The Auguish of India
Normally India does not command western headlines; forgotten by its rulers and friends of yesterday, it has required a war to attract the attention of the West to the country’s spectacular difficulties. There has been, however, some concern, as Harold Isaacs’s articles on India’s Ex-Untouchables in The New Yorker attest. So does the decision of publishers from three countries to commission the visit of the South African can writer Ronald Segal to India. In theory the idea was a good one: Segal would bring his “African neutrality” and considerable talents as a reporter to a study of India. We could expect something fresh and illuminating. But the publishers misjudged their man, and the result is a disappointing and wrongheaded book.
Segal begins with a survey of India’s history, religion, and caste system. Complicated matters these, and Segal is at his descriptive best here. It is all there, from prehistory to the present day, in seventy-six pages. If it is not very original, that is just as well since Segal’s occasional interpolation—for instance the connection he discerns between “the intricate system of drains” in prehistoric Harappa and the Hindu obsession with pollution—is not always convincing. On caste he is less satisfactory. The stock comments are trotted out with an air of discovery. Caste promotes a society that is “stagnant and secure” and resistant to change; it accounts for India’s “immense resignation”; it makes indifference the ultimate Hindu virtue. These facile judgments are essential to Segal’s argument. But has Segal really understood India’s peculiar institution? The caste system, in fact, contains the principle of mobility and change, mainly through regroupings among subcastes. Indeed the chief avenue of advance in the immense status revolution of modern India has been the efforts made to raise the standing of one’s own sub-caste. The coming of the mass vote has enabled the larger sub-castes to press for recognition. A vast ferment, a huge set of shifts in status, and mixed and contradictory aspirations are the mark of the more open society of India that is gradually taking shape today. In all of this caste plays a dynamic role. Segal has missed this; and this provides a fundamental qualification to his view of Indian society.
Segal is a man with a thesis. It is a simple and shocking thesis. The Indian situation, we are told, is both serious and hopeless. Indians are fatalistic, submissive, and indifferent; their women-folk are degraded. There is not enough food for her people, let alone for the 750 millions we must expect by 1984; the Five Year plans, “muddled half-measures,” have consistently fallen short of their targets; agriculture has stood still; the policy-makers are befuddled, and the commercial classes self-seeking. Year by year the peasant’s fields grow smaller, his debts grow larger, and his children more numerous, while the moneylender flourishes and famine stalks the land. Across all the plans and projects falls the shadow of the census returns. The …