Caste, Clinton and the IT Revolution

By: Kancha Ilaiah
Hindustan Times- April 2, 2000

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu was impressed by US President Bill Clinton. According to Naidu, what was most impressive about Clinton was that "he himself regulated the air-conditioner during their private meeting and at a public meeting, when some papers fell out of his hands, he picked them up himself." Naidu could not think of any prime minister or chief minister of this country doing the same sort of thing.

Forget prime ministers. Even an ordinary officer does not do what Clinton did. This is because the dignity of labour has been pushed to the lowest level in this country. The entire Indian civil society and the state apparatus do not attempt to institutionalise the notion of dignity of labour. Even our schools hegemonise the Brahminic value of indignity of labour and construct a notion of superiority of Brahminic life. Thus, those who 'interact' with tools, the soil, instruments of production and services are treated as "inferior beings" and continue to be described as Sudras and Chandalas.

Naidu and other politicians may talk about information technology (IT), but they have not evolved any agenda for deconstructing the Brahminic mind that has negated the advancement of a positive social ethic centred essentially around the notion of dignity of labour. As long as this does not occupy the centre of our socio-political system, the IT revolution will end up perpetuating the Brahmin-Baniya islands of wealth that considers indignity of labour as the central value of life. Thus, while talking about an IT-centric economy, one must first de-Brahmanise our socio-economic values quite thoroughly.

Clinton made three important points in his Hyderabad speech. First, an IT-based economy should be targeted towards communities and individuals. "I want to steer with you," he said. "But we cannot forget the simple message that, no matter how new technology there is, the two things we must remain committed to are empowerment and community." His Bombay speech also referred to the empowering of castes and ethnic groups.

Indeed, India's development process has left several castes and communities far behind upper castes. When Clinton introduced a small group of American industrialists to Indian industrialists in the Hi-Tech city meeting, there was one black woman industrialist there. But was there a Dalit or OBC or tribal industrialist among the Indian team? I am sure there was none. This is precisely why Clinton's point about community-oriented development becomes important.

This takes us to the related issue of preferential treatment towards SCs/STs and OBCs in disbursement of licences and granting of state subsidies to help historically exploited communities to create industrial assets. Why did the White House include a black woman industrialist in Clinton's team?

This was to show the world that development in the US is oriented to improve the conditions of all communities. Let's not forget the fact that the phenomenon of black industrialists emerged in the US only because preferential treatment to them was extended to the private sector. In this phase of globalisation, the Indian state, too, has no option but to follow the example of the US.

The communists protested against the Clinton visit. But they should understand that opposing capitalism while living in casteism does not make them respectable among the Indian proletariat, which is made up of none other than Dalit-Bahujans. This is one of the reasons why the communists are marginal in electoral politics.

The swadeshi group in the RSS found it necessary to welcome Clinton because he would have otherwise twisted the arms of the BJP Government. Also, industrialists who fund RSS activities showed their class bias in wanting to shake hands with the US President. But the swadeshi group, too, does not talk about extending the reservation policy to the private sector. The fact is that such a demand would go against their caste-class interest - private sector jobs remain the preserve of upper castes whose interest the Sangh Parivar represents and protects.

Second, Clinton seems to have realised that the so-called IT revolution in India is being exploited to make the rich richer. Hitherto, the Indian industry was 'Baniyaic' in nature - it was devoid of any social purpose and its sole aim was profit. Clinton's advisers seem to have told him that the caste-class nexus in India has created a gap between the rich and the poor at a level that no society in the West has. It's no wonder that Clinton stated, "Millions of Indians are connected to the internet, but millions more are not connected to fresh drinking water."

Indeed, the internet may connect the village upper caste rich to America, but it does not connect the poor Dalit families of the same village to safe drinking water. The internet cannot eliminate untouchability and the caste carnages taking place around Bangalore - India's Silicon Valley - and Hyderabad - or Cyberabad - for the simple reason that the prevailing caste discrimination and advanced technology co-exist conveniently.

The American capital never knew a process of making Guptadhana (black money) a social virtue. The Indian Baniya market system operationalised this process without having any moral guilt. Though Clinton used the phrase "as in America" out of modesty, the socio-economic inequalities within America are not at all comparable to that of India. He very rightly said, "So our challenge is to turn the newest discoveries into the best weapons humanity has ever had to fight poverty. In all the years of recorded history, we have never had this many opportunities to fight poverty. And it is good economics to so".

The roots of poverty in India lie in the caste system. To take one example, the billions of rupees that circulate in the name of temple economy do not benefit a single Dalit family at a time when spiritualism has been operating in an inter-connected manner with modern technology. Today, more computers are being used to modernise the images of Hindu deities than for computing the nature of caste-class inequalities and the number of atrocities taking place on Dalits and women.

Third, Clinton also reminded us that IT should be free of corruption, and that it should be combined with methods of verification. Pointing to the driving licence that was issued to him for demonstrating the efficiency of the Andhra administration, Clinton said that it had been done without anyone verifying whether or not he could drive. "This is not possible in America," he said.

In India, caste and corruption are twins. Historically, the Brahmins were not only treated as Bhoodevatas, but even their corrupt practices were treated as divine virtues. Kautilya said in the Arthasastra that a Brahmin bureaucrat is like a fish in the sea - it is futile to verify whether or not it would drink water; some castes were exempted from all punishments.

If the caste system is not abolished, the IT will perpetuate these maladies far more dangerously. Since liberalisation will become rapid now, let Dalit-Bahujans get their due share in the private capital as well. Otherwise the stability of Indian capitalism itself will be in danger. Contributed by K.P. Singh

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