TO BE EDUCATED TOGETHER - The obscure republican virtue, fraternity
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- Published 22.04.12
In the French Revolution’s great triad of republican values — liberté, égalité, fraternité — the third term has always seemed the runt of the litter. Liberty and equality have (or seem to have) clear, absolute meanings, so clear and so absolute that thinkers nearly always caveat their use of these terms by invoking the real world. Thus, we are often told in passing that there’s no such thing as absolute liberty and no actual state of perfect equality. But fraternity? Fraternity never seemed to add anything to republican virtue that the other two values didn’t already supply; it existed to complete the rhetorical rule of three, it was there for the sake of rhythm rather than meaning. If you google the great fraternal cliché ‘brotherhood of man’, you get pages of links to a 1970s British pop group that once, appropriately, scored a hit with a song direly called “United We Stand”.
Oddly enough, this French flourish was given desi heft and meaning by the recent debate about the Right to Education Act. On the English language news channels, the debate centred on one provision of this bill, the mandatory reservation of a quarter of all nursery admissions in private schools for poor children.
In one television discussion a conservative critic of this rule argued that while he had no objection to privileged and poor children studying together, the emphasis on opening up private schools to the poor seemed to him a diversionary manoeuvre by the government because it didn’t address the appalling condition of state schools which were responsible for the education of the vast majority of India’s students. If every private school implemented the provisions of the RTE Act, some 80 per cent of India’s school children would still receive a wretched education.
This seemed a reasonable argument and it had become something of a refrain when private school principals explained their opposition to the law. At the end of this particular enunciation of the private school position, a lawyer who had argued the government’s case in court when this rule was legally challenged, chose not to make the customary counter-argument. She didn’t say that private schools were themselves making a diversionary argument, that by gesturing at ill-served state school students, their spokespersons were trivializing the very real good the law did by providing access to good schools to a significant minority of poor students. She said instead that we should welcome the court’s endorsement of the RTE law because it spoke to a central republican value: fraternity.
Put like that, the debate about reserving seats for the poor in private schools became more interesting. By invoking fraternity in this context, she reminded us that the opening up private schools didn’t just help poor children out of poverty, it rescued rich children from their isolation. The meaning of fraternity became clearer, not as it would via a dictionary, but as it might if you raced through a thesaurus. It meant adjacency, camaraderie, friendship, brotherhood (and sisterhood). It was the opposite of isolation, separateness and apartness and it expressed something that neither liberty nor equality contained: the difficult ideal of sociability across difference, the acknowledgment that despite visible inequality we were connected by an imagined republican kinship.
There is no country in the world that needs fraternity more than India does and there is no society that has less of it. Most cultures, for example, have traditional gathering places —cafes, coffee houses, bars and pubs —where men hang out and fraternize. India doesn’t. The ones we do have now came to us via a colonial modernity. In a culture where the casual sociability of eating and drinking together is made difficult by the idea of ‘jootha’ and rules about pollution, fraternity is a difficult idea.
Walking my children to their school in Brooklyn some years ago, I met panhandlers asking for money at the corner of every block. My technique was to either ignore them or to hurriedly give them change and move on. The natives did things differently; they stopped, exchanged greetings, and only then did money change hands. A fraternal acknowledgement of a poor man’s humanity doesn’t come naturally to desis. This has everything to do with the exclusions of caste. The caste system is distinguished from other forms of social differentiation not merely or even principally by its endorsement of inequality; what makes it unique is its ideological hostility to fraternity.
In India, the poor and the privileged, even those who are modestly middle class, aren’t divided by class; they’re divided by a line of control. The poor, to adapt L.P. Hartley’s famous first line, are another country. It’s a country that we write about or help make policy for — if we’re feeling curious, generous or charitable. Our concern is frictionless because their country and ours might be adjacent but they’re sealed off from each other. It’s only when this line of control is legislatively breached, when people not-like-us have to be admitted into our country, that we find reasons with which to repair the breach. Thus every episode of affirmative action in our history has been met with arguments from merit, arguments against a pernicious ‘creamy layer’ and now an invocation of the ‘real’ problem in Indian education, the reform of the state schools.
These arguments are often both cogent and made in good faith; their main defect is that, without always knowing it, they deride fraternity in the name of some larger republican virtue. There is, in fact, no larger republican virtue than fraternity. The argument for emancipating all of India’s poor should not be an argument against admitting Dalits into the charmed circle of India’s administrative and academic elite. The entry of some Dalits, tribals and other backward classes (Muslims included) via affirmative action and reservations into the institutions run by India’s ruling class won’t end inequality or abolish poverty, but it isn’t meant to. It’s meant to encourage and, if necessary, enforce fraternity where previously there was none. A republic that systematically excludes most of its people from its governing structures and educational institutions becomes unfraternal to the point of illegitimacy.
Historically, the call for fraternity seeped into Indian republicanism from the peninsula; it percolated upwards from the south to the deeply non-fraternal north. Jyotirao Phule and his Satyashodhak Samaj, the early educational reservations instituted by the Maharaja of Mysore, the Vaikom Satyagraha, Periyar, the Dravida parties that instituted backward class reservation in the Tamil country, B.R. Ambedkar, whose presence ensured that scheduled caste reservations were written into the republic’s founding document, the Constitution, preceded the Mandalization of heartland politics. This was not a coincidence: nowhere outside the north were the savarna so numerous or the varna hierarchy more entrenched.
The private school reservations that the RTE Act mandates is the latest of these incremental attempts to institutionalize fraternity in Indian society and politics. It is particularly hard to argue against because it implements the criterion of economic backwardness that opponents of caste reservations used to invoke when confronted by Mandal. To oppose this in principle is to oppose the intermingling of rich and poor, to oppose, in a word, fraternity.
The debate about the RTE Act helps desis understand how deeply liberal political instincts are rooted in an inarticulate belief in fraternity. Why was apartheid so repugnant? Not because it is unequal (there was, arguably, greater inequality elsewhere in the world); it was repugnant because it was a State-sponsored negation of fraternity which is grotesque in a republic. ‘Separate but Equal’ would be unacceptable even if the second term of that motto was true. Why do self-aware Israelis worry about the occupation? Why does the wall between Israel and the West Bank seem symbolically so ominous? Because it reflects the formal separation of Arab and Jew. Why does the idea of a Hindu, a Muslim or a Buddhist republic sit so oddly with the notion of republican democracy? Because to make Hindus or Muslims or Buddhists sole proprietors of a republic is to exclude people not of those faiths from a republic’s fraternal union.
The implementation of private school reservation might well be inefficient, corrupt, even counter-productive. In the civil rights era, ‘busing’ as a policy for desegregating schools didn’t always work and eventually a series of supreme court judgments led to its abandonment. But, as with busing, the debate about private school reservation might help transform the political culture of the republic by locating affirmative action in that resonant yet enigmatic republican value, fraternity.