Truth about disparities & violence

The Prime Minister says that if we do not check stark inequalities, we will face social upheaval and violence. Now, we should try and reduce inequalities on moral grounds alone. Why gild the lily by invoking a Marxist vision of class revolution that has repeatedly proved false? Violence in India is almost entirely sectarian, based on religion, region, caste or tribe. It is rarely based on class.

Even as the Prime Minister held forth, Rajasthan was hit by a violent agitation by Gujars demanding scheduled-tribe status, while Punjab shuddered under the conflict between the Akalis and Dera Sucha Sauda. Both violent episodes had nothing to do with rich-poor divides, and everything to do with sectarian divides.

Punjab was gripped by a terrible insurgency in 1978-93 which killed thousands and threatened secession. The insurgency occurred in India’s richest state. It was led not by the poor but by the richest community—Jat Sikhs. Leftists (and Economic and Political Weekly) had moaned from the 1960s onward that the green revolution had produced huge inequalities in Punjab that would lead to revolution. Rubbish—the spark came from religion, not class divides.

Kashmir is India’s most egalitarian state (thanks to Sheikh Abdullah’s land reforms in the 1950s). It has by far the lowest poverty ratio in India—just 3.5% in 2000 against the all-India average of 26%. Yet it has suffered a violent insurgency for nearly two decades, in which perhaps 100,000 have died. The strife arises entirely from religion, not class.

The north-east has suffered multiple insurgencies, all based on tribal-regional considerations—in Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Assam. In Assam and Tripura, resentment against immigrants from Bangladesh is exacerbated by the fact that many are Muslims.

By contrast, there is no insurgency in dirt-poor areas like northern Madhya Pradesh, eastern and southern UP, or Kalahandi in Orissa.

The Maoist uprising in the central India jungle belt, running from south Bihar to northern Andhra Pradesh, is in part class-based. Certainly the Maoist Party is a class warrior. Yet the insurgency is overwhelmingly tribal, based on tribal grievances against outsiders. Had the struggle been based mainly on class, the tribals should have turned against millionaire political leaders like Shibu Soren. In fact these millionaires continue to be heroes of the tribals.

India has many other kinds of violence falling well short of insurrection. These include Hindu-Muslim conflict, inter-caste conflict, inter-regional conflict, and male-female conflict. These arouse far more passion than class struggle. That explains why the Marxists have generally flopped and survived only as regional parties in West Bengal and Kerala.

International experience shows equally that sectarian passion trumps class struggle any day. Iraq is being ripped apart by Sunni-Shia conflict. Lebanon is once again descending into civil war along religious lines. Africa is replete with tribal conflict. The genocide in Darfur, Sudan is based on tribe, not class. The earlier genocide in Rwanda and Burundi was also based on tribal conflict. Catholics led the insurrection Ireland, and Basques in France and Spain.

Tamil insurrection in Sri Lanka is ethnic. The many insurgencies in Indonesia are religious (Muslims in Aceh, Christians in Ambon) or tribal (as in Irian Jaya). The hijackers of 9/11 came not from the poorest countries of central Africa but from rich Saudi Arabia. Revolution in Europe has been attempted by well-off, highly educated groups such as the Baader-Meinhoff Gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy.

This should surprise nobody. Skills, organizational ability and money are needed to organize insurrections. These are available with well-off educated revolutionaries, but not the poor. The dalits have been oppressed for millennia, yet have never organised a revolt.

So, the roots of violence and terror lie in sectarian differences, not income differences. I sometimes regret this: income differences are easier to deal with. But sectarianism cannot be wished away.

I repeat, we should seek to reduce disparities for moral reasons. Does it matter whether we do so for moral or class reasons? Yes, absolutely. Class analysis takes you in the wrong policy direction. It assumes that those prospering today do so at the expense of the poor. This leads to the Indira Gandhi myth that garibi hatao requires amiri hatao—draconian taxes and public sector dominance of the economy. In fact that strategy did not diminish poverty at all.

The landless labourer in Bihar or Orissa is not poor because Goa and Maharashtra are rich states, or because Azim Premji of Wipro has become the richest Indian. The poor are best helped by creating conditions in Bihar and Orissa that rival the best in Bangalore, Mumbai or Goa.

The Bihari labourer is poor because callous governments have failed to provide him with education, infrastructure, physical security or income opportunities, and because the local thanedar and patwari are in cahoots with dominant landowners. Correcting this requires root-and-branch reforms in the bureaucracy, police, schools, and judiciary. But politicians dare not ruffle so many vote banks. They would rather pretend that the problem lies in the riches of progressive states or software industrialists.

What do you think?