Reservations: Towards a larger perspective


The Caste of a Scam

Link to an article on the Satyam Scam

Of work and worship, caste and labour(ers)

Comments on Shahi Tharoor’s Gandhi Jayanti Holiday Tweet

Professional politicians, for all the accusations of venality and corruption at least have their ear to the ground. Middle class disdainfulness of our politicians notwithstanding, our leaders do not share the narrow social understanding characteristic of much of our elite posturing. Feudal and fascist leaders are also forced to acknowledge their social base even if sometimes with horrendous consequences. Shashi Tharoor’s ‘have twitter will tweet’ habitus means that he hardly requires to reflect or think before taking public positions on all issues. His latest homily on making Gandhi Jayanthi a work day makes one wonder if he has any conception at all of the vast labouring classes that make up this country.

Tharoor cites Gandhi’s mantra “work is worship” to suggest that rather than observe a holiday on Gandhi Jayanthi, we should be working. But is Gandhi Jayanthi a holiday? For all his years of international development experience at the United Nation, Tharoor seems to be unaware that for millions in India – as it is for hundreds of millions around the world – not working is not a choice. If you do not work you do not eat. And millions of others have forced holidays – a forced idleness arising from an inability to get any remunerative work. His government’s flagship NREGA programme is a flagship precisely because of this. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that Tharoor cannot be expected to know much about rural India, more people in India’s cities work than have a day off on Gandhi Jayanthi. And we are not talking about the urban poor here. The people who keep our power, water systems and transport running need to work. If electricity was not generated and distributed and there were no staff maintaining our internet and phone networks, would Tharoor have been able to tweet on October 2nd? If the honourable minister knew what it is like to work as a conservancy worker in our cities, he would know how important a paid holiday would be to such workers. If you are a true Gandhian, should you not be giving a paid day off to your sweepers and cleaners, and do the work yourself? And surely the disapproval of taking a day off on Gandhi Jayanthi does not apply to over 500 million Indian women who never get a day off, and probably need to work more at household chores on a holiday? How about giving a real holiday to all women Mr.Tharoor, even if cannot pay them for all their household work?

It is only a small minority of desk workers who have a day off on October 2nd. This small minority also happens to be an over-empowered class whose collective conscience rarely gets disturbed by any real issue of consequence for the masses of this country. The idea that people laze off on a public holiday is essentially based on a quite enormous ignorance of what the majority of the people do in this country. It is a carry over of the old colonial orientalist view that the natives are poor because they are lazy. This is not surprising in itself were it not for the fact that it is also ironical in quite an extreme way. The “work is worship” maxim attributed to Gandhi is as most social scientists know a key element of the American protestant ethic as shown by Max Weber. Working their way through the world, Poor Richard’s sayings including ‘time is money’ and ‘honesty is the best policy’ have passed through Indian school class rooms and the mouths of our new age gurus to be appropriated by upper caste Indians as an ‘indian’ ethic. The irony rests in the fact that the caste system worked precisely to deny the work is worship maxim. Not only was anything to do with work relegated to the domain of the profane, workers were neither allowed to worship nor even allowed to claim any sacred status for their work. It was only the non-workers who could have a close relationship with the sacred. Nor do other protestant adages apply in the caste based Indian economy. Time is money? Time can be money only in a context where labour is to be disciplined and regulated including one’s own labour. From the CEO of Jet Airways to feudal landlords, the aim is always to discipline the labourer, not labour. Labour time becomes important only when capitalists extract relative surplus. But when you can discipline labourers and easily extract absolute surplus why bother with issues of labour time? The recent Jet airways strike was neither about wages nor about work. So why then come down hard on the pilots? Indian capitalists for all their belief in liberalization can only extract profits by controlling labourers – be they pilots or mill workers. No wonder then that few of the capitalist labour processes and ‘scientific management’ systems are adopted here.

The attitudes reflected in the homilies on work reflect an equally duplicitous mind set on leisure. The expansion of the leisure sector as part of an overall growth in the services sector after economic liberalization has primarily targeted changed elite and middle class attitudes towards leisure. Hence the more paid holidays we have the more is likely to be the contribution of our malls, multiplexes and clubs to the GDP of this country. If the protestants have adopted leisure activities as their new calling, can our twice-born middle classes lag behind? Notwithstanding the professed faith in the work is worship mantra it is the same classes who throng the malls, multiplexes, spas and satsangs on paid holidays. And in spite of appropriating the same mantra as a unique Indian ethic, our new age gurus owe their prosperity to the increased leisure time of our middle and upper classes, as is the case with our malls, spas, and clubs. The duplicity starts with Gandhi himself who as Ambedkar pointed out could simply not understand the civilizing influence of leisure time for the working classes. For the dominant classes, the availability of leisure only contributes to devising newer and more intricate and innovative systems of extending their hegemony, and the caste system offers the best example in this respect. For the working classes on the other hand as Ambedkar argues criticizing Gandhi’s views on machinery, the cultivation of mind, “a life of culture” is not possible “unless there is sufficient leisure”. “The problem of all problems which human society has to face is how to provide leisure to every individual. … Leisure means the lessening of the toil and effort necessary for satisfying the physical wants of life. …”  While technology obviously is one way of lessening the toil and effort, of equal importance is the social organization of work and life, the division of labour and labourers, and how we regard the work and labour of others. By equating holidays with idleness, Tharoor and others of his ilk undermine and underestimate the huge cultural and civilizational advances that have been made possible by individuals and groups utilizing their leisure time in quite creative ways. But if individuals and groups are to use their leisure time usefully, it is necessary that they are not hampered by an empty stomach, by the worry of where their next meal is going to come from. For this to be addressed, we should spend less time worrying about the idleness of a few on Gandhi Jayanthi, and instead start thinking about how we can enable a much larger number of people to get paid holidays.