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 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 subcaste. The coming of the mass vote has enabled the larger subcastes 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 West can give all aid short of help. The country is tottering on the edge of an economic precipice. Politically, also, things are rapidly going bad. Between the Congress Party leaders and the Indian masses there is “a clear hiatus in communication”; the governors have lost touch with the governed. In effect there is a one-party system, and this is dangerous. Corruption is rife. India’s foreign policy lies in ruins. The Congress Party has encouraged caste politics; it has retreated into factionalism; the regions threaten to swamp the center. So “the alarm has begun to sound”—awful shades of the Kuomintang and the specter of a peasant revolt. In short, Segal concludes, “calamity of one kind or another is inevitable.”
But what calamity are we to expect? In some places Segal’s bogy is militant Hindu fascism, a centralized totalitarian regime, or, conversely, a total collapse of central authority; elsewhere it is defeat by China or a swing into communism, and elsewhere still it is the vague threat of a bloodbath. In this plethora of predictions, one is missing: that India might soon have a war forced upon her by Pakistan. Look more closely at these contradictory prophecies and it becomes clear that it is not the anguish of India but of Ronald Segal that we have been invited to attend. Passion has impaired his judgment, and a noble rage has corroded his understanding. For rage is the keynote of his book, the bewildered anger and sense of outrage of this sensitive but excitable man at the “fatalism,” “atrophy,” and “resignation” of India. The poverty of “rejection and protest, of desire and demand,” “anger…a scarcely concealed hatred, a frenzied gaiety perhaps, with a hint of violence and cruelty”—these Segal, with his African experience and his revolutionary fervor, can understand, but not India’s poverty of “submission and indifference.” For ninety days he agonized his way across India; his pages are littered with verbs and adjectives that betray his agitation. From cool analysis and sober factuality his book too quickly degenerates into a strident crusade to shock, somehow to stimulate India into ruthless action, somehow to teach her to “refuse as well as to accept.”
Supported by reading that is curiously limited, Segal not surprisingly distorts and miscalculates. He seems not to have understood the dynamics of India’s great—and relatively peaceful—political revolution. He misjudges the nature of the Congress Party, always and necessarily a rather ramshackle subcontinental coalition of disparate regions and interests. Clear-cut programs and policies have never been its mode—the analogues to the Party are to be found in American, not British, politics. Yet it plays an effective unifying role. As for the corruption, it is not so new, so widespread, or so unhealthy as Segal assumes. Since fuller bellies, not freer presses, seem (not unreasonably) the first necessity, Segal gives insufficient credit to India’s open society, its elections and democracy. For China’s more rigorous achievements he has as uncritical an admiration as he has contempt for India’s shortcomings. Above all he dangerously underestimates the vital importance of foreign aid to India’s efforts at development. The unseemly spectacle today in the subcontinent should not obscure its importance. What Segal has given us, despite the perceptive gems encrusted in a mass of generalization and well-meaning exhortation, is another chapter in his autobiography, not a contribution to understanding India’s problems.
And problems of course India has: they are gigantic. The war with Pakistan can only exacerbate them. The fundamental one is the country’s devastating poverty. But whereas Segal has made much of the difficulties, he has neglected India’s resources—the relatively stable government and capable administrators, a large and enterprising business community, a growing supply of technologists. Perhaps the Congress Party has not changed India as swiftly as Dalhousie; certainly it has not embellished it as hauntingly as the Mughals. Yet it has one advantage and that is priceless. It has the people behind it. Outwardly some of the movements to strengthen particular castes, regions, languages, and religions may seem reactionary and a threat to India’s unity. But, paradoxically enough, they also provide evidence that the “indifference” and “apathy” which Segal saw in India are becoming things of the past. They are a sign of the enlargement of self-interest, a new economic vitality, wider literacy, and a growing competitiveness among Indians. Recently Congress’s leaders were showing a greater sensitivity to opinion both inside and outside the party. They were exhibiting a remarkable capacity for compromise and survival. India’s economic planning was showing a greater realism, and its foreign policy, which had failed to make friends and influence people, had been stripped of some of its bombast and illusions. Good harvests this year looked as if they would avert an immediate food crisis, and they might have done something to allay the mood of alarm that three years of poor harvests had helped to engender. This was the last situation in which India wanted a war abroad and the threat of economic and communal disruption at home. Still, India cannot escape a share of responsibility for the crisis in Kashmir. In 1948 Kashmir’s Hindu Maharaja acceded to India, but India at the same time pledged to allow the Kashmiris, a predominantly Muslim people, a future plebiscite, to decide whether they wanted to join India or Pakistan. No plebiscite has taken place, and India has been progressively integrating her part of Kashmir into the secular Indian Union. While this policy has been discordant with the high moral tone that India has adopted in world affairs, and which Segal so deplores, it has made some sense in the Indian context. Pakistan’s recent initiative was an attempt to reopen the question by force. India had no alternative but to meet force with force.
This ugly war must not be allowed to obscure the main issues. Merely to feed its growing population India will have to double its total food supplies during the next two decades. The country has the agricultural potential to do this, but in practice it is proving difficult to increase the productivity of the land. Relief for a longer term must be sought from a large-scale campaign of birth control. Priority at last is being given to these tasks, and at the same time the plans to industrialize were being pushed forward. But committed as India is to an experiment in democracy, it cannot wring from its impoverished peoples sufficient sacrifices and savings. Aid from abroad is essential if India is to become an effective nation. If pessimism takes hold in the West and disillusionment about India follows and threatens the continuing flow of largesse, then Mr. Segal’s dismal alternatives may well become more real, and India’s anguish unbearable.
As Indians of different regions, occupations, languages and beliefs jostle each other in the race for advancement, even the 65 million untouchables who exist in unparalleled degradation at the bottom of the caste and economic scale, are being quickened into activity. Their origins are in part functional, since many untouchables had the lowliest occupation of scavenging and sweeping, and in part tribal, since many were aboriginal tribesmen absorbed into Hinduism; they are “untouchable” because they are deemed to cause pollution by touch to all other Hindus. The disabilities they have traditionally suffered are immense: denied access to Hindu temples and the village wells, they were forced to live in segregated parts of the village and denied all opportunity of bettering their position.
The independence movement, when caste Hindus and the British competed for Harijan support, and the coming of a universal franchise have given these grossly underprivileged communities a powerful lever with which to extort concessions. The constitution has abolished the caste system, and untouchability has been outlawed. Of course the facts have not kept pace with the law. In many of India’s half-million villages there has been little improvement. But the government has been forced to give these untouchables, or scheduled castes as they are now officially known, special educational facilities and a reserved proportion of the public patronage. Education is the key to improvement. Today some six million “ex-untouchables” have found their way into schools and colleges.
Harold Isaacs’s book is a study of these men. It is a modest little work, based mainly on some fifty interviews. It aims merely to tell us something about the human dilemma of these young ex-untouchables. But when Isaacs recounts their ambitions to become teachers, and civil servants, and—in one touching instance—even to marry a Brahmin girl, what a different picture it is from the helplessness and passive acceptance that Segal has sketched. For unlike Segal, Isaacs, whose interests range widely from the Chinese Revolution to the American Negro, knows how to listen and to report faithfully. He has avoided the temptation to draw uncertain parallels between the untouchable and the American Negro, to pontificate or to exhort. For the most part he has let his subjects speak for themselves.
The book has its limitations. Isaacs is no expert on India. His sample was almost wholly taken from urban groups. There is nothing here about the situation in rural India, which is the heart of the matter. The work lacks a hard statistical core; the biographical material on the Harijans interviewed could perhaps have been presented in a fuller and more systematic way. We get no sense of the huge regional variations in the nature both of the problem and of the response. Things are worst in the South: in Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh, not so bad. Moreover Isaacs is wrong to treat his untouchables as atomized individuals. For the individual is held tightly inside the joint family, and the family inside the endogamous subcaste. Social mobility thus involves shifting not just individuals but whole families and even whole subcastes. Nonetheless the book does serve a purpose. As one Indian told Isaacs: “How little imagination we Indian intellectuals have! Here we are putting out crores [tens of millions] of rupees on these programs for the Harijans and nobody, nobody at all, seems to ask, ‘What does it mean to these people…?’” This is the justification for Harold Isaacs’s journey.
October 14, 1965