Continuing outbursts of class anger point to a changing India

A feudal sense of entitlement continues to be the defining characteristic of Indian society, but the situation is looking up, thanks, in part, to rising aspiration among the oppressed classes

Photo courtesy: Social Media
Photo courtesy: Social Media

Harihar Swarup

In 2008, an Indian author won the Booker prize. Usually, this prestigious international literary award comes with an exaggerated sense of adulation. Not so for Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger. In reviews, essays and the quite supercilious conversations at parties of English-speaking India, the story about a driver who kills, cheats and steals his way to a better life was subtly denigrated.

Its artificiality, its lack of literary merit and even the act of trying to write in English, in the first person, of invisible “servants” who subsidize our comforts – there were a plethora of reasons to hate the book, in accents that pronounce consonants with the lightest of emphasis.

But at least one of the reasons that so many “people like us” found The White Tiger uncomfortable was this: Despite the veneer of modernity, sophistication and the liberal conceit of “global citizenship”, Adiga’s book held up a mirror to the truth we dare not truly acknowledge. We are, so many of us, exploiters.

Sometimes, though, a viral video is worth more than a Booker.

On August 21, the Noida police arrested Bhavya Roy for misbehaving with a security guard at the gate of the luxury condominium where she resides. In a video of the incident, she can be seen threatening him and some other guards with violence, shoving them, saying she will castrate them and making slurs against the people from a particular state. Her sleeves are rolled up, for demeanour dangerously aggressive.

Behind this confidence is a simple truth, which Ms. Roy – like many others – knows instinctively, even if she cannot justify it intellectively: The system and society provide an impunity that allows the sort of unforgivable behaviour that would never be deployed against people who are considered equals.

On the same day Roy’s video went viral, traffic in large parts of Noida was at standstill. About 4,000 police personnel were reportedly deployed in the area because thousands of people from Tyagi community – with support from the RSS backed Bharatiya Kisan Union – held a Mahapanchayat in support of Shrikant Tyagi. Tyagi was arrested earlier this month for allegedly misbehaving with a woman in his Noida condominium. His actions, too, were caught on video.

What is apparent in both cases is upper caste people blatantly abusing people considered “lesser” and its seeming acceptability. The threats and abuse both Tyagi and Roy are seen hurling at their victims – all of which are too offensive to print – are of same order as heard across casteist and misogynistic conversations all over north India in particular.

What these incidents highlight, once again, is that feudal sense of entitlement continues to be the defining characteristic of Indian society.

The qualitative difference between a casual sense of superiority of the past and now, of urban India and “civilised Bharat”, is an enhanced fear.

This is the same fear that Adiga’s novel dives into: One day, the underpaid and un-respected, maid, security guard, nanny or cook will get fed up with people and system that exploit them. And they will take their due.

This fear surrounds us, even if it is not often articulated. It is because of this fear that the condominium and the bungalows need round-the-clock security, high walls and concertina wire. Because those living there know the country has changed and the under-privileged are angry.

A security guard can hope to become a supervisor, and his daughter can be an academic. With urban life increasingly becoming the norm and aspiration becoming widespread, there is less deference from the working class. It is increasingly only through force and abuse that a working person can be shown ‘aukat’.

Political power and bullying (as in Tyagi’s case whose community is an important vote bank for the BJP in UP) may make it seem like the clock is turning back. The videos of abuse and exploitation can make one feel despondent about the regressive tendencies in Indian society. But that isn’t the whole, or even the larger, story.

(IPA Service)

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