Why do people in one of the world’s most unequal nations avoid talking about inequality?
In a scholarly, must-read essay in The Caravan magazine, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who heads the Delhi-based Centre For Policy Research, writes that India still “breathes an oppressive atmosphere of social inequality” despite significant reduction of poverty.
But a “deep and pervasive culture of avoidance” hobbles clear thinking about inequality. “Everybody hopes the system will change, but absolves themselves of the responsibility for bringing about that change,” writes Mr Mehta, who has taught at Harvard. The scale of silence is unusual, he writes, in a society which is richly plural and argumentative and has democratic politics.
Mr Mehta argues that social distance – caused by divisions of caste and class – reduces trust, makes collective action difficult and perpetuates inequality. Inequality also produces a society which suffers from low self-esteem.
India typically deals with inequality by giving out handouts and pushing affirmative action. But, as Mr Mehta points out, segregated social spaces and caste hierarchies ensure that inequality is alive and well. “The biggest failure of Indian political imagination,” he writes, is “while promising emancipation, it also made caste categories inescapable.”