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Middle class syndrome! - The Daily

M V Kamath ()
July 12, 1998

Title: Middle class syndrome!
Author: M V Kamath
Publication: The Daily
Date: July 12, 1998

The Great Indian Middle Class by Pavan K. Varma: Price Rs 295;
Pages 232

There is none more pathetic than the man who hates himself, his
family, his class, his religion and his country. Such people are
to be found everywhere and they can always produce what they
believe are convincing their rage. Such a one is Pavan Varma
whose contempt for the Middle Class in India seems to be abysmal.
It seems obvious that he hails from the same class, judging from
his comments on it. He traces the rise of the Middle Class in
India to the second quarters of the nineteenth century when Lord
Macaulay laid down - in his now famous Minutes - that it should
be the purpose of British rule to form a class of persons ndian
in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in moral
and in intellect.

One supposes that the British succeeded in creating just that
kind of Indians which accepted he superiority of the
civilisational values of the alien culture. Varma suggests that
this class had a problem: on the one hand, it rejected the alien
intruder and dominator who nevertheless was to be imitated and
surpassed by his own standards and secondly it also rejected its
ancestral ways which were seen as obstacles to progress but which
nevertheless provided one with a mark of identity.

Class identification

How would such a class -- Varma identifies it as India's great
Middle Class -- behave and function? According to Varma the upper
and middle class elite which the British had helped create in
their own image has not been able to wrench itself from the
ideological umbilical cord with the other country -- British.
In many ways it remains ritish whatever that means. This,
Varma holds, is to be seen in the administrative system, in the
adherence to English as the language of governance and in the
fact that the class is ncapable of evolving a paradigm of
conduct from within itself.

Varma's point is that the Indian Middle Class does not know how
to be an Indian. All that it was capable of was to romanticise
India's past while not rejecting or diluting its desire for
modernity. But what did it imply? Varma quotes a fellow Indian
sociologist as saying: he young Indian must come round to a
rational and objective view of material advancement. He must be
willing and able to tear himself away from his family ties: flout
customs and traditions; put economic welfare before cow worship,
think in terms of farm and factory output rather than in terms of
gold and silver ornaments; spend on tools and training rather
than on temples and ceremonials; work with the low caste rather
than starve with the high caste; think of the future rather than
of the past...

The Middle Class

For the author, the Indian Middle Class is in many ways evil
incarnate. For one thing as he sees it, it has deprived India of
the elf-respect of having a national language of its own. As
the ruling elite this class has further held to ransom the
development of regional languages by its preference for English
which the class had turned into an instrument for social
exclusion. Worse the Indian Middle Class has come to the he
mind-wife of a compromised state -- radical at the level of
policy, self-serving at the level of practice, and completely
lacking in idealism.

The death of Jawaharlal Nehru started a new trend among the
Middle Class. he first trend of importance was the visible
retreat of ideology from public life and the corresponding
transparency of the quest for power as an end in itself. Lal
Bahadur Shastri's death accentuated the situation when what came
clearly was that almost any method was acceptable so long as it
achieved the desired goats.

Varma is especially harsh on Indira Gandhi whose victory over the
Syndicate according to him conveyed a double inference: hat
ideology could be made to serve narrow, personal ends and that to
do this was both justified and effective. Result? The Indian
Middle Class was placed in moral vacuum, where those who were
supposed to set the standards had themselves indicated that these
were not really necessary. The rise of Indira Gandhi as a leader
on the debris of the past, in the circumstances had become a
watershed for the middle class.

The devaluation of idealism, as an aspect of leadership and as a
factor in society came to be accompanied by an erosion of the
legitimacy of the state as an effective economic actor. And
corruption became an accepted and even inevitable part of
society. In the process, the middle class became ictim, critic
and colluder, rolled into one. Hypocrisy became endemic. That
hypocrisy -- and eloquence -- grew in direct proportion to the
degree to which it was compromised. The net result was that he
retreat from idealism, the reduced sensitivity to the poor, and
the legitimisation of corruption -- coincided with a change in
character and structure of the middle class itself.

Varma is contemptuous of this middle class which, on the one
hand, supported Jayaprakash Narayan's call for otal revolution
while, on the other, applauded the Emergency. According to him
this dichotomy is easily explainable. The middle class did not
want its own rights and privileges to be touched. The middle
during the emergency, was subservient, some ntellectuals may
have remained critical in their personal assessment ut they
chose silence as the better part of valour.


Varma lays much of the blame on Hinduism which he condemns in no
small measure. In this he reflects the thinking of the
Anglicised, non-understanding Middle Class Hindu one so often
comes across in the country. Varma's lack of understanding of the
Hindu mind is not only shocking, it is disgustingly painful. For
example, he asserts that he emphasis in Hinduism on the self
over the community has been an important factor in retarding the
acceptance of a sense of common obligations and to buttress this
point he quickly quotes Swami Vivekananda.

What he fails to understand is that the Hindu is aware both of
his need to attain individual moksha and to the importance of
upholding dharma.

It is apparent that Varma has taken upon himself the
responsibility to damn the Indian Middle Class -- and especially
the Hindus part of it -- to show his secular credentials. This
becomes inevitable when one understands Hinduism superficially,
as most of our secularists do. In the circumstances any stick is
good enough to beat the Hindus -- and the Middle class of which
the Hindu is a major component -- with. Varma knows that the same
middle class will applaud him for his courage and understanding
of the class system.

He thinks the Indian middle class ignores the poor. Why and how?
he poor have been around for so long that they have become a
part of the accepted landscape. Since they refused to go away,
and could not be got rid of, the only other alternative was take
as little notice of them as possible. This myopia had its
advantages: the less one noticed, the less reason one had to be
concerned about social obligations and the less one saw, the less
one needed to be distracted from the heady pursuit of one's own
material salvation.

The Great Indian Middle Class is one long, pathetic wail that is
worthy of being confined to the dustbin. Its intellectual
pretensions are on par with the observations made by foreigners
to Indian society. Varma belongs to that class which sees India
superficially and passes its judgement superficially.

In fact one wonders whether he knows the India he tries so
valiantly to assess, at all. This is the kind from that precise
class the author so contemptuously dismisses, but to which he
belongs, the whisky-swiggling, boutique-patronising anti-Hindu
class one comes across in the cities of India and in the rich
drawing rooms of our society. A pity. A great pity!

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