This week I started with a new book named the “The Narrow Corridor: State, Societies and the fate of liberty” , which is written by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. The book elaborates on ideas of liberty and how different models of state and societies enable its growth or inhibit its growth. The book helps in making sense of the world that we are living in. The last week witnessed the death of George Floyd that has a sparked a series of protests in America against police brutality and the persisting racism in the country. It was a clear demonstration of loss of liberty that Black Americans have to face on a regular basis in the country. India had also witnessed a series of dissent against the Citizenship Amendment Act late last year and early this year,which was perceived as a violation of Article 14 of the constitution (right to equality) for a certain faction of the society.
None of this insecurity or the dominance that is faced by certain sections of the society is new, but it has persisted since the birth of agriculture. Archeological evidence suggests that 500 people died per 100,000 people in premodern societies due to war and this persisting lawlessness and uncertainty was described as ‘Warre’ by Political philosopher,Thomas Hobbes. He also mentioned that people looked for economic opportunities to get out of this complete mayhem. Hobbes suggested that the way out of this ‘Warre’ like situation was when some common power which he conceptualised as ‘Leviathan:The common-wealth’ or the ‘State’. governed the daily affairs. He believed it was better to fear this one common entity than to fear each other. He conceptualised three alternative ways to govern the people: Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy. He believed that the way to end ‘Warre’ was through the state but he overestimated the liberty that the states would bring, as in the case of our country its the state that works with the select sections of the society to curb liberty as a whole. It sounds confusing at first, atleast it did to me, but ever since we have existed as a society and with the birth of ‘varna system’ , this has been true.
We have been living in the shackles of caste system for as long as we can remember, it’s so old that it is stated in ‘Arthashastra ‘ which was written by Kautilya around 324 BCE. He was an adviser to Chandragupta Maurya, the ruler of the vast Mauryan empire and its expanse in that time was enabled by the divisions that were created in the society. The varna system enabled the classification of most Indians in four categories: Brahmans, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. Kautilya also elaborated on the duties each varna was supposed to do ,i.e, the Brahmans were supposed to study,teach,perform rituals,officiating other people’s rituals etc. The Kshatriyas were supposed to study, perform rituals that were prescribed for him, and living by the profession of arms. The Vaishyas were supposed to be practicing agriculture and activities that aide that profession.The last in line were Shudras who were supposed to serve these three higher varnas. Outside this social hierarchy lied the ‘untouchables’ or Dalits. In the evolution of Indian state and society the cage of norms or rituals play a huge role. The fragmentations that are so deeply ingrained in the society didn’t allow the state to expand and enable the formation of new identities. Instead India has seen political participation based on caste and hence the state reinforced those beliefs and the age old systems. The rigid hierarchy has led to loss of liberty and loss of economy, and even though we ‘liberalised’ our economy in 1991, we are still at the perils of the norms that were concretized time and again.
The authors Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, break down the obstructions in growth by starting from the bottom of this hierarchy, that is through Dalits or ‘the broken people’. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who is also known as the father of Indian constitution coined the term ‘Dalit’ so as to make sure India did away with untouchability, who earlier to that didn’t even have an identity apart from being called ‘the untouchables’. Even though Article 17 abolished untouchability, it is still persistent today. Ambedkar didn’t just want to abolish untouchability but he questioned the entire caste system that proved to be a hindrance to the development of nation and led to the perpetual state of poverty that exists in our country. He, as the authors explain in the book , understood that caste divided society and made it turn against themselves. More importantly it curbed innovation and growth because people couldn’t change their professions or their identity as easily as they would like.(explained in this post).According to him caste system was not just a division of labour but also the division of labourers in to these fixed compartments that are difficult to escape.Basically we can’t achieve a modern economy where our professions are dictated by the family we are born in and not by the skillsets we choose to acquire.
Ambedkar through his critique of the caste system wanted to highlight that it persists because of dominance and threat of violence.The demeaning nature of work that the Dalits have to do, like manual scavenging isn’t possible without the dominance of the upper castes. It makes us think why wouldn’t the community revolt against this, but as the research conducted by Human Rights Watch suggests, they couldn’t afford to revolt because their jobs and protection was dependent on the upper castes. Its bewildering to think that these caste based professions and the services rendered still persist today, which is also termed as ‘Jajmani System‘ . The system specifies the network of services and favors that different castes have to provide for one other.It is a system that enables the function of economy and rituals through the services that were provided by the hereditary distribution of labour.
In this system that is mentioned above, everyone did not serve everyone but it was the lower castes serving the upper castes in most cases. This caged norms in the case of India has led to it’s inefficient economy where as in Athens, as described in the book, the caged norms were in practice used to maintain economic equality. In spite of being the world’s largest democracy, we have failed to mobilise a situation which enables a fundamental shift in these age old systems which could in turn empower the state or as it’s called in the book, ‘The Red Queen’.
India saw a divergence between governance systems around 600 BCE. The varna system which was overseen by the Brahmans enabled a creation of hereditary monarchies that is sanctioned by religion. While in other parts(especially in Vaisali,Bihar) the presence of assemblies or as it is called ‘Gana Sanghas’ strengthened their presence. Sanghas according to Kautilya were a cohesive entity which were difficult to conquer.It was a portrayal of the idea that people collectively formed the institutions of government and it was people that empowered the state and not the other way round as in the case of hereditary monarchies. These monarchs justified their presence through the varna system and as Kautilya mentions in ‘Arthashastra’ when the varna system is violated the world will come to an end. He also mentions that the king is supposed to uphold this system so as to ensure prosperity and happiness. Hence, this gave the birth of state which supported the varna systems and not move away from it.
The germination of this idea later paved the way for a more autocratic governance system during Mughal period. This did not penetrate the South that easily but northern India was under extensive influence of this invasion.The mughals didn’t necessarily change the autonomic nature of the villages that existed with their intricate governance systems( the Panchayat ) but mostly practiced the system of tax farming. The democratic nature of the country trickles down to its roots and but the varna system has undermined the state’s capacity rather than strenghtening it.
An interesting case study that the book presents is that of the state of Bihar, a state that is writhing in corruption and inefficiency. Huge amounts of money that are earmarked for Bihar never get allocated or spent. A policy recommendation that me and my team had prepared highlights the ineffectiveness of the state to spend any resources that are required to preserves the water resources of the state. The ineffectiveness as also highlighted by the authors of the book, showcase that the projects under Gram Sadak Yojana, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Integrated Child Development Scheme were never started or even if they did, they performed at nearly 1/4 th of the capacity.
This failure of the system came into effect because there was no one to execute these schemes. This accumulation of unfilled job posts magnified when Lalu Prasad Yadav was the Chief Minister. The yadavs who belong to Shudra varna have the highest population density in the state and their want to overthrow the upper caste painted the picture for the political scenario in Bihar. This existing narrative also justified the increasing number of vacancies because the qualified engineers were mostly from the upper castes. Lalu Yadav built his idea of ‘development’ around the narrative of overthrowing the upper caste. This not only stripped one section of the society of opportunities but instilled a sense of dominance on the society as a whole.
The role that caste politics plays not just in the case of Bihar, makes it difficult for the state to serve its people. The social hierarchies strip not one but everyone off of their liberties, because it is not only the Dalits that get oppressed, but all Indians who continue to let themselves be a part of this system of caged norms that enables this dominance.