The Indian middle class

By Andre Beteille

THE INDIAN middle class has many critics, the most eloquent, almost without exception, being members of that class itself. Middle class Indians tend to oscillate between self- congratulation and self-recrimination although the oscillation takes different forms in different sections such as academics, lawyers and civil servants.

I recently told a civil servant of my acquaintance that, compared with officers of the defence forces, members of the IAS always seemed to be running their service down. He did not disagree but said the typical IAS officer attacked his service mainly in order to indicate that he himself was a total exception to the general pattern. It was, in other words, a form of self-congratulation at the expense of the institution he served. Of course, no one can match the agility with which intellectuals in general, and left intellectuals in particular, direct praise to themselves while attacking the corrupt and obtuse middle class.

The Indian middle class now deserves serious attention if only because of its great size and diversity. It has grown steadily in size since Independence and particularly in the last couple of decades. At a moderate estimate, it will number 100 million which is more than the total population of any European country, Russia excepted. The Indian middle class, like the middle class anywhere in the world, is differentiated in terms of occupation, income and education. But the peculiarity in India is its diversity in terms of language, religion and caste. It is by any reckoning the most polymorphous middle class in the world. The problems of the contemporary middle class derive as much from this polymorphy as from its roots in India's colonial experience.

A new middle class began to emerge in India in the middle of the 19th century in the womb of an ancient hierarchical society. The society within which it began to take shape was not one of classes, but of castes and communities. Even though it has grown enormously in size and importance in the last 150 years, its growth has not led to the disappearance of the multitudinous castes and communities inherited from the past. The peculiarity of the Indian middle class arises not so much from its intrinsic character as a class as from the social environment within which it has to operate.

The new middle class first emerged in the presidency capitals of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, in law courts, hospitals, banks and offices set up for commercial administrative and other purposes. The backbone of the middle class is a particular kind of occupational system which was new in the 19th century, at least outside the West, but has now become a worldwide phenomenon. It is a highly differentiated system with clerical and other subordinate non-manual occupations, at one end, and superior professional, managerial and administrative ones, at the other. These occupations enjoy unequal esteem and authority and are unequally paid; and it is possible that income inequalities between them are now rising.

Middle class occupations are non-manual and require some measure of formal education. The growth of the new middle class is accompanied by the growth of a new educational system. Education has become institutionalised to an unprecedented extent, and more persons of both sexes spend more time in schools, colleges and universities than they ever did before. Educational institutions provide not only the skills but also the credentials required for entry into middle class occupations. The expansion of education has been haphazard and uneven, and part of the reason for the debasement of the middle class is the debasement of education in the last 50 years.

There are deep inequalities within the middle class and between it and other social classes. Public-spirited Indians are justifiably concerned, particularly where they feel that these inequalities may be increasing rather than decreasing. Part of the inequality arises from the very nature of the occupational and educational systems that define the middle class. But some of it is also a carryover from the traditional social order. Inequalities based on occupation, income and education are in principle different from the traditional ones based on caste and gender.

The middle class orientation to inequality is competitive and not hierarchical as in the old social order. It must not be forgotten that a competitive system generates inequality even where the competition is fair, and in India it is not particularly fair. People use the advantages of family, kinship and caste to push ahead without much consideration for the cost to others or for the rules of the game. An expanding middle class has an ugly face and its members often appear as callous and self-serving to those who are attached to the traditional order in which individuals remained in the social positions assigned to them at birth.

In the old order the hierarchical relations between castes and between men and women were expressed in the ritual idiom of purity and pollution, perhaps the most compelling idiom devised by human ingenuity for keeping a social hierarchy in place. While the idiom of purity and pollution was all-pervasive, it bore most heavily on the weaker sections, notably untouchables and women. The preoccupation with pollution led to the permanent segregation of untouchables and the periodic segregation of women during their monthly courses; and the obsession with the purity of women, particularly among the upper castes, led to their being required to marry very young, preferably before the onset of puberty.

There has been a steady and continuous decline in practices associated with purity and pollution both in inter-caste relations and in the relations between men and women since the middle of the 19th century. The elaborate rules relating to inter-dining and food transactions between castes have become greatly attenuated. Untouchability has also declined although it has been replaced to some extent with the practice of atrocities against untouchables. The segregation of women during their monthly periods is no longer observed as in the past, and there has been a secular trend of increase in their age at marriage. While these trends are visible everywhere, they are most clearly in evidence in the middle class, particularly among those in professional, administrative and managerial occupations.

It can be easily demonstrated that the decline in the practices of purity and pollution by which the traditional social hierarchy was sustained has been directly associated with the social and cultural ascendance of the middle class. The plain fact is that those practices are inconsistent with the functional requirements of the modern occupational and educational systems and of modern institutions in general. A bank, a law court or a newspaper office cannot function effectively today if women employees have to be segregated during their periods and if large sections have to be denied employment because their near or distant ancestors engaged in activities deemed ritually defiling.

It may well be that in discrediting the cultural basis of the traditional hierarchy, the middle class has been acting in enlightened self-interest. We may not wish to give it too much credit for this, but we must understand and acknowledge the consequence of its ascendance. It has certainly not led to the elimination of inequality but it has rendered obsolete some of its most oppressive and odious forms.

The middle class has played the leading part in the modernisation of Indian society; without it there would be no modernisation. It is for this reason viewed with mistrust by two kinds of intellectuals: the traditional and the post-modern. The former mistrust the middle class because its ascendance cannot but undermine many elements of the traditional social order, including some beneficial ones. The latter are hostile to it because the middle class is directly and indirectly heir to enlightenment which is gall and wormwood to post-modernism.

Referred by:Dr. K.P. Singh
Published on: February 5, 2001
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