In la-la land

In a deeply-segregated society, coming together is always going to be difficult. But we have to all believe that some things are universal and require undemarcated action

The middle class idealises its way of life. It sees itself as the mean; the equilibrium between the ‘decadents’ who occupy the two ends of a social spectrum. Sourced by the Telegraph

T.M. Krishna
Published 28.07.23, 06:39 AM

In a recent column for Hindustan Times, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the former governor of West Bengal, had this to say: “Concord is under strain in our life in India. Manipur is the most searing example. I can imagine the flag, downcast, wanting to lower itself to half-mast in Manipur in agony and shame and grief. But then, listening to what our Chief Justice DY Chandrachud has said about constitutional democracy and wanting to see remedial action taken swiftly, I can see the flag fluttering in new self-confidence that says Ashoka’s wheel of law on the central band of white is not dead!”

Unfortunately, I am unable to share the sliver of hope that he expresses. He is, indeed, wiser and probably sees something that I am unable to, at least at this point of time. What shatters me is not so much the crass politicking that politicians are indulging in or the unrepresentative, eerie silence that the prime minister maintained for two months while globe-trotting and proclaiming the greatness of Indian democracy when it was obvious that Manipur was in crisis and people were being systematically targeted. It was as if he was living in a parallel universe, inviting everyone else to join him in his make-believe land.


When he did actually speak, it was unbearable. Pratap Bhanu Mehta described the prime minis­ter’s response in his column in The Indian Express thus: “The tone was petulant, angry at the fact that a lid could not be kept on an ongoing story of ethnic targeting in Manipur. The train of political equivalences was just shockingly callous.”

None of this has shaken my faith in people as much as the reaction of the caste-privileged middle class. The graphic and gut-churning video forced everyone to react, as the impact was visceral. At that moment, it feels like we are experiencing it. We transpose our own bodies or those who are dear to us onto the person in the video. Which is why we ask that disconcerting question: ‘What if this was you, your sister, wife or mother?’ This personalisation detaches us from the individual who is the real victim; it even diminishes her experience. The instinctive and immediate outrage is personal; it is more about ourselves. We erroneously equate that intimate emotional outburst to a moral position, which it is not. When the response is not coming from moral fortitude, it is a passing phase. It will reappear only when we are shown something else that is equally ghastly.

With such flimsy minds, moving into the customary whataboutery mode is but natural, and this happened, followed by the usual rumblings about the country, politicians, blaming the ‘uneducated’ and, finally, raising their hands in helplessness. ‘What can we do?’ The cycle is now complete and they are back doing what they do, living in their ‘disconnected cultured’ glasshouses. If they are religiously conservative, then everything is forgotten and forgiven by prayer. If Westernised, then the same forgetfulness sets in with various forms of intoxication. The permanent state of a majority in this section seems to be stupor.

Where does the moral fibre of this class lie? Of course, geographical location and cultural specificities create divergences, but it would be fair to say that in certain aspects, irrespective of where we are stationed, we behave in a homogeneous manner. This is a group that is largely educated, knows how to access information, can sieve through falsities, and has exposure to a larger world. All this must give us the necessary learnings to be fairly well-centred morally. But that does not happen. The obvious lacuna in our education system kept aside for the moment, there is something more culture-driven that makes this group behave in a synthetic manner.

The middle class idealises its way of life. It sees itself as the mean; the equilibrium between the ‘decadents’ who occupy the two ends of a social spectrum. The marginalised and the socio-culturally weak and the ultra-rich are both viewed as morally corrupt. The former because of a lack of culture and the latter because they have sacrificed culture at the altar of wealth. This has been internalised to such an extent that the middle class is unable to reflect honestly on its own way of life. Members of the club who cross its consecrated threshold are only seen as deviants, not representatives of the clan. The same logic does not apply to Dalits or tribals. Those from this believer group who want to retain their membership even when they enter the super-rich domain continue to flaunt their middle-classness. We often hear the word, ‘humble’, being brandished to prove the point that the individual is still one of us. Falling off the middle-class step would mean that the individual is questioning middle-class ‘perfection’. In this context, the oft-heard comment is, ‘despite having grown up in such a cultured family, he has turned out this way.’ When the middle class hears about the most horrific crimes, it sees those as happening in places and to people who do not have the same cultural sophistication as itself. When these issues hit home, it responds as victims of an assault from the ‘outside’.

The middle-class ecosystem retains the narrative of being a perfect, uncorrupted bubble. Hence, the Narendra Modi magic works on it. By not speaking of the worst human actions, or taking moral responsibility for heinous crimes, he is informing the middle-class people that he is like them. Distancing themselves from social nightmares, which includes their own participation in their foundational basis and propagation, is a prerequisite to maintain assumed superiority. This is so well structured that gatekeepers ensure that new entrants adhere to their undocumented internal strictures. Applicants, too, buy into this well-advertised aspirational model.

But why should we bother about what the middle class is? The uncomfortable truth is that most powerful movements for social change happen only when the marginalised and the middle class join hands in different capacities. Those who are oppressed have always raised their voice, through protest, literature, music, dance and theatre. But it is only when they were joined by the middle class who waken for some reason — most likely because its ‘ideal’ is disturbed — that movements gather momentum. We do not see that happening in India despite the fact that societal degradation is staring at us because the middle class still does not face the brunt. Some will point to the Nirbhaya, anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act and farmers’ protest movements as recent examples of the middle class moving away from passivity. I would argue that other than the fact that the numbers were still very small, our capacity to so easily recede to our comfortable routine, putting each of those gatherings behind us, is itself symptomatic of how we engage.

In a deeply-segregated society, coming together is always going to be difficult. But we have to all believe that some things are universal and require undemarcated action. But the caste-privileged middle class thrives on segmentation. Pulling down that fence would mean they are like everyone else, something they will resist. So transformation will be slow. It needs to begin in homes and schools. Those from the middle class who recognise their own culpability and muteness have to speak up consistently. Differentiations need to be subdued, empathy and sharing foregrounded. Until then, the caste-privileged middle class will remain a plastic, self-serving league.

T.M. Krishna is a leading Indian musician and a prominent public intellectual

Op-ed The Editorial Board Middle Class Gopalkrishna Gandhi CV Ananda Bose West Bengal Manipur
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