Monday, 24 December 2012

Tagore Trumps Gandhi - The Revolt Of Urban, Educated, Middle-Class India

The true India is to be found not in its few cities, but in its seven hundred thousand villages. If the villages perish, India will perish too.
- Mahatma Gandhi

That was a rather curious assertion by the Father of the Nation, and I'm increasingly certain he was way off the mark.

Let me explain.

There is a revolution going on in India right now, and it is easy to be distracted by the sound and thunder of the public protests into thinking that the protests are the revolution.

However, the real one is subtler. It is a quiet demographic revolution that has been brewing for at least a decade and a half. It is the story of how the urban, educated middle class found its voice and began to flex its muscles to assertively protect its own.

Three straws in the wind:

  • The anti-corruption protests of August 2011, in the wake of the 2G spectrum auction scam and the Commonwealth Games scam, which mobilised tens of thousands of people;
  • The freedom-of-speech protests of November 2012, in the wake of the arrest of two urban, educated, middle-class girls (for the crime of posting their criticism of a politician on Facebook), forcing the police into a humiliating backdown;
  • The anti-rape protests of December 2012, in the wake of the gang rape of an urban, educated, middle-class girl by uneducated lower-class men, which is still playing itself out.
[The anti-corruption protest of 2011 had more of an all-middle-class flavour to it, with a sizeable representation from the lower middle class and the middle middle class. But the two protests of 2012 have both been predominantly upper middle class.]

Make no mistake about it. This is a class war with a new combatant - the middle class, specifically the well-educated, upper middle class. It's no longer the old, comfortably familiar socialistic battleground of rich-versus-poor, capitalist-pigs-versus-oppressed-proletariat. It's now us-versus-them, where "us" increasingly means everyone who can read this blog post, and "them" means those who threaten the freedoms and the way of life we take for granted.

Protesters gathering in Delhi - India's famously "burgeoning" middle class is no longer a bludgeoned class

The faces of the protesters tell the whole story - they're young, educated and English-speaking. This is a powerful segment of the Indian demographic that has not been seen unsheathed until the last couple of years.

The middle class has come together across the country, with social media playing a key organising role.





The anti-corruption protests of 2011 did have political leadership, although not from any mainstream political party, but the two protests of 2012 have been seemingly leaderless even as they have been well organised, doubtless much to the fear of the establishment. A political leader can be arrested, but who can arrest Twitter? The rich may control the means of production, but the middle class controls the means of information, and is now wielding it as a weapon. The infamous apathy of the middle class seems to have ended too, mainly because of the rise of a new and assertive younger generation that feels outrage at the threats to it and simultaneously senses its own strength to meet those threats.

In this new war, the lower class is in fact at a hopeless structural disadvantage in spite of its outward appearance of fearsome lumpen lawlessness.

The November arrests of the two girls who posted on Facebook began much like any such event in the past, although subsequent events turned out to be a nasty surprise to the political establishment. A political party known more for its street goons than for its governance pressurised a pliant police force to arrest the girls, on the pretext of their having "hurt religious sentiments" (although the political leader they had criticised was not the head of any religious order). As the middle class responded with vocal outrage, the police were forced into humiliating retreat. The magistrate who issued the arrest warrant was transferred, as were the junior police officers who made the arrest. The police dropped the case, and the girls, initially shaken and scared into deactivating their Facebook accounts, are now back online (well, at least one of them). That was the first public defeat for the lumpen classes at the hands of the middle class. [An earlier defeat was not so public. The same political party quietly decided to drop its annual reign of terror against couples on Valentine's Day in 2012 as it realised how electorally unpopular it had become among "Westernised" youth.]

Until recently, growing up middle class in India meant learning to mind one's own business and avoid tangling with goons, politicians or the police. The significance of the revolution lies in the growing realisation that others must now be wary of tangling with the middle class.

We've arrived.

The latest incident, the savage gang rape in Delhi can be seen as a expression of uneducated lower-class male rage. Ironically for a rape, I believe it symbolises impotence. The reasons are not far to seek. The pecking order has been altered to the disadvantage of uneducated lower-class males. Large numbers of women, traditionally their inferiors on account of gender, are now their visible superiors on account of education and upward class mobility. The disadvantaged underclass male is lashing out in frustration and wounded chauvinistic pride.

But as we are witnessing, such blind fury is ultimately short-sighted, because when the victim is one of the middle class, she has vastly superior means at her disposal to return such an attack with the ferocity of the state apparatus, hitherto only the weapon of the rich and powerful. The assaulted girl was a physiotherapy student, not an illiterate villager. She is "one of us", and the scale of the turnout at the protest rallies testifies to this. [It is instructive to note that even in the days after the Delhi rape, there have been assaults on poor, uneducated women living in less urban parts of the country. Those reports, although remarked upon, have not provoked a similar reaction in terms of protests, because those women are not of "us".]

It could reasonably be concluded from this that the current protests are just the middle class looking out for its own. While this may well be true, there is a fundamental difference between the "vested interests" of the middle class compared to those of the traditionally powerful or the historically oppressed. The middle class is not flexing its muscle in a bid to either oppress another group or to seek compensatory entitlements. What the middle class has always wanted is a free and meritocratic society. And therefore, in spite of protests like these being about the concerns of one group, their benefits will ultimately flow to all, including the most disadvantaged in the most remote parts of the country.

A fair and egalitarian India that safeguards every citizen's rights will come about only gradually, and through the intermediate tier of smaller towns, where much of tomorrow's educated youth will come from. Urbanisation brings with it the awareness of civil rights, and even if the immediately visible effect of urbanisation is increased strife, such turbulence is inevitably associated with the move to a fairer social order. India's much-romanticised villages are in fact the hotbed of casteism, sexism and every kind of pre-modern prejudice. [Google "khap pachayat ruling" for evidence.] Contrary to what Gandhi believed, India's salvation lies in the speed with which the country urbanises and leaves its village mentality behind.

Returning to the perpetrators of the heinous gang rape, it will not be entirely surprising if the 6 arrested men receive a much harsher punishment than usual. The pressure from the middle class for the death penalty could conceivably harden the law, which currently only specifies 12 years of rigorous imprisonment for rape. This will be an interesting legal development to watch.

The pressure to stiffen the law is enormous - students in Kashmir

Hell hath no fury...

When the middle class shouts loudly enough, it may just get what it wants

Gandhi was wrong, after all. India is urbanising, and it is not perishing as a result. On the contrary, it is becoming more conscious of its rights and hence more civilised. In the words of one of Gandhi's contemporaries,

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up
into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action---
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
- Rabindranath Tagore

Tagore's dream is coming true as India awakens to a more assertively egalitarian society. And this is not through any purported virtue of Gandhi's villages but through the battles won by India's urban, educated middle class.

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