Breaking the Silence

Why we don’t talk about inequality—and how to start again

01 October, 2012


The New Challenge of Inequality

THE PRINCIPLE OF EQUALITY is having a revolutionary effect on life in contemporary India.” This was the considered assessment of the eminent American political scientist Myron Weiner, writing for Foreign Affairs in 1962. In a society still marked by egregiously obscene forms of inequality, the term “revolutionary” seems extravagant, even five decades after Weiner pronounced his judgment. But determining what constitutes “revolutionary” social change depends on how that change is measured—and in the second decade after Independence, the distance that India had travelled from its starting point would have indeed seemed immense. Political equality had been enshrined in the Constitution, untouchability had been delegitimised, political representation was widely shared, zamindari had been abolished, a new development paradigm was instituted, and the state defined its goals in terms of common welfare.

And yet by another measure—of how much more India would have to achieve to become a minimally equal society—even this progress was small comfort. Formal political equality did not translate into substantive empowerment; abolishing untouchability barely cracked open the hierarchies of caste; political representation coexisted with deep prejudice; zamindari abolition did little to alleviate the vulnerabilities of small farmers and landless labour; development was shockingly slow at expanding opportunities; and the state’s promise of welfare seemed like a cruel mirage to hundreds of millions of Indians condemned to poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and disease.

Much has transpired since Weiner’s preliminary assessment of the career of equality in India. Economically, India has broken out of the paradigm of low growth that always seemed to make material prosperity so elusive. This new growth is producing far-reaching changes in income, occupational structures, lifestyles and aspirations. Politically, India’s democracy has deepened, giving hitherto marginalised groups impressive representation and recognition. Administratively, the state has acquired unprecedented resources to spend on programs ostensibly designed for inclusion. And there is a palpable change in social consciousness: political democracy has induced a sense of agency and empowerment across different groups in society; today inclusion is a demand of citizens, not a gift given from on high.

Yet these very changes are compelling the debate over equality to take a paradoxical turn. On the one hand, there is impatience with the idea of equality. While an acknowledgement of formal equality is now enshrined in India’s self-image, the politics of equality are often associated with hypocrisy and pretense. One camp in the debate blames India’s ills in large part on an excessive rhetoric of equality—talk that is regarded as a license for maintaining outmoded forms of state control that for decades trapped India’s economy. From this perspective, equality talk has always been a license for economic irrationality: it was used to justify all manner of subsidies, controls and patronage schemes that did nothing but retard development. Growth may be producing new forms of economic inequality, the argument goes, but at least it is more effective at reducing poverty. It is also creating the conditions for a more durable equality of opportunity, by providing the resources for things like education. An excessive preoccupation with equality is seen as a stumbling block: it produces policies that do nothing but appease the conscience of India’s privileged, even as these policies do little to dismantle deep structures of inequality. Let us get on with growth, it is argued, and the opportunities it produces will, somehow, at some point, take care of equality concerns. Equality, on this view, is both a ruse and a distraction.

This sentiment captures a scepticism generated by India’s development experience. It is also of a piece with new India’s self-image of tough-mindedness, not bound by pieties of the past. Yet, on the other hand, this posture is deeply fragile. While equality talk may not have served us well, deep social and economic inequality remain obdurate realities in India. It may be a crude measure, but India’s Gini coefficient—a measurement of the uneven distribution of wealth—is rising. Acute forms of social segregation remain a reality. A large number of social struggles continue to be animated by the indignity of inequality and powerlessness. Despite significant reductions in poverty, it is difficult to deny that India still breathes an oppressive atmosphere of social inequality. The idea that growth and economic development represent our best chance of unsettling fixed hierarchies of power has some truth to it. But we cannot get away from the fact that growth is bringing in new challenges of inequality, which we ignore at our peril. It is also true that much of the political discourse of equality has been hypocritical. But here we must acknowledge that debates over growth and equality rarely manage to dent the psychological resistance we have erected to avoid confronting uncomfortable facts about inequality.

This essay is premised on the idea that the way we think about inequality matters a lot to the shape it takes and to the prospects for its diminishment. At present, Indian thinking about inequality suffers from a triple burden. The topic is cloaked by a deep and pervasive culture of avoidance. But even when it becomes a focus of political reflection, the outmoded idioms through which we imagine equality become new straitjackets that impede solutions. And this, in turn, distorts the understanding of the instruments we use to address the problem. This essay cannot do justice to the full complexity of the problem; it is a modest attempt at clearing some cobwebs. But India urgently needs to confront this issue anew. Or else inequality will remain India’s original sin: reappearing in the face of every resistance, casting a shadow over all social relations, acting forever as a rebuke to the Indian experiment.

The Culture of Avoidance

THE TOPIC OF EQUALITY IS A DIFFICULT one in any society; it conjures up a complex of hopes and fears. The greatest modern theorist of the psychological burdens of equality, Alexis de Tocqueville, proposed that societies that enshrined formal political equality would find it difficult to talk about real inequalities, because formal equality allows us to throw a veil over deep social inequalities. But in India it is a particularly difficult subject to discuss. The experience of inequality—and its associated indignities—is commonplace and visceral. To confront it fully is so existentially disturbing that it is often kept at bay by a whole series of interdictions and stratagems.

For those at the bottom of a deep well, the mere act of looking up at the heights to be scaled can be dispiriting; for those at the top, the act of looking to the depths at which human beings are confined is likely to cause vertigo. The net result is a taciturn avoidance played out in Indian homes and streets. It is not that the poor are not aware of the deep indignities they experience or the chains that bind them. It is not that the privileged are not aware of their deep complicity in a disfigured social system of inequality. But any frontal representation of this reality is more likely to induce an intellectual and moral paralysis.

Powerful representations of this reality—like the astonishing literature produced by Dalits—are politely acknowledged, but rarely internalised in our consciousness. When books like Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, or even Hollywood entertainments like Slumdog Millionaire, enter middle-class consciousness, they cause discomfort. This is not because they remind Indians of something we had forgotten, but because they represent an assault on the elaborate psychological fortifications we have constructed to cope with a reality we know all too well. It is precisely because the indignities associated with inequality are so widespread that we find it hard to talk about them. But the avoidance has created a self-perpetuating system, which is rarely frontally challenged. Everyone hopes the system will change, but absolves themselves of the responsibility for bringing about that change.


This deep existential discomfort with the topic might seem to be at odds with the fact that the struggle over equality defines a great deal of modern Indian history. Certainly it is impossible to imagine any modern society that does not take equality seriously. But taking equality seriously only gets us so far. The nature of our foundational commitments to equality varies considerably—and even if we achieved clarity over those commitments, transforming them into a social reality requires confronting a complex set of forces. Concepts do not automatically translate into reality: which is why equality can often seem both normatively inescapable and socially impossible at the same time—an ideal on which everyone agrees but one that can never be entirely fulfilled.

For similar reasons—that commitments do not necessarily entail outcomes—it is also a mistake to think that foundational religious commitments explain much of the story of equality. In the canonical story of equality in the West outlined by Tocqueville, Christianity did provide a standpoint from which to affirm equality—but then it took almost two millennia for this discovery to be embodied in social institutions. In India, this story is usually told in reverse: Hinduism, the dominant conceptual framework of the subcontinent, constructed a deep, enduring and disfiguring ideological edifice of inequality. This framework, with its fusion of coercive, ideological, economic and religious power, pitilessly condemned large masses to the most insidious forms of subordination mankind has known.

In fact, many of the ideological polemics against inequality in India are just critiques of Hinduism in various forms—which have in turn spawned a series of reactions that attempt to sever the connection between Hinduism and caste, or to point out that the tradition was not quite what its detractors made it out to be. These polemics have their place, even though they often fail to get historical nuances right and simplify a complex historical inheritance to the point of caricature. But all these historical arguments run up against one paradoxical and incontrovertible fact of Indian history. India has produced immense intellectual radicalism, heterodoxy and dissent, all of which could be put in the service of equality. And yet this intellectual radicalism—whether in the Mahabharata, Buddhism, Kabir or Nanak—has been so easily reconciled with the orthodoxy of social structure; the facts of inequality seem to swallow all religious or metaphysical attempts to escape it.

So the obsession with the question of whether Indians “believe” in equality, or whether the concept has any cultural roots here, is therefore somewhat misplaced. John Locke could “believe” in Christianity and equality, and yet put up with slavery—the issue is not so simple.

As the philosopher Bernard Williams pointed out, in all societies the demands of equality and justice are often immobilised in the name of something called social and economic necessity. The issue is where and how these lines of necessity come to be drawn. For example, all societies tolerate high degrees of inequality in property and income, not because they are just, but because these are seen as necessary, often for the preservation of other goals like efficiency. These institutions then come to be seen as necessary ones. What drives equality is not so much a series of abstract arguments about concepts, or large changes in the character of people, but some inchoate sense of the boundaries of social and economic necessity. It is rarely the case that arguments for equality move us towards particular social arrangements. Indeed, it is often the reverse: the degree to which particular economic and social arrangements are seen as necessary determine the boundaries of equality. We first justify the structure of privilege in terms of necessity—according to imperatives of economic efficiency or social stability, for example—and then limit our commitment to equality to adapt to that necessity. The issue is not a belief in equality, but how its demands are immobilised in the name of some necessity.

ONE MODEST ACHIEVEMENT of modern India is that gross inequalities are no longer legitimised. We still put up with them as a reality; often as a deplorable necessity, but a necessity nonetheless. As a result, our conceptual innovations, ideological entanglements, or appeals to tradition—our ideas about equality, in short—seem to mean very little when they come face to face with an unyielding social reality.

As the renowned Dalit writer Om Prakash Valmiki once asked: What possible meaning could anyone give to an oft-quoted phrase like “Vasudeiva Kutmbakam”—The World is My Family—in the face of an oppressively suffocating experience of subordination? How can we explain the persistence of countless sites that inflict needless indignity—forms of domestic servitude, manual scavenging, inhuman labour conditions? Instead of occasioning a discourse of justice, these very realities seem to silence its demands.

To be sure, all societies experience versions of this silencing; this is not India’s monopoly. But one must admit that the scale of this silencing is unusual in a society that has so many other things going for it: pluralism, a reflective and argumentative culture, and democratic politics. Some would point to the circular character of inequality: we don’t care because we are unequal, and because we don’t care inequality will persist. In fact, many of India’s poor outcomes in areas ranging from health to education are explained away through this logic, which is similar to what contemporary social science calls the equality paradox: you need to already have some equality and reciprocity to make progress towards more.

In a society riven by deep inequality there is not even the minimal basis for mutual concern. Where social distance makes human beings almost a different species in each other’s eyes, why would you expect anything else? Why would a contractor care if one of his construction workers used his hands rather than a brush to apply a dangerous chemical? The more inequality there is, the harder it is to imagine what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes. It has to be admitted that even the most well-meaning and sensitive find it hard to imagine what the suffocation, darkness and sheer physical suffering of being at the bottom of a social hierarchy might be really like. The very thing you would expect to instigate questions of justice makes it hard to raise them.

There are other variations on this theme. Greater social distance reduces trust and makes collective action more difficult. Inequality produces a society with low self-esteem all around: the poor, who are made conscious of their subordinate status at every turn, internalise the view that achievement is beyond their reach. The privileged, wracked by the anxiety of domination, sincerely believe if they give an inch the poor will take a mile. Deplorable social facts often produce a personal anxiety in the privileged; they are read as accusations of personal complicity which, in turn, produce a defensiveness. Or somewhat more benignly, the sheer scale of human suffering leads one to naturalise it. It is hard for individuals to bring about change. You don’t mind change, but you just hope someone else, perhaps the state, brings it about with the least pain possible. In the meantime, the best you can do is erect barriers that allow you to escape your bad faith. But the end result is that the idea of equality becomes more and more difficult to confront.

There are often straightforwardly more malign representations as well. In this view the poor are a threat, to be cleansed away. In urban spaces, we attribute crime to them, often forgetting that it is precisely their presence on the streets carrying out small trades that is more likely to make cities safe. Horror stories of the crimes of domestic servants abound—so they are seen as potential thieves, and we forget they are far more often extraordinary examples of fortitude and self-restraint, leading a life of self-denial that we could not even imagine. These overdrawn negative images certainly perform an ideological function, by legitimising inequity, and a psychological function, by making it easier to avoid examining one’s own complicity. But they further entrench the culture of avoidance.

And finally, there is the self-perception of India’s middle classes. Nowhere is the gap in the politics of equality more evident than in the fact that there are two diametrically opposed constructions of the middle class. On the one hand the middle class is seen as a symbol of inherited privilege. It is dominated by erstwhile upper castes, and in income and property terms has an immense advantage over the rest of society. On the other hand the middle class sees itself as the product of acquired rather than inherited privilege—as the product of a meritocratic system, which has had to work through a whole range of exams and formal certifications to achieve what it has. So on the one hand there is a construction of a middle class whose privileges are “illegitimate”, in some sense; on the other hand there is the self-perception of the middle classes that they have passed the only test this society has to offer—merit.

It is astonishing how difficult it has been to conduct a conversation across this divide. It is possible that within the middle classes, which have a sense that they have risen on the dint of merit, there is even less support for an egalitarian politics. This is because a society which links achievement to educational attainment also gives the ‘achievers’ a sense of entitlement. It may be easier to shame an aristocracy by claiming their wealth is undeserved; it is harder to induce guilt in those whose self-perception is that they have attained wealth by legitimate means. While an expanding professional middle class may support the expansion of education, they may also have less patience with any politics of equality, because their own sense of entitlement derives from a meritocratic conception of educational attainment; this will be even truer for newer entrants to this class.

There are, therefore, deep psychological barriers to confront before we can even discuss equality; it is a subject on which any utterance seems meaningless or in bad faith. The barriers of distrust remain deep. The marginalised suspect that most talk of equality is at best a strategy to avoid the issue, and at worst a ruse of power. The privileged see every such discussion as an attack on their legitimate claims. Before we explore the complex conceptual terrain of equality, we need to break these deep fortifications we refuse to cross, where we cope with the questions inequality raises by simply avoiding them.

THIS CULTURE OF AVOIDANCE becomes a self-perpetuating cycle in two respects. The more we deny the indignity of inequality, the more reason we have to make the oppressed indignant. And the more indignant they are, the more sharply battle lines will be drawn.

The unique strength of Indian democracy, which staved off a bloody revolution, has also been cause for complacency. For decades after Independence, India’s poor and marginalised were confined to a politics of sheer survival—often because they were so vulnerable that no resistance to the existing order seemed possible. Democratic politics and the state exploited this vulnerability by enlisting them in clientelistic relations, where their first objective was survival. The pitilessness of this arrangement was that it often made them complicit in their own oppression. Rather than resist corruption, they had to use corruption to find slivers of breathing space in an otherwise suffocating system.

Slow economic growth and even slower alleviation of poverty ensured that for many decades, India’s poor had nothing but a politics of survival. But with greater growth, in fact—with some improvement in the poor’s well-being and prospects—questions of equality will become more, not less, insistent. It is true that the past decade has seen unprecedented improvement in the lives of many poor Indians. We can statistically debate the extent of this improvement, but there is no doubt that today there is considerable optimism that the future will be better than the past. This optimism has made for great political stability, and has led to a great drive for self-improvement, as seen in the revolution in demand for education, to take just one example.

But as Tocqueville noted, the prospects for potentially violent conflict are often greatest not when things are at their absolute worst, but when they are actually getting better. Political actors have more resources and confidence with which to mobilise. The entry into the ranks of the middle and lower middle classes of hitherto marginalised groups will mean accommodation by segregation is no longer an option. Economic growth, coupled with some state support, produces new forms of mobility—and one feature of that mobility is that segregated spaces are no longer possible. As the story published in these pages of a Dalit student’s tragic suicide at AIIMS showed, even our most progressive institutions are struggling to evolve an ethic of equality that meets a minimum standard of decent human interaction. Our schools are going to struggle to create shared spaces for rich and poor alike.

In short, up until now the discourse of equality was in some ways very abstract for the ruling classes. A few hand-outs here, a few reservations there, and our “equality thing” was done. In a way “equality” was easy because social reality was segmented: each group occupied its own social space; these spaces may not have been equal, but they were not in competition. The nature of this separation is nicely captured in Dalit discourse about caste: in North India, Dalits often use the word “samaj” to describe the worlds of different castes. The idea that different social groups are, in some senses, different societies sums up the practice of social difference in India—both in terms of the mostly endogamous nature of separate groups and the vast distance between them.

The political equality introduced by Indian democracy proved, in practice, to be quite compatible with this form of social segregation. It converted questions of justice into simple calculations of how to distribute whatever goods the state had to offer. These were important considerations. But they left unmet the real ethical challenges posed by social practice: segregated spaces meant that the subtler ways in which caste hierarchies insinuate themselves went unchallenged. It is only when some degree of mobility becomes possible—when some shared spaces, whether in colleges, workplaces, or in civic culture, begin to emerge—that the ethical questions of equality are experienced with a more insistent force. What norms of conduct are required to ensure people receive equal treatment in these spaces? The idea that we can practice toleration or equality by simply confining groups to their own spaces is no longer tenable.

Although still limited, new mobility and aspirations are breaking down the idea that Indian society can exist as a collection of “samajs”. But our ethical consciousness lags far behind these imminent social changes. It is small wonder that schools are now the site of battles over integration of poor children, colleges are sites of caste conflict, and workplaces are repositories of subtle discrimination. Instead of being sites of a new mixing and the evolution of a new consciousness of equality, these have become zones of deep conflict and contestation. What will it take to cultivate forms of human interchange that involve a minimal degree of reciprocity, where we don’t feel slighted or defensive? All the evidence indicates that we are going to have a very hard time, because the culture of avoidance has become so ingrained.

For decades, the politics of equality had largely been eclipsed by the politics of survival—and this quiescence also contributed to deepening the culture of avoidance. But as India grows, and as new forms of social mobility are unleashed, its citizens will demand something more than the politics of survival or the evasions of benign segregation. They will ask hard questions about the nature of our social practices.



ON THE SURFACE, Indian politics is defined by a concern with equality. But the impetus for that concern has often come from commitments that had little to do with the ethical content of equality or the belief that it was desirable as an end in itself. To a certain extent, this is natural: all societies struggle to define and understand the nature of their commitment to an idea of equality. Equality is a difficult idea. Societies evolve different idioms to express it—ways of thinking about its definition, its attainability, its importance and its benefits. These idioms are themselves shaped by inherited ideas, but often they are forged in the mould of inherited inequalities. The hopes and fears associated with equality in a society that has emerged from revolution look very different from those in societies that never experienced the turmoil of having social orders overturned; nations where slavery was practiced cannot dissociate equality from race.

In India, the modern discourse of equality was similarly shaped by historical experience, which gave rise, over time, to a series of separate and distinct ways of imagining equality—and these, in turn, defined the idioms in which the politics of equality was conducted. Each  of these idioms left an indelible mark on Indian society, and yet, as we shall see, each one had its own limitations as a transformative project, and their failures have left our politics of equality unhinged. Each one offered some possibilities of progress, but they did not quite manage to make enough of a dent in the cultural and material practices that produce inequality.

The idea of equality in modern Indian political discourse has murky origins. In traditional thinking there are references to the ideal, but largely in metaphysical discussions of the nature of the Soul rather than the social context of Power. In modern Indian texts there is a reticence to discuss such foundational issues: most texts deal with particular injustices, but they rarely probe the ethical foundations of the idea—the questions of what constitutes equality, whether it is desirable, and why it should be so. Is equality, for example, a descriptive fact? Are we “by nature equal”? Or is it a culturally specific ideal? The claim that we are naturally free and equal is more often than not simply treated as a political postulate—but from what foundations does this claim derive its authority?

One way of expressing the value of equality would be to state that we ought to treat each other as  equals, because this will allow us to form a political community we might not otherwise have. This is an attractive ideal, but its appeal depends largely upon creating a romance around what might be attractive about a political community where we actually treated one another as equals. The hard labour of creating that romance has in a sense been sidelined by the various other idioms in which equality has been imagined, each of which has seen equality not as a value in itself but as a component in the pursuit of other ends.

The idea of treating equality as political claim comes from the fact that this idea takes modern form in the crucible of anti-colonial politics. Whatever the indigenous traditions of thinking about the matter, the advent of colonialism marked a radical political rupture with the past. Colonialism had a paradoxical effect on Indian social thinking. On the one hand, the experience of colonialism led to a radical questioning of Indian society. The forms of social relations that had existed in India were deemed illegitimate in some sense of the term: they were associated with oppression, a denial of individuality and a subjugation of the human spirit that forever condemned Indian society to a form of servitude.

In the literature that began proliferating, first in Bengal and then elsewhere, Indians began to wonder whether inherited inequality and difference had led to India’s easy subjugation by colonial powers. There are very few writings in Indian intellectual history that treat equality directly as a subject. But Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay explicitly raised this possibility in his polemical essay Samya (Equality), published in 1879: “the poison of inequality,” he wrote, “is the main reason for the deterioration in the lot of India’s subjects.”

On the other hand, the experience of colonial rule reinforced the rigidities of traditional society. In a bid to maintain its rule, the colonial state began to systematically codify “traditional” society. The very categories it used to understand Indian society, whether through the formalisation of dharmashastra texts, or the categories associated with the census, had the effect of creating traditional categories anew, as it were. The complex histories and social realities of caste were now refracted through the templates of modern law, censuses, and a stylised textual understanding of tradition.

This duality gave Indians a split consciousness that still marks them. On the one hand, caste, and its associated inequality, is a sign of backwardness; it is associated with the idea that Indian society has not arrived at the egalitarian plateau of modernity. But on the other hand, no account of Indian society could be formulated without the very categories we were supposed to escape. In other words, India was not modern because individuality was subordinate to the demands of compulsory identities—but at the same time, India would not be India, it would not be true to its own essence, if we did not make constant reference to these same identities.

India was shown the promise of liberation, in which freedom would allow us to overcome the past; but the self-understanding of individuals would always be marked by these identities, and the state would also recognise them primarily through this prism.

In some ways the discourse of equality in India becomes almost impossible to imagine, precisely because thinking of an identity outside caste seemed always something of a conceptual impossibility. The biggest failure of the modern Indian political imagination, and the social science that undergirds it, is this fact: while promising emancipation it also made caste categories inescapable.

EQUALITY MADE ITS FIRST POWERFUL ENTRY into the political realm through the imperatives of nationalism—as an instrument to reverse the domination of India’s colonisers. After 1857, the British legitimised their rule not simply by reference to their own superiority, but also with the idea that the colonised societies were not considered nations at all. In response, the indigenous ruling elites needed to create a new basis for their own legitimacy, so they could be considered representatives of a nation. But positing the existence of a nation, at the very least, required some proof that they drew their power from the people of this nation—which meant that the people needed to possess at least minimal political rights.

Indian nationalism and political equality were born together; one was not imaginable without the other. So political equality was the easiest value to institutionalise, and found profound expression in the powerful political idioms of the Indian constitution.

This constitutional framework was no mean achievement. It created a basic framework that made political equality an article of faith. In this sense, the Constitution was Indian nationalism’s gift to the nation. Furthermore, the fact that BR Ambedkar played a prominent part in shaping it gave the Constitution even more legitimacy than any of the founders could have imagined. For Dalits, the Constitution became the centrepiece of an emancipatory narrative, setting out the terms of a new social contract; and in turn it gave them an emancipatory figure who came to be deified.

But the very success of the Constitution also proved its limits, as Ambedkar feared: its success at institutionalising formal political equality also defused any drive towards greater or more substantial forms of genuine empowerment. It is harder to mobilise a politics of equality in a society whose elites have just acquired the self-conception that they are egalitarian. The Constitution was not just a psychological life raft for Dalits; it also gave India’s elites a means to overcome their own burdens of bad conscience, and allowed them entry into the respectable world of modernity.

But the transition to democracy did not massively disrupt the established social order: the fact is that democracies have turned out to be extremely conservative, and slow to combat inequality. Back in the 18th century, Adam Smith had predicted that a democracy, the United States, would be among the last countries to abolish slavery, and it took a brutal civil war to bring that about. Almost no democracy has seriously expropriated the rich—and there is a case to be made that elites enthusiastically embraced democracy precisely because they recognised that the big fear it once induced, of the poor voting out the rich, proved to be largely groundless.

Democracy, in the Indian context, proved the surest way of keeping more radical and revolutionary forces at bay. The powerful quickly realised that far from dispossessing them, democracy would allow them to exercise power in new ways. It would take a long essay to describe why democracy has turned out to be a relatively conservative force. But it is fair to say that democracy served the interests of power more than it went against them.


The acknowledgment of the necessity of democracy was followed by claims for the functional necessity of equality in the modern world, on what we might call the grounds of efficiency. This idiom also had its genesis in the independence movement, as thinker after thinker came to the conclusion that the superiority of the West consisted largely in the capacity of its states to enlist the productive energies of the entirety of their populations. Prosperity and power demanded enhanced productive capacity. At some point, this thinking went, caste might have been a functional mode of social organisation; it had a historical role in the distribution of productive capacity, and even promoted the development of individual skills in designated occupations. But it no longer conformed to the functional requirements of modern society. The mode of organising society had to make a transition from hierarchy to equality because this was a functional necessity. This argument, first devised in the context of caste, could easily be extended to other categories like gender. Inclusion, as it were, became a desirable goal because it was necessary for growth.

The attraction of this argument is not to be underestimated. Arguably even now whatever little commitment we have to welfare and human development is not motivated by ethical concerns: it is driven, if at all, by the practical necessities of running a modern economy. Our lack of human development, for instance, evokes less an ethical anxiety about inequality, and more a concern for national competitiveness. The people still remain a subject to be worked on, so they can be enlisted in the project of unleashing the nation’s productive power. The problem is that this concern goes only so far as the elites perceive these things to be practically necessary.

In spite of their limitations, these instrumentalist policies could have contributed to alleviating the spectre of human suffering if they had actually given citizens the means to participate in a modern economy. The state tried, and partly succeeded. But an odd mixture of the failure of democratic accountability, administrative myopia, and some startlingly obtuse policy choices made this project less credible, even on its own terms. In some ways, the failure of the state exacerbated the trust deficit that is at the heart of the politics of inequality. Among the privileged, even those who would have been inclined to let the state take actions to increase equality recoiled at the prospect of a state that fed its own insatiable logic rather than achieving concrete outcomes. While the poor continued to regard the state as oppressive at worst, and at best an institution from which political ingenuity could extract small favours.

WHILE ELITES HAD THEIR REASONS to infuse equality with some content through their ideas of democracy and development, a more powerful impetus was given to the idea by the struggles of oppressed groups themselves, led by figures like Narayana Guru, Jyotirao Phule and Ambedkar. If there has been anything revolutionary at all about social change in India, it is the transformation in the consciousness of hitherto marginalised groups like Dalits, who at every turn began to resist the chains of subordination. This transformation manifests itself in several ways: in large scale caste-based social movements; in the extraordinary production of writing and literature that has still not been noticed by the mainstream; in quiet but confident acts of daily resistance; and in the sheer drive to defeat the odds. This is an undoing of inequality through acts of agency and resistance, a refusal to let social necessity determine the horizon of possibility.

These social movements revolutionised the consciousness of oppressed groups, and produced a new sense of dignity and self-esteem that is behind so much of the new energy in India. But in their current form there are inherent limitations to what they can achieve. If India’s elites obfuscated the distinction between being anti-untouchability and being anti-caste, many of these movements conflated the politics of being anti-upper caste with being anti-caste. In politics, many of these movements managed to displace existing power holders. But as Sudipta Kaviraj has pointed out, they were based on a logic of equality that measured progress on the basis of caste: in this equation, the degree of equality is defined by the share of caste power in institutions like the state.

But one consequence of this conception of equality is that it has placed an enormous burden on reservations as the instrument of equality. As a result, reservations based on anything other than an ascriptive criteria like caste are not seen as expressing a politics of equality. There are several reasons for this. Consider, first, what the phrase “equality of classes” might mean: as a matter of distributive justice, it can only mean the abolition of classes; “equality of classes” without their abolition would be an oxymoron. For the reasons mentioned above, we do not have any instruments for the abolition of class. But “equality of caste”, by contrast, does not require the abolition of caste—and the degree to which equality in this sense has been achieved can be crudely measured by the share of different caste groups in structures of power.

To continue this line of thinking, let us consider the differences between how we understand caste mobility and class mobility. If a poor person becomes middle class, this is a positive development, and may reflect the fact that society has opened up avenues of opportunity. But this individual, by virtue of his mobility, is no longer poor—he is now middle class. This kind of mobility is obviously a desirable characteristic in a modern society; it potently expresses the aspiration that where one is born should not determine one’s opportunities. But class mobility does not negate the continued existence of class and inequality; there are still lower classes and upper classes. When an individual changes their position on this scale, their position on the axis of deprivation changes; they no longer represent the class they came from. The ability for individuals to “change classes” provides an important measure of mobility; it is not seen, however, as providing a measure of equality, since it does not shift the distribution of privilege among classes.

But caste operates differently: a Mala or Maddiga may become rich, and thereby change their class, but they remain a Mala or Maddiga, and they can still represent their caste in the calculus of power-sharing. They may have become rich or powerful, but their position on the axis of deprivation being measured (in this case, caste) does not change.

This is one of the ethical dilemmas posed by reservation, in that it perpetuates a compulsory identity through officially sanctioned categories, at least in the eyes of the state: once a member of a particular caste, always a member of that caste. But this feature of caste, which leads to its perpetuation as a compulsory identity, also makes it attractive as a locus of social justice: caste comes to be a measure of equality by virtue of its being an immutable characteristic. Caste, in this sense, offers an answer to the question “Equality in what respect?” in a way no other category does, precisely because of its immutability. “Equality with respect to class” would require the abolition of class; equality with respect to caste does not require its abolition. So while we believe equality can be measured, at least in one respect, by counting the “representatives” of each caste given a share of power, with class this would be impossible, because the mere fact of gaining access to power transforms the individual’s class status.

This institutionalisation of caste as the basis of equality has some interesting consequences. It displaces the need to take class difference seriously: since we have limited instruments to achieve deep equality, class is now seen as an almost legitimate form of inequality. Caste has become the form in which the politics of social justice is expressed. While this has drawn our attention to a central truth—that caste is important in the reproduction of inequality—it has helped to hide another essential truth: that other things also matter to the production of equality. While this point may sound banal, the way caste plays out in politics consistently obscures this fact.

In India there is no serious discourse on the relationship between justice and discrimination. This is in part due to the fact that the category of discrimination was seen as specific to the Dalit experience. But it is also a result of the contemporary discourse of reservations, in which power-sharing rather than the absence of discrimination has become the central category in our thinking about justice. One consequence of this development is among the upper castes: there is now a tacit assumption that since shares in power have been reserved, discrimination is no longer a category that requires our attention. All in all, this politics has been good at opening the doors to power-sharing; it has not, however, lowered the relational barriers between castes.

TWO FURTHER IDIOMS OF EQUALITY emerged from more traditional sources—or, more accurately, from attempts at their reinvention and reinvigoration. The first of these came from a series of efforts, now loosely clustered under the term “Hindu Reform Movements”, premised on an acute sense that Indian traditions had been ethically hollowed from the inside. Much like the abolitionists who thought abolishing slavery was necessary to preserve the legitimacy of Christianity, these thinkers sensed that Indian tradition needed to be made more egalitarian if it was to survive.

This was the current that went from Vivekanada to Gandhi, and it was quite honest in its appraisal of the depravity into which Indian social relations had fallen, though only Gandhi saw the degree of existential self-reformation real social reform would require. The reform movements envisioned a kind of “Sanskritisation” induced from the top, whereby elites would open the doors of previously restricted traditions to newer groups, and the marginalised would acquire a sense of identity by reclaiming the traditions they had been denied. For a time, this was arguably the big cultural project of modern India, but it ran aground for several reasons. First, because this project could not overcome the taint of being patronising. Ambedkar made that charge stick even to a figure like Gandhi, and it was a charge that became even more credible when the sole repositories of this tradition became groups like the RSS. Second, the project was premised on a renewed vitality in Indian thinking, but when Hindu reform hollowed out to the point where all that was left of it was an insecure nationalism, the whole project began to lose steam. In the early 1960s, the great sociologist MN Srinivas posited that “Sanskritisation” and “Westernisation” were the two possible idioms through which marginalised groups could seek recognition. The great cultural story of equality today is that Sanskritisation is almost dead as a social project, and has been replaced almost entirely by “Westernisation”.


The final idiom in which equality has been framed in India came from a radical ethical vision, shared by an assortment of thinkers ranging from Vivekanada and Gandhi to the non-Marxist left. India has not produced many systematic tracts on equality—a revealing fact in its own light. But in the non-Marxist tradition from Gandhi to Ram Manohar Lohia, equality has been seen not in terms of political or social relations, but as related to the perfecting of the self. To simplify somewhat, relations of inequality are produced largely because the individual self is not ordered in the right way. Either the self is in the grip of ignorance caused by egoism; or the self is possessed by the wrong kind of desire, which requires it to exercise power over others. On this view, the primary challenge of equality is not about our relationship with others, it is primarily about crafting the right relationship with one’s own self. The root of inequality, in some form or the other, always lies in an exaltation of materialism, which compels us to seek domination over others.

There is much that is acute in this kind of analysis, and it does focus attention on what kind of people we would have to be to practise egalitarian politics seriously. But as a means of achieving equality, it proved counter-productive, for it immediately tied the politics of equality to an idiom of renunciation. As a cultural ideal, this had an enormous appeal—even now, there is a strong cultural association between the politics of egalitarianism and the politics of self-denial. Its great achievement was to create a certain embarrassment about wealth, or at least conspicuous consumption, and to induce a form of self-restraint that is now wearing thin. But the association of saintliness and the politics of equality made it an ideal few in the human species could practise. This ethical critique of the self could not provide a workable politics of equality for a nation committed to harnessing productive growth—and where the scourge of poverty made renunciation, paradoxically, seem like a luxury few could afford.

The net result was that in Indian politics, the critique of inequality was so closely tied with a critique of materialism that it became identified with a glorification of poverty itself. It did nothing to address the question of what an egalitarian politics appropriate to an economy committed to growth and expanding material well-being would look like. It was a Left-tinted politics of virtue, as it were, but it remained credible only insofar as its protagonists were virtuous.

Taken together, these five idioms have given content to our ideas of equality over the course of the past century. But as we have seen, each of them had its own considerable limitations. The idioms of democracy and development, which posited equality as a necessity for the attainment of other aims, advanced equality only to the extent that it served the imperatives of elite power. The struggles of the oppressed transformed the consciousness of the victims of oppression, but then got stuck on a narrow measure of representation that reproduced the very identities the idea of equality was meant to overcome. The idea that the worst aspects of tradition could be transcended without making the whole tradition despicable proved to be a very fragile concept. And finally, the critique of material inequality turned out to be more a critique of materialism than of inequality.


Instruments of Change

EQUALITY ALWAYS HAS a significant material dimension, and many would argue that the limitations of the idioms outlined above stem largely from their inability to confront the material aspect of inequality. Indian Marxists would be the first to make this point, though they have not been the only ones to think about the material realities of inequality, as can be seen from the long list of struggles, past and present, over material issues like access to land, labour, forests, minerals, credit, capital and welfare. But even here, old ways of thinking about material equality—like our exhausted idioms—have also become straitjackets, obstructing our ability to address new challenges.

In part this is because growth has made our material identities more complex. It is one thing to think of a farmer just as a farmer; it is another thing to think of him in a context where he is also a consumer, or located on the cusp of aspirations that might lead him to move out of farming altogether. Similarly, our ideas about labour in a closed economy aren’t necessarily relevant for matters of labour welfare in an open, global economy. In all these cases, the balance of considerations in designing policies to address material inequalities is decidedly more complex than it once was; as a result, our old instruments for producing a greater degree of economic equality may no longer work as intended.

The most prominent example of this new reality is the issue of land. Inequality of access to land preoccupied the nationalist imagination: Gandhians thought their anti-materialism would lead to the voluntary abnegation of land; Nehru and other liberals believed the state should and could engineer a modicum of land redistribution. In an overwhelmingly agrarian economy, the vision of an egalitarian utopia centred on land reform. But as a rule, democracies have not been very successful at implementing radical land reform, and India’s experience was no different. It was able to abolish zamindari, the most egregious form of land-based exploitation. But in many states, the whole structure of formal and informal rights that lay below the level of the zamindar was never decisively sorted out, producing an intense agrarian struggle.

At present, however, in the context of India’s uneven development, the politics of land are playing out very differently. The issue of land has become central to conflicts in our society, whether in the case of tribals desperately trying to secure the rights to use their traditional lands, farmers contesting land acquisition, or disputes over urban zoning and development. But while land remains an issue of great social contention, it is, with some exceptions, not the locus of an egalitarian politics. For several reasons, land no longer seems a plausible mechanism for producing equality; in fact, land assets are now a means by which inequality is reproduced and exacerbated rather than reduced. In much of rural India, the quest is now to get off the land: the fragmentation in landholdings, combined with dramatic shifts in economic aspiration, has made the prospect of working the land far less desirable; access to small landholdings no longer appears to be a source of empowerment.

Land acquisition has also become a mechanism for deepening inequality in three distinct ways. First, property rights, which were weakened in India to facilitate land reform and help the poor, ironically ended up dispossessing them even more. Second, the price of land, and the willingness of farmers to part with it, depends largely on its value: those already in possession of valuable land are further enriched by its acquisition, while small farmers in poorer states—who also have less ability to bargain—get a poorer deal. The conflict over land today is not so much about redistribution as about whether the value of land can be used as an asset for participation in the wider economy, and those areas where valuations are low see greater conflicts over acquisition; dispossession, therefore, is also unequal in its effects. Third, while land acquisition often involves the promise of jobs in addition to monetary compensation, this too has done nothing to diminish inequality. In most areas, there has been insufficient investment in providing skills to the dispossessed that would enable them to get meaningful jobs. Even when companies do hire local labour to perform menial work, this does nothing to shift the long-term trajectory of the affected communities. For all these reasons, land acquisition is often an occasion for reproducing existing inequalities rather than closing the gap.

IF THE POLITICS OVER LAND have taken a new turn, the politics of taxation and welfare, as currently conceived, have also produced their own new pathologies. In some ways, these pathologies have to be understood against the backdrop of past failures in India. This is not the occasion to debate the merits of the Nehruvian developmental model, and its interpretation by his successors. But it left a lasting institutional legacy that still marks the politics of equality. To put it somewhat simplistically, the Nehruvian social democratic imagination had three components: high taxation, heavy state regulation of private enterprise, and centralisation of power on the pretext of producing equality. Each of these components produced their own pathologies. The result of irrational levels of taxation was not redistribution, but instead the creation of a black economy and a culture of avoidance that became second nature to Indian economic activity. Partly as a backlash, there has been a greater rationalisation of the tax system during the past two decades. But it still rests largely on indirect rather than direct taxes, and it would stretch the imagination to argue that tax policy is now considered a locus of promoting equality.


State control over private enterprise has, to a certain degree, been liberalised. But in crucial areas like labour laws, these controls still remain. How much of a fetter these are on growth, productivity and employment generation is a debatable matter; in many states, as is so often the case in India, there is a considerable gap between the law and actual practices. But these labour laws did have the unintended effect of fragmenting the power of labour. Insofar as they produced incentives for outsourcing, smaller units, and greater use of informal workers, they prevented the emergence of a full-blown labour movement. Judged solely by the ratio between lockouts and strikes, the bargaining position of labour has progressively weakened over the past two decades. Many would argue that weakening the power of labour has been good for growth; others would point out that in an age of mobile global capital, labour’s bargaining hand has been everywhere seriously weakened. But whatever the case, these developments have radically diminished the significance of the workplace as a site for the politics of equality.

The effects of centralisation have been more complex and subtle. In some ways, the need to tackle inequality provided a justification for the centralisation of the state; the idea was that if matters were left to local authorities, local elites in any given area would simply use state power to reinforce their existing control. This concern was at the heart of Nehru and Ambedkar’s scepticism of decentralisation. But in reality, the opposite happened: the central state was not strong enough to break the power of local elites; indeed, it relied on co-opting them. At the same time, the excessive centralisation of decision-making—which meant even minor decisions like teacher appointments or welfare distribution were not under local control—deprived ordinary citizens of a sense of agency, limiting their avenues for meaningful political participation. In recent years, there has been more of an appetite for strengthening local self-government, but the entrenched weight of the old system still militates against public participation in decisions that affect people’s lives. Participation of this sort is a key medium for the production of social equality, but even today the state consistently abridges these possibilities.

THIS PARTICULAR MOMENT is a propitious one for rethinking the politics of social democracy. Whatever its other limitations, high growth provides an opportunity to build a state. The terms of our new social contract were supposed to be simple: private enterprise would deliver high growth; this high growth would translate into increased government revenue; this revenue would be deployed to create more equal opportunity. To a limited extent, this promise has been fulfilled in the past decade: high growth did boost government revenues, which funded one of the most ambitious expansions of state spending in Indian history, visible in schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee, Indira Awas Yojana and Right to Education. There has also been a massive expansion in the provision of access to infrastructure like rural roads and telecommunications, a key component of increased inclusion. In short, we have the financial and technological means to achieve greater inclusion; financing a modicum of social democracy has become possible. But it is important that these resources be applied to building the elements of genuine social democracy, rather than frittered away on populism.

But this historical opportunity is being threatened on all sides. There is still a great deal of ideological resistance to recognising the potentially liberating effect of growth, and the real opportunities it affords even to the poor. It is fashionable to assert that there are two Indias, one on the fast track of growth, and the other still mired in stagnation. Certainly, looking at India’s rising Gini coefficients might give this impression, and India’s growth spurt has indeed been associated with rising inequality. But what this “two Indias” story misses is the fact that the two Indias are closely linked: while inequality on some measures has increased, growth has also lifted people out of poverty and created unprecedented opportunities for mobility. Indeed, much of our politics now centres on a new clamour for participation in the growth story—evident, to take just one example, in the exposition in demand for education at all levels.

The danger here is that while there is a great deal of rhetorical handwringing over the growth of inequality, we are misunderstanding the nature of the challenge it poses. Much of our current debate is focused on the state’s failure to deliver public goods like health and education—which is indeed one source of persistent inequality. But this approach links the politics of equality irrevocably to the politics of accountability. The state has the resources; if only we could make it more accountable, the building blocks of equality will be put in place. But the politics of accountability is a weak substitute for a politics of equality, in part because it fails to acknowledge how and why the capacity of the state has already been diminished. India’s elites, both the cause and the victims of state failure, responded by essentially seceding from the state: they provide their own private goods, from security to health. The elite’s exit from the provision of public goods has in some respects exacerbated a sense of inequality, condemning most citizens to a second-rate state. Worse, this tendency may be self-reinforcing: more elites will exit because state credibility is low, and state credibility will therefore fall even lower.

But the more substantial problem with the politics of accountability is that it pays little attention to what the state delivers. From the perspective of equality, the state’s long-term priority should be to equip citizens with the ability to participate in a growing economy—to make people more capable and productive, or provide them the means to become so. The most serious question for the future is about the dimensions of participation: not simply political participation, but the capacity of individuals to make occupational transitions and participate in wider economic changes. This depends on several factors that have already been discussed: education, infrastructure, health, access to credit, and so on. But the most important burden faced by the poor is often not resource deprivation. It is that the state actively prevents their participation in a wider economy: it does not let them set up businesses; it makes entry barriers to cities enormously high; it excludes them under the pretext of regulating them. On the ground, the simple truth is this: the license-permit raj has been dismantled only for the privileged—the brunt of the state’s licensing mentality is borne by small businesses, hawkers, small traders, artisans, and even labour. The irony of our current politics of equality is that while it has focused on the distribution of state resources, the state has been actively preventing citizens from becoming more productive participants in economic growth.

The next generation of conflicts will be less about distributive issues, defined along traditional class lines. They will be more about tearing down these barriers to participation. We have fragmented and dominated the rural poor through our welfare schemes; and we confine the urban poor to the margins of participation by making their very presence hover between legality and illegality. The brunt of this statism is often not borne by the rich, who can exit, but by the ordinary migrant looking to participate in a growing economy. The next generation of conflict will come precisely from these citizens, who are trying to wrest their rights of participation from a recalcitrant state. The central question in an economy is the production of good jobs, and it is far from clear that India is on the kind of growth trajectory that could absorb its increasingly aspirational and educated workforce. This mismatch has not yet had immediate political effects, in part because longer schooling has slowed the rate of workforce expansion. But when India’s demographic dividend hits the market, so to speak, a different kind of politics of inequality will be unleashed.

India’s pattern of growth certainly needs to be interrogated. But at this point, there is a real danger that the association of growth with corruption will delegitimise the former, and a politics of virtue will replace intelligent thinking about how to tackle India’s economic challenges. The link between growth and corruption also has a direct bearing on the politics of equality: first, the most visible markers of inequality have come from the interaction between state and capital in sectors like mining, infrastructure and land, where it is not free enterprise but the pattern of corrupt state-business relations that has most exacerbated inequality. The problem with India’s present form of capitalism is not that it has produced inequality, it is that it has eroded the legitimacy of politics: when the economic dominance of a small number of players threatens to destroy the credibility of the entire political process, a society is in deep trouble.

Second, it is now becoming clearer that much of what we call liberalisation was directed towards the interests of big business, which got preference in everything from cheap credit to captive power. Access to credit is one key component of building a more egalitarian business environment, but state complicity ensured that big business mopped up most of that credit, often at the cost of small enterprise. A development model that inhibits the creation of small- and medium-sized firms is a recipe for exacerbating inequality; the same is true for a model of capitalism that delivers excessive rewards to those who can manipulate the state rather than those who can productively compete.

THE POLITICS OF EQUALITY is at an impasse. The main ideological idioms in which it was conducted have been exhausted. And we are barely beginning to come to terms with the complexity of material conditions that affect equality. It is perhaps not an accident that whatever energy is left in our politics of equality takes two forms: from the top, a push to induce the state to spend more on welfare; and from the bottom, greater pressure to promote accountability. The politics of equality is now being aligned largely with a new idiom, that of accountability—which may be necessary to fix at least one piece of the equality problem, the misallocation of state resources in the name of promoting equality. This could perhaps be one reason for some cautious optimism.

Another reason to be optimistic is that growth, for all its limitations, has produced an immense churning. The only serious studies of intergenerational mobility in India have shown grounds for some hope: a recent paper by three economists, Viktoria Hnatkovska, Amartya Lahiri and Sourabh Paul, suggests that intergenerational educational and income mobility among Dalits is increasing at a rate faster than for non-Dalits; Dalits are now also switching occupations at a rate equal to the rest of the population, which means the caste barriers to occupational mobility are declining. Similarly, statistics on enrolment in urban secondary and higher education show that women’s enrolment is now matching, if not exceeding, that of men—a sign that there is good reason to believe economic prosperity is changing perceptions about the benefits of education, which also provides the necessary conditions for mobility. Under these circumstances, the old politics of economic equality—fixated on keeping rural India in its place, protecting small sections of labour rather than creating new opportunities, and focusing solely on welfare rather than the means of participation—will no longer be tenable.

Equality is forged in the crucible of politics; it would be presumptuous to prescribe solutions. But the politics of equality will have to cut more insistently through the culture of avoidance; this is easier said than done, because this culture has become deeply embedded in everyday sites and practices. Economically, growth is not everything; in many ways, it will pose new and serious challenges. But the absence of growth will have catastrophic consequences for any project of equality, because new opportunities cannot be created without it. Ultimately, a new politics of equality will require the imagination of a new idiom to replace those that have been exhausted—a new way to think about the reasons for equality without reference to its utility towards some other end. It will have to be based on reminding us of the good of equality, and the possibilities it affords for a new and better political community.