According to French economist, Thomas Piketty, inequality may well be one of the most significant issues humanity is facing this century. Piketty in his new book, ‘Capital and Ideology’  argues that the levels of inequality we see in the period from the 1980’s till now  parallels the highest levels of inequality the world has ever experienced which was in the period from 1880 right up to the onset of World War I.

Piketty’s wide historical perspective ranging over three hundred years takes us beyond the contemporary moment to signpost the deeper historical trend of increasingly levels of global inequality.  Implicit in Piketty’s argument is the dangers of ignoring this tread as the last time the world ignored these levels of inequality, it resulted in the cataclysmic events like World War I, the rise of fascism and its culmination in World War II. 

Hannah Arendt in her book, ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, also makes totalitarianism in the Nazi context rose upon the support of the masses whose concerns of livelihood and the right to life with dignity were not addressed by the mainstream political parties. Left with no viable option which spoke to their concerns,  they turned to the Nazis. In short, if we take seriously the lessons of history, there is good reason to be concerned about what the future portends as we move inexorably to an even more inegalitarian future. 

In the Indian context as well, we have to be concerned about inequality which is taking more and more serious forms. Ambedkar warned against the unsustainability of a social and economic structure based on inequality. As he put it in his final speech in the Constituent Assembly, ‘On 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.’

Dr. Ambedkar’s warning is even more relevant today as India is a far more unequal society today than it was in 1950. As Piketty demonstrates through statistical data that while in the 1980’s  the top ten percent of income earners earned around 30% of the total income by 2015 the top ten percent earned a staggering 55% of all income. 

While any analysis of inequality has to analyse economic inequality precisely because it is the hidden driver which exacerbates other forms of inequality, one needs to comprehend  other forms of inequality rooted in tradition and history.  There are forms of social inequality which deprive entire groups of the right to movement, the right to speech and most fundamentally the right to live with dignity. 

In the Indian context, it’s impossible to talk about inequality without understanding the primordial institution of caste. In Ambedkar’s viewpoint, caste was a ‘ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt’. The key contribution of Ambedkar to understanding caste based inequality is the concept of what he called ‘graded inequality’. In essence the caste system was a particularly sophisticated system of inequality which had a high degree of social legitimacy as all except those at the very bottom of the pyramid had a stake in the continuation of the system. Thus while the Vokkaligas might be below the Brahmins in the caste system and hence may have an incentive to overthrow it, they have the Holeyas below them and hence have an incentive to maintain the system. As Ambedkar put it, ‘In a social system based on graded inequality the possibility of a general common attack by the aggrieved parties is nonexistent.’

To understand the horrors of caste in contemporary India one has only to go to the heinous practice of manual scavenging which in all parts of the country are almost totally practiced by the caste which is lowest in the caste hierarchy. Another manifestation of caste based inequality is the brutal violence meted out to those who dare to challenge the hierarchical caste based order by falling in love across caste lines. Right from the time of 12 century social reformer Basavanna to today, the assertion of the right to love across lines of caste can result in death. 

The other primordial institution which comes in the way of equality in India is patriarchy. Women in India still have to battle the norms of tradition to assert their right to equality. One recent example is the judgment of the Supreme court which allowed women the right to worship at Sabrimala. The majority struck down the regulations which did not allow women from the age of 10 to 50 from worshipping at Sabrimala as this violated the right to equality and dignity. However the fact that there was such a severe backlash to this elementary assertion of the constitutional right to equality, that the Supreme Court itself seems to have backpedalled, sanctioning an unprecedented review of the judgment and then referring the matter to a larger bench. All this only indicates that there is still a long way to go before India truly accepts the equality of the sexes. 

In the contemporary context, the question of discrimination on grounds of religion also looms large. Even an illness such as COVID-19 which affects all human beings equally has been instrumentalised to denigrate, dehumanize and deny equal citizenship rights to Muslims. A recent report by the Karnataka based Campaign Against Hate Speech documents how the media has gone from dehumanizing Muslims to calling for their social and economic boycott to even calling for the elimination of the community. Not just the right to equality but the very right to existence of an entire community is under threat. 

The reason it is extremely challenging to discuss inequality in the Indian context is that the indices on which unequal status is perpetrated are shifting and changing. With the rise of new social struggles and movements we have to broaden our understanding of inequality. The Supreme Court judgment in Navtej Singh Johar v Union of India where the Supreme Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, brought to the fore the struggle of LGBT Indians for equality and dignity. Similarly the rise of the disability movement has brought to the fore how the disabled are excluded from social, economic and political life and calls upon society and state to make ‘a reasonable accommodation’ to ensure that the disabled can participate equally in the life of the country.  

Inequality is a beast of many shapes. To comprehend it is a constant challenge and requires us to be attuned to hearing the voices of those on the margins. Comprehending inequality I can only be the first step towards fighting inequality if we are to fulfil the foundational promise of the Constitution to all persons, namely- ‘Equality of status and of opportunity.’ 

Arvind Narrain is a lawyer and writer based in Bengaluru.  He has recently co-authored ‘ The Preamble: A brief Introduction’ as well as ‘Breathing Life into the Constitution: Human rights lawyering in India’.

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