-Baker, managing director of Debrett's Peerage, the Bible of Britain's aristocracy, choice of words and phrases 'separated those who were initiated from those who were not, i.e. the masses'. An impeccable accent can be acquired but as George Bernard Shaw explained in Pygmalion, the inadvertent use of one incorrect word can betray the speaker's true origins. No outsider can ever master the list of innocuous but giveaway words that Mitford and Alan Ross set out as U and non-U. As for imitation, apparently nothing is more non-U than a deliberate memorization of U language.

Sen does not appear to have any such sophisticated hierarchy in mind. His lament of inequality can be summed up by the old verse, 'It's the same the whole world over, it's the poor what gets the blame.' He attributes this to class barriers, compounded by such factors as gender and caste, also deploring well-meaning but counter-productive institutions whose 'overall impact may be to strengthen class divisions rather than weaken them'. Shades of Animal Farm, successive commissioners for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes have noted the 'brahmanization' of the top echelons of the deprived as a result of special protection.

I also wonder if class can be equated with money and power in a state that bristles with impecunious bhadralok' To take an extreme example, could a rich Dalit aspire to a dwija bride' It might have been possible in Singapore where a young Chinese socialite thought my description of someone as well-connected but poor a contradiction in terms. But that was more than a decade ago. Wealth generation, independent schools, scholarships to prestigious British and American universities, smart clubs and fashionable Western restaurants are creating a sense of hierarchy even in that egalitarian elysium. But India, like England, is too riddled with ancient shibboleths for social rationalization.

A gathering in a princely political drawing room where I knew hardly anybody underlined the anomaly. I felt left out of the chatter until hearing what I thought was the word 'Marwari', I regaled the company with the elegance of some Marwari homes I had visited. The conversational straw I had clutched plunged the room in utter silence until my hostess explained sweetly that they were talking about Marwar horses. 'Calcutta Marwaris are banias, aren't they' asked a princeling.

The British connection only added to complications in Bengal. Suppose an imaginary young man from a poor bhadralok family of Sylhet successfully competed for the Indian civil service. He would gain instant status, but his brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins galore would remain exactly where they were, separated from him by a widening gulf. As the iconic representative of the raj, he would also be in a position to patronize zamindars who might secretly regard themselves his social superior but whose position was also ambivalent since many zamindars were merchants whom the British had ennobled and did not take seriously. Witness this 'oriental gem' that Lord Hardinge sent for George V's amusement ' 'Rajah Pyari Mohan Mookerjee regrets that the sudden aggravation of the pain in his legs caused by the proximity of the full moon prevents his attending the Levee.'

There is no denying the injustices that Sen describes. It's the cause that occasions wonder. Sen blames class divisions for the appalling state of elementary schooling and, more bafflingly, for high food prices. Perhaps a class conspiracy does unite the officials and politicians responsible for perpetuating inequality and differentiation. But is this a more potent force than the greed, corruption, callousness and inefficiency that afflict all branches of India's public life' There is an appealing popular ring to the ideological formulation that singles class out as the principal evil, but society is too fragmented today for Disraeli's polarization. Moreover, the 'brahmanization' process noted earlier bears out George Glider's thesis that 'material progress is ineluctably elitist' because it makes the rich richer and increases their numbers. Like the poor, the rich will always be with us.

Does that mean that so will injustice' Britain's post-war welfare state highlighted social and political alternatives to Tennyson's revolutionary vision of 'all the wonder that would be' that Sen quotes as the classless idyll. But this still begs the question: What defines class in the new India'

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