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Mihir S Sharma: Our creamy layer

Mihir S Sharma 

India is the most elitist, exclusive, unequal and stratified country in the world, and we don’t even know it. The Indian elite – which smugly calls itself the “middle class”, since it alone benchmarks itself globally – has constructed walls of privilege for itself that are all the more powerful for being invisible to many eyes. And if not invisible, then concealed behind other words — “culture” and “merit”, for example.

Three pieces of recent news have helped make these mental and metaphorical walls a little more visible. The first was the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Right to Education (RTE) Act’s requirement that all reserve free seats for students from the neighbourhood who can’t afford to pay tuition fees. Yes, this will raise costs and be difficult to implement. But it is an essential step towards breaking the first social wall elite Indians experience: the walls keeping other classes, castes and creeds out of their unimpeachably upper-crust schools. The “best” schools are also literally exclusive — and thence begins the life-long confusion of unearned advantage and “merit” that so defines our lumpenelite.

The Court’s pronouncement follows a decade of effort. Many elite schools ignored outright an earlier judicial directive to admit poorer students free of charge — as they’d promised to when they were given land free or highly subsidised. That’s right, people: most of the schools you’re so proud of attending or sending your kids to are founded on a broken contract. Talk about a moral education, eh?

When the RTE was passed, some of these very schools went to court to protect their walls. Last year, The Wall Street Journal interviewed parents and teachers at one of them, in New Delhi. People spat fire at having to share space at parent-teacher meetings with people who they seemed more comfortable seeing clean their floors. They demanded the poorer students be “segregated”. Of course.

After all, who in our obscenely comfortable elite thinks of servants as being anything like them? It is a feudal relationship, not a contractual one. As another recent piece of news brought home horrifyingly, we can leave for foreign vacations after locking up the little girl who cleans our floors. Of course, most of us don’t behave like that; but try suggesting to anyone that they pay their servants what they’re worth to you, rather than the most that they can demand, and the arguments you hear will reveal how important power and dominance is in the relationship. “They’ll get ideas,” I was told. I’ve seen foreigners or suggest it on email groups or at parties, only to be attacked by oddly holier-than-thou desis for introducing their destabilising foreign “ethics” into our nice, stable, comfortable society.

The Indian elite confuses its tiny, mediocre, incestuous world of networks and inherited advantage with true merit, the merit that comes from striving upwards in the night when circumstances are unfavourable. India’s privileged children go to schools where their social assumptions are unchallenged, to colleges where their parents went before them and that most of the country can’t afford, and to jobs where the networks fostered in the exclusivity of those institutions support and nourish them.

And they live in homes that they inherit; the third piece of relevant news was a Bloomberg study this week that showed that owning Mumbai real estate would take an average resident of the city 300 years. This was an outlier on the global charts; even in famously expensive Manhattan, it would take 50 years.

Other countries, too, have these networks. But they have correctives. In egalitarian Europe, your child will study with your plumber’s child. In Brazil or in North America, your child will idolise pop-culture icons and follow movies and music that aren’t of, by and for the middle class. In post-liberalisation India, that isn’t true at all. Our elite dominates our cultural production, as well, helping it dehumanise everyone else.

Yes, it will be tough for schools to adapt teaching to students with varied backgrounds. But that will force us to question the unstated elitist assumptions and knowledge that underlie what we mistake for learning and for merit. And young upper class Indians will be forced to deal, on nominally equal terms, with people they’d never otherwise acknowledge. When I moved from Bombay to Calcutta (as they then were) as a boy, I moved also from one of the most snobby schools in the country – it was in Fort, that’s all I’ll say – to one where children from one-room apartments mingled with those who were chauffeur-driven to school.

There’s no question in my mind as to which was better for me. My friends in Calcutta included working-class Muslim boys, giving me a clearer idea, now, as to how resentments against the Indian state can be entirely justified. We learnt to appreciate the unmatched cool of even impoverished Anglo-Indians, allowing us to mentally disconnect money from social power.

In all our discussions of quotas and reservations and affirmative action, we need to remember that they aren’t just for the disadvantaged. They’re for all of us. The American notion that diversity is itself an irreplaceable facet of the educational experience is something that we need to internalise here. It doesn’t matter if implementing it is unfair, or difficult. Our hideously smug, stratified society cannot be allowed to endure as it is. It is a blemish on the modern world.


mihir.sharma@bsmail.in 

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