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Why the poor don’t kill us

LiveMint logoLiveMint 22-07-2017 Manu Joseph

Across the nation maids are talking back; who knows one day they may even demand long-handle mops to clean the floors. The rich wonder if it is all because of the employment guarantee schemes conceived by the profligate Congress government—the poor seem to have options these days. The wages, too, have soared. In any case, the middle class, at least the young and the refined, want to be nice to their servants. The conscientious sahib even exclaims on social media how cruel it is that maids are “expected to be invisible”. The madam, though as conscientious, is unlikely to say that, or let the maid use her toilet or the cutlery. Across urban homes, however, the maids are sitting on footstools, even chairs, in the presence of their employers. If there is a time-lapse video of seated maids across a stretch of 10 years, it would show them slowly soaring from floor to sofa. Also, the maids today are not the tragic malnourished women of once upon a time. And their infants are roly-poly.

A cluster of apartment blocks called Mahagun Moderne in Noida, adjacent to Delhi, where hundreds of maids worked, was not very different from the rest of the urban hives until a few days ago, when a riot broke out. A mob of maids and their men attacked the society after one of the maids, a young woman, went missing and her family thought she had been detained by a family that had earlier accused her of stealing money.

Similar scuffles have occurred in other parts of Delhi. The occurrences are rare but they may be a portent of what is to come. The master-servant equilibrium of Indian society is collapsing. The poor are becoming socially and politically more empowered than ever before.

What is surprising is why they do not attack more often. How does vast poverty tolerate the wealth of a few, who are vulgar just to appear so rich in plain sight. Many a time, even if you are just walking with an ice cream in hand, you feel you are taunting the poor. Why don’t the poor rise in revolt and cause end-of-days havoc? Order suits the rich. Chaos is a leveller. Do the poor overestimate the defences of the rich? Why are we safe?

There is a type of phoney Indian who would, with flared noble nostrils, say the poor will not do it because they are such wonderful folk. But just as foolish is the innate suspicion of rich India that the poor are prone to criminality and violence, and that they are kept in check by religious or other mystical forces. But the fact is India’s poor shun violence for the same reasons most human beings abhor violence. They wish to be humane.

There is something far less pleasant that guards the rich—the near absence of human rights for the poor in a police station or a prison, or in the rest of the judicial process. India is not a safe place for the rich but it is safer than it should be, or even compared to more mature economies like South Africa, because the consequences of crimes against the rich are severe in India. Mumbai’s underworld, for example, was an organized attempt by gangs to steal from the rich, but when they began to employ efficient lawyers and use the legal process to free their captured men, society responded through extrajudicial killings of criminals. What India lacks through order it often makes up through informality. The less democratic a nation, the safer it is for the rich. Street safety in China, it will not surprise us, is much better than in India.

But the most important reason why it is hard for anyone to organize India’s poor against the rich is that such a system already exists—in the form of electoral politics. As long as the poor believe that they own politics, they will find greater release in that legitimate revolution than in self-destructive rage.

Indian politics thus is largely a revenge of the poor, or at least an attempt. That is one of the reasons why demonetization did not destroy the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as the liberals had hoped. The party has won more than 10 elections since that announcement. The poor thought the rich suffered more than them.

Everything considered, the rich are great beneficiaries of poverty. It is very cheap to be rich in India. As the chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian, pointed out, the subsidies that the rich so hate are designed for the poor but are best experienced by the rich. But the benefits are not as trivial as being served by a maid who would skin hundreds of soya beans for hours and crush them into milk. In a poor nation, the social elite can pass through life without facing any substantial competition. That is why the frequent middle-class accusation of “nepotism” in the film industry is somewhat amusing—not just Bollywood dynasties, almost the entire Indian upper class owes its supremacy to the huge advantages its families have provided.

The poor also serve the rich by providing them a clear moral goal—eradicate poverty. Every learned Indian is a poverty eradication thinker. Many among the elite youth lament “inequality”, though all they have to do to reduce inequality is, instead of lamenting, refuse to go to expensive American colleges, and boycott inheritance. In the sheer absurdity of the youth even considering such a drastic sacrifice lies a more disturbing question—can the beneficiaries of inequality really end it? In their subterranean minds, do they actually wish inequality to continue?

As the nation transforms and the facile deference and the isolation of the poor dissolves, the rich are responding by paying a premium for places and experiences that will not be diminished by the other kind of Indians. When India is expensive, it is not because it has something of value to offer, it is the price one pays for keeping the riff-raff out.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.

He tweets at @manujosephsan

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