India has been said to be condensed in the heart of its metros. All the chaos, beauty and irreverence of the multicultural masses of the country converges in the country’s urban spaces. Among these elements also star the nation’s glossed over social condition of inequality. After sitting through the panel discussion at Harsh Mander’s book launch “Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice in New India”, one cannot but notice the stark and inherent compartmentalization of wealth that has gradually become internalized in the country post-Independence. The longest written Constitution in the world India’s democratic tome specifically reinforces the tenets of Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity at the very outset. In effect, more than six decades later, the sorry state of our country’s social consciousness is put under a harsh glare in Mander’s “brave and monumental” book.
Mander, a former administrator, social activist and writer, has time and again tried to bring into focus the integral issues threatening India’s aspirations to be an economically liberal democracy. He has dedicated his life to assessing the position of our economic grass-roots in the nation’s dream for ‘development’. Mander’s publishers Speaking Tree—who had acquired Mander’s manuscript as one of their first projects—sought to bring together a panel of social thinkers and investigative minds to give the audience an introductory insight into the primary issues that are plumbed through the pages of “Looking Away”.
The panel was structured with the likes of Dr. Zoya Hasan, National Fellow at ICSSR and former Professor of Political Studies and Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Sir Mark Tully, author and former Bureau Chief, BBC, New Delhi and Siddharth Varadarajan, senior journalist and columnist. Moderating the discussion was Urvashi Butalia, a prominent author and literary critic heading the publishing house of Zubaan Books.
Butalia opened the discussion sharing two pertinent anecdotes with the audience where she sought to highlight the sense of entitlement the country’s urban middle class commands over the lesser strata of the slum dwellers or the immigrant workers. She spoke about how in India a man riding an SUV can justify physically assaulting a vegetable-seller because the latter was blocking the former’s path.
Mander was routinely asked about how the idea of the book germinated for him, to which he sketched a trajectory of the country’s growing gap of social and economic divide since his childhood. The author reflected on how the flagrant exhibition of wealth that is a part of the contemporary urban elite’s mindset was missing even a few decades back. Mander linked the rise in inequality in the country to the freeing of markets by the Congress government in the early 1990s. He added that what worries him was not simply the fact of inequality cleaving the country but the indifference of the middle classes towards the poor. The open prejudices that the nation ascribes to economic status is gaining currency among the middle classes leading to an alarming legitimization of the facts of poverty. The author in his book dwells on Noam Chomsky’s idea of ‘social protection’ which should be a basis for any progressive civilization, yet in today’s India the traits of public compassion are increasingly being viewed as “subversive” and even “dangerous”. Giving momentum to this social pattern Modi’s sweeping electoral win in 2014 provoked the author to re-examine the inter-connected issues of inequality, socio-economic prejudice and the subsequent normalization of the poverty surrounding us, and what it could mean for us a nation in the future.
The panellists in the discussion did not merely limit themselves to a self-congratulatory exercise of their intellect but moved to examine the issues explained in the book from their own perspectives. To this end, Hasan pointed out to Mander that inequality in India is of a much larger magnitude than that in US and Mexico—as mentioned in his book. As of his comparison of the Indian middle class with its European counterpart Hasan stated that both had some fundamental points of departure. The European middle-class, constituting almost 80% of the continent’s populace, is pro-working class having a history of supporting the revolutionary social movements that rocked Europe. While India’s middle-class, while formulating the governmental policies of the nation, are only a small 20% of the country’s total population. Mark Tully, while admitting to being “shocked” at his “own lack of knowledge” by Mander’s book countered Hasan noting the European middle-class’s growing disaffection with the issues of the economically weaker sections.
Siddharth Varadarajan was more interested in Mander’s examination of the 2014 elections and its results in the context of ‘normalizing’ of poverty juxtaposed with a push to make India an industrialized and hence ‘developed’ entity in present-day geo-politics. He agreed with the central arguments presented in the book but warned at just stopping there, suggesting the inclusion of an examination of the nation’s political processes to bring about substantial change. Citing an example, he went back to the Kothari Commission of the early 1960s and its recommendation—that was never implemented—for neighborhood schools where children from all social strata could interact constructively, shaping their social awareness as future voters of the nation.
Nevertheless, the panelists reached a consensus that Mander’s work is a “much-needed critique of (India’s) middle-class” given the fact that Modi is intent on “celebrating” the middle-class as a validation of his governmental policies in each of his diplomatic visits to foreign nations. Although the book was hailed as a “counter-current” amidst books since the last decade that had such socio-economic and political themes, Tully, observed that “Looking Away” was by no means a bleak attempt trying to pose as a grim reminder of and a subsequent panacea for all the social ills that India faces. By the end of the discussion, it appeared that in his book Mander has succeeded in balancing his social findings with the empathetic but exacting tone of an unbiased commentator.