Following the publication of our last conversation with Jayant Bhandari, I received a lot of interesting feedback and remarks. The common denominator of all those comments was the astonishment of many Western readers at the real conditions and dynamics on the ground in India. In fact, I was surprised myself by how little we actually know and understand about a country so vast, so populous and so potentially influential on the world’s geopolitical stage. The coverage we receive by Western media is often so superficial, ahistorical and frequently biased, that it deceives us into believing we roughly understand the politics and social problems there, when in reality we are entirely clueless. This dangerous illusion of knowledge in turn comes to shape our beliefs and opinions, leads us to false conclusions and causes us to make erroneous generalizations.
Overall, the recent tensions and the riots that started in the US and spread throughout the West, all seemed to have the notion of inequality and social injustice at their core. Groups were pitted against other groups and all kinds of deep divisions in society came to the surface. In search of a parallel in modern history, to examine and to learn from, I thought of India and its caste system. From an outsider’s perspective, it seemed to me that a lot of the same issues and problems arose there too and a lot of the same solutions were already tried, albeit in a massively larger scale. So, I decided to turn to Jayant again, to understand that system more clearly and more objectively, to see if that parallel really holds up and if so, what are the lessons that the West can learn from India’s policies and their results? Having lived and worked in both worlds, he is far better equipped than most to assess these issues and even though he has strong views that go well beyond and very often contradict mainstream narratives, his insights, based on direct, first-hand experiences, certainly challenge commonly held beliefs and can set the stage for deeper debates. After all, different perspectives, dissenting views and free dialogue are the prerequisites and the main ingredients for an enlightened civilization.
Jayant is a globetrotting institutional investment consultant, who has amassed extensive international experience in the mining and natural resource sector. Apart from his investment insights, he has published numerous interesting analyses on political, cultural and social issues, while he also runs a yearly seminar in Vancouver, “Capitalism & Morality”.
Claudio Grass (CG): India has been routinely making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Its citizens’ poor quality of life, lack of public services and infrastructure and violent incidents in the streets often feature in international media coverage, prompting many Indians to criticize what they see as unfair reporting. Do you think there really is a negative bias against the country in the West?
Jayant Bhandari (JB): In just about every human development metric, India is worse than sub-Saharan Africa. The conditions in India are a lot worse and far more backward than what you see in the media and what you imagine when you’re reading these headlines. The reports and images that reach you cannot convey the ever-present smell of human waste, the unceasing noise, the feeling of people constantly violating your space and the daily reality of dysfunction and failure at every conceivable level. For the majority of Indians, life is no better today than what it was in medieval times. Perhaps it is even worse now, with pollution, over-population, and the alien lifestyle of “modern living” added to the mix.
Corruption, tribalism, and “might-is-right” are the governing principles in society. The police, the politicians, the courts, and the criminals are all in bed together. The bureaucrat will humiliate you, extract bribes, and expect god-like reverence from you. The work ethic and lack of integrity are so bad that if you give away bribes too early, your work won’t get done. Citizens must grovel, prostrate, and bow down with folded hands. Every time I have to deal with those in the government, I use an agent to avoid the degradation that every citizen must face.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the citizens—men or women—are not innocent. While the government gets most of the blame, it is merely a symptom of the underlying cultural disease. The real problem is Indian tribal ways, superstitious, irrational and circular thinking, and the absence of moral and rational mental anchors. This is the root of all of India’s problems and why it is not and will not be a functioning civilization.
People with the slightest bit of power will exploit it and become predatory. If you need a taxi, be assured that the driver will overcharge you and exploit you to the extent he can. The more power the individual has, the worse his conduct becomes. And this is not a case of a “few bad apples”, but the reality of day to day life in India. As men and those from the higher castes tend to get all the blame, I should hastily add that women also have a solid track record as aggressors and they often commit the worst atrocities on other women, especially those from the lower castes, who routinely engage in caste-related violence.
The dystopia is far broader, deeper, more entangled, and complex than what most people can ever imagine from the outside. And I haven’t seen any positive change since the IT and the educational revolution started. If anything, the cultural situation is even worse now.
So, why do Indians see any honest reporting of the problems in the country as unfair? Well, it’s because they’re deeply tribal. Their sense of identity is hinged to your perception about their caste, religion, sect, language, or the country as a whole. Fairness, justice, and the suffering of their fellow citizens are of no interest to them. All they care about is what others, especially the outsiders, think of them. If you feel that this thinking is no different from that which exists behind honor killings, you are on track to understanding the Indian mind. And they take this mentality with them when they leave, as this defensiveness only intensifies once they have moved to the West.
CG: Very frequently, the reports in Western media identify India’s caste system as the source of all these evils. Inequality, extreme poverty and lack of opportunity is blamed on the social and economic isolation that the lower castes seem to suffer from those “higher-born”. However, there have been important changes and government interventions to this system over the last decades, so how accurate is this narrative in 2020?
JB: Whining, complaining, playing the victim card, and a grievance-based culture is the most comfortable option for those who cannot make it in life. It helps them extract unearned resources and hope for an easy life. It enables them to pass the blame onto others, so that they can enjoy some emotional comfort, believing their failures are not their own and that they could not have done well in life anyway. But this attitude also disempowers them, perpetuates their misery and eventually worsens their feeling of impotence, low self-esteem, and psychological subservience.
Of course, the media, the shallow-thinking intellectuals, journalists, and social activists play along, for siding with the weaker party is not only politically correct, but can also be quite profitable. Intellectuals, who lack a real-life experience and are ridden with envy and bile against any semblance of actual success, agitate the underclass. Nowhere in the world are the underprivileged so prone to blaming their situation on those who are successful. It is this intellectual “Middle Class” that is the prime agitator.
The caste system exists, but it is a part of a much bigger problem. Indians are tribal and are constantly positioning themselves in the pecking order. The lower you go in the food chain, the worse it becomes. The lower caste people are the worst perpetrators of the caste system.
Most media presentations of caste issues in India, especially those aimed at foreign audiences, follow a passive narrative, leaving you to assume that it must be the higher caste that is the oppressor, and thus responsible for all that is wrong in Indian society. However, this view is as ahistorical and as it is factually groundless. The statistics speak for themselves. Most caste problems arise out nothing else but a lower-caste group subjugating another lower-caste group to show who among them is higher. As for all those horrific reports you see in Western media about caste-related violence, the vast majority of these atrocities are committed strictly within the lower castes, not by the imagined “oppressor” class.
Also, you might have heard of the Hindu-fanatic Prime Minister of India. Both he and the President are from the lower caste. One would have expected this to have made a dent in the oppressor-oppressed narrative, but, of course, it didn’t and oppression has only increased under their regime.
The real reasons for the chronic backwardness of India are much more mundane and “pedestrian” and as such, they don’t really support that timeless, romantic fairytale of rich and privileged villains against poor but noble underdogs. What is really to blame is the utter lack of skills, lack of work ethic, absence of integrity and honesty in work and social relations, tribalism, belief in might-is-right, and a lack of reason and moral values. In all this, the caste system is only one of the symptoms, which, as I said, gets worse among those in the lower castes. For this reason, any caste-based solution to India’s problems is simplistic and makes the problem worse by adding fuel to the fire.
CG: The reforms and legislative measures that the state has enforced over the years in order to break down caste barriers have been quite drastic. There has been a massive effort to lift the lower castes socioeconomically, including subsidies, quotas, reserved seats in parliament and places in universities. How do you assess the results of these policies? Have they achieved their stated aims in promoting social harmony and economic prosperity for all?
JB: In a tribal society, where no one trusts anyone, social harmony will always be an illusion. Subsidies, quotas, and the like, have enabled a massive grievance-based culture to emerge in the country. You cannot make a community proud and honorable by giving them free stuff. The affirmative action policies have trapped those of the lower castes in low-level thinking: being beggars and servile, being lazy, and expecting free stuff.
I went to a catholic school in India. Until I got to university, I did not know much about the caste system. It simply never was, per se, a dominant issue in urban areas and it still isn’t. I went to one of the top engineering colleges in India. The affirmative action policy, called the “reservation system” in India, allocates a majority of seats to the lower castes. Compare the 78% entrance marks that I had to attain to be admitted with the close-to-zero scores that those who joined from the lower caste had. As can be expected, the net effect of this was to make their self-esteem worse and to render any professional relationship between us impossible.
Predictably, they kept on failing, and many of them stayed in the college for a decade or more. I personally knew of a student who had been there for thirty-five years. They had been artificially placed in a position with challenges that they were not prepared for and were not equipped to handle. In effect, they’d been set up for failure. Eventually, after being stuck for many years, unable to pass exams and finish their degrees, the administration simply did it for them. They graduated them and waived them through, in order to get them out and clear the bottleneck for the next batch to enter. The situation is the same in medical colleges, rendering those degrees basically meaningless. Knowing these practices have been going on for so long, producing dangerously unqualified professionals, what hope does a lower-caste doctor have of being trusted by a patient? How confident would you be if you had to go under the knife in a public hospital in India?
But it goes even deeper than that. Very early in my university days, I realized that if, for whatever reason, someone from a lower caste filed a police report against me, on his word alone, the laws would have required the police to arrest me without a warrant or possibility of bail. In a country where simple cases drag on for decades, I would have been barred from getting a passport or a job. Why should I take such a risk by befriending or even interacting with someone from a lower caste, when I could avoid the risk altogether by keeping my distance? So you see, the very laws that were supposed to erase caste barriers actually ensured that the distance between groups would grow wider.
This toxic effect is even more apparent in government. This “reservation” policy offers the majority of government jobs to those from the lower caste, with accelerated promotions. The lower caste people, once in power, turn their back to their communities and merely show off their influence in expectation of reverence. They have no skill to feel proud of anyway, so all they feel proud of is their position and their perceived status, which is effectively monetized through rampant corruption. This has been a significant factor in rapidly degrading Indian institutions.
All these affirmative action policies have been an unmitigated disaster for the country. They were designed by populist politicians who care not a bit for the citizens, certainly not for those in the lower caste. The caste system, and more importantly, the general tribalism of Indians is oppressive, but these simplistic, nonsensical laws have made the situation far worse.
Of course the caste system is ugly and unjust. But it is only one of many destructive forces and problems, and it is merely symptomatic of a chronic disease that runs way deeper. As for its actual role in today’s society, it is ridiculously overstated. Although it can be a hindrance, it is no longer a decisive factor, certainly not in cities. India is wretched, miserable, and backward because the society wallows in regressive thinking, of which, as I said, the caste system is only one factor.
In the upcoming second part, we explore the similarities between India’s experience with policies that promised social change and equality and the debates we’re having in the West, as well as their wider implications for the economy and for society at large.