How did we become so comfortable with inequality?

How did we become so comfortable with inequality?

Gadfly

Rahul Jayaram believes we are living through the apocalypse @RaJayaram

No matter what we do, we cannot turn our eyes away from the wounds of our present: Like migrant workers saying they will die of hunger before the coronavirus kills them; like asking the poor to maintain physical distancing when they live cheek by jowl; like asking them to wash their hands when they get water only for a few minutes in their slums; like the lives of some of our State-facilitated super rich -- how can we have so many of them in such a poor “democracy”? -- who possess multi-storeyed mansions that may lie unused in the heart of our metropolises; like a pandemic triggering one of the largest reverse migrations in history; like the world’s hardest lockdown yet, exposing the sub-human level at which India has kept its poor. Our standing as a humane democracy was always suspect. Is it now in tatters? Perhaps, we Indians have always deluded ourselves of our apparent greatness. Poverty in a democracy cannot happen unless it’s by design. India’s poor have been made poor.    

Our migrant walkers are the mirror to the country’s conscience. One wonders, how can such a large country, that has been free since 1947, still struggle to resolve the fundamentals of dignified living? How can it perpetuate privilege (the obvious and subtle kinds) so easily? The truth is, better-off Indians -- and those of the subcontinent -- are comfortable with apathy and inequality. Large parts of them have been fashioned into a fake fatalism (‘How can one person or a few people change anything?’ is a common refrain. But history has so many inspiring answers to that query). With odd exceptions, no amount of legislating seems to have changed entrenched social attitudes. During the Constituent Assembly debates, B R Ambedkar once said, “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”.

What about democratic cultivation? We have one of the finest, granular, sensitive constitutions in the world – whose form and spirit are still wrangled over – but our everyday realities show how far we are from its intent. Undoing our quintessentially undemocratic temperament -- that like a drug has been administered in the minds of people for millennia through some of our reactionary traditions -- will need imaginative overhauling. Even today, there are plenty of anti-affirmative action believers. And of course, as we have seen in this era, never have religious prejudice and exclusivism had it so good. There are so many matters over gender equity that make one feel India has not progressed a whit.

In such a situation, instead of probing their governments and community overlords for social solutions, common Indians as a collective, look for scapegoats. They have found one in a religion. We are a country now that likes its differences and separations from others more than our human commonalities. Its confidence is so low, it will invent facts to present signs of scientific progress and foresight in its ancient traditions.

It all seems to me a way of diverting from the real questions over the basics of human dignity in a democracy. One of the most hurtful, but well-known, facts of our country is the human-made nature of its hunger problem. We have overflowing food-stock and yet we have hungry people. Human rights activist Harsh Mander has worked with and written on Delhi’s poor. In a talk, he once spoke of how a mother ‘teaches’ her child to go hungry at night. Hunger is not natural; it is a construct and has an idiom that is transmitted to the child. When the Indian mind battles such gruesome contradictions, what can it do but move the mind away to other matters?

Are our struggles an issue of ‘systems’ alone or of a common will to get better? The ‘system’ is often a reflection of a mindscape. If Indians truly believe, and are willing to show it in action, through personal, familial and communitarian commitment, it’s not impossible to make our society more humane in the years to come. Contemporary Kerala’s plaudits are due to many social progresses there. But one cannot take away the collective will of the people of the state, notwithstanding their internal differences, to create a robust public health and education system. To a certain degree, they have stymied apathy. It shows in the policies and their implementation in the state.

In this era, it’s evident that many privileges middle- and upper-class people considered their way of life, will go out. From travel to personal possessions to accumulating assets in a bid to secure their and their children’s future. These attitudes came to them from their forbears. Abstemiousness, charity, social commitment, sacrifice, perhaps, took a backseat. We’re in the flux of a moral change. Cultivated indifference, smugness about ‘look-at-these-poor-people’, won’t be their attitude anymore.