Equality as a relationship


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THIS paper aims to trace a trajectory of the idea of equality, understood as a relationship, in India’s recent history. As a relationship, the idea of equality pre-supposes an absence of structural dependencies, a rejection of rigid hierarchies and disallowance of privileges. To state it more positively, it implies belonging to a community of similar people, an independence (or absence of subordination) that enables fair exchange, and fellow citizenship that makes possible the creation of a common world. I focus almost exclusively on the question of caste to the detriment of other questions such as gender or religion, which are equally important.

In contemporary India, relational inequality is stating the obvious and occurs on a daily basis in a variety of forms. Let us begin with its most brutal manifestation, caste violence. Despite a constitutionally adopted law prohibiting caste ‘atrocities’ (to use the official terminology) against people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Scheduled Castes (SC), violence towards the lower castes is a daily reality that regularly takes extreme forms. While most cases of murder, rape or torture involving SCs and STs do not make the headlines, certain events have been widely commented on and have thus been the focus of important action campaigns.

These regular occurrences of intense caste violence should not be analyzed as episodic excesses, but rather as a confirmation of the structural role caste relations play in India.1 The assignation to a caste status is so powerful that even people who experience the most remarkable upward mobility are unable to completely rid themselves of their caste identity. The upwardly mobile Dalits whom I interviewed had all reached top professional positions, but often continue to see themselves relegated to their caste status and find it difficult to gain acceptance among their higher caste peers. In the private sector, they prefer to hide their caste rather than run the risk jeopardizing their careers if they admit to their origins.

An empirical study carried out amongst human resource managers working for major groups concludes that in India private sector employers apply a distinctive idea of merit and openly admit that while recruiting they take social origins into account.2 Their decisions are informed by a hidden language of caste concealed behind a rhetoric of merit, and result in caste discrimination occupying a central place in employment relationships.


Another mechanism accounting for the rigidity of caste barriers is that endogamy, marriage within the caste group, remains the rule for a vast majority of Indians. Every Sunday, Indian newspapers publish ‘matrimonial’ supplements, providing advertisements for arranged marriages, classified according to caste. The economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo3 conducted an econometric study of these advertisements and the people who responded to them, showing caste as being far more important in the choice of a spouse than any other criteria like education, income, or height or age. This need to preserve the ritual purity of caste groups through alliance strategies should be seen in relation to the large number of so-called ‘honour killings’, often motivated by the desire to prevent inter-community or inter-caste marriages.


My current research in upper class housing areas reveals how a specifically Indian culture of avoidance is deeply entrenched. Most of those who live in Delhi’s prosperous areas actually claim the right to a libertarian-style separatism. They see their area as a ‘bubble’, a ‘cocoon’, an ‘island’ that provides them a sanctuary away from the groups they consider naturally inferior, allowing them to live amongst people who are similar to them. The ‘gating’ of their neighbourhoods keeps the problems of the city at an arms length, enabling them to enjoy an environment that they try to shape according to their conception of a moral order.

The elite’s secession is manifest in the fencing off of residential areas, the refusal to use public transport and an exclusive type of sociability drawing upon closed, elite social circles or the pomp of five star hotels. This exclusivism is also expressed in more subtle ways, through forms of micro-segregation that seek to render domestic workers invisible in the residential space. For example, domestic workers are prohibited from using lifts and have to use the service staircases in condominiums, or again, in order to keep them in their ascribed inferior status, they are prohibited from using the same bathrooms their ‘masters’ use. The socialization of the upper classes is in fact marked from childhood by a ‘culture of servitude’,4 linked to the presence of numerous domestic workers. It often happens that in these neighbourhoods families consisting of four, five or six people employ more than double that number as staff.

One of my interviewees spoke about her domestic workers in terms that are common to a large number of interviews. She states: ‘You see, the staff that work for me, they are terribly poor. I look after them. But I would never speak to them the way I speak to an equal… they come from a world that is completely different from mine. And if they ever had the means to live in town, the kind of place they would be able to live would be so terribly different from this place… So these two things just don’t mingle. They do not mix at all. This is really how things are.’


Every researcher working on the issue of social stratification in India is hence confronted with the need to make sense of these social relationships based on undiscussed inequality. The clearest, though deeply unsatisfying, response to this question was provided by Louis Dumont, emphasizing the deeply hierarchical nature of Indian society, as opposed to so-called egalitarian societies which are based on a different notion of social relations.5 Until now, the usual path followed by those who differed from Dumont was to evade any direct interrogation of this question, giving in to a tempting answer: blaming it on caste as a key institution in India (but without detailing the mechanisms explaining why Indian society remained so indifferent to the idea of equality).

Historians provide explanations for the structure of caste in contemporary India from different perspectives, but a majority agree on the determining role of the colonial period. Bernard S. Cohn,6 Nicholas Dirks7 as well as some historians belonging to the subaltern movement insist on the fact that the British shaped the direction caste was to take in contemporary India by ossifying their understanding of it. Adopting a different approach, Susan Bayly8 provided a different perspective, defending the idea that British Brahman-centrism was essentially not a direct result of the colonizers’ scholarly imagination, but it in fact emerged from prior thought patterns. By using the Brahmans and the upper castes to ensure their domination of the subcontinent, the British were thus reviving, rather than reinventing, the thought patterns of the dominant groups.


Notwithstanding the Dumontian assertion and the popular textbook common sense, there exists a long tradition of questioning untouchability in India. The oldest, yet the one Ambedkar drew upon the least explicitly, is the Bhakti tradition, which developed from the 6th century onwards, and reached its apotheosis between the 13th and 17th centuries. This path extolled a type of devotion based on a fusion with divinity and a concept of God’s love as transcending caste differences.9

The arrival of the first Portuguese colonizers in the 16th century, the Jesuits in the 17th century, followed by the progressive domination of the British through the East India Company, helped introduce new repertoires of denunciation of caste inequalities in the subcontinent. This constituted a peculiar paradox, as the colonial oppressors were also those bringing new ideological keys of emancipation. Later, most Indian liberal nationalist movements were partly in line with this dichotomous colonial process that was progressive and conservative, simultaneously liberal and reluctant to upset the established social order.


Following the path of a more radical struggle against untouchability opened up by Jyotirao Phule, Ambedkar reinforced the impetus for battle against the Brahman-centrism of Indian society at the beginning of the 20th century.10 This pushed the nationalists to take cognisance of these demands, though often reluctantly, as they wanted to gain the support of the lower castes to present a united front against the British. Nonetheless, Ambedkar’s struggles did not produce immediate results. It was only in 1937 that the courts ruled that access to the Mahad reservoir was open to everyone. Ambedkar had succeeded in bringing the question of equality into the political debate, albeit through the back door, but his political line was continually eclipsed by the priority of the independence struggle.

Even after India attained independence, the idea of equality as a relationship has largely remained an abstract principle that has served to justify the defence of legal and economic equality. It was in part because Ambedkar knew that the idea of equality envisaged as relationship had little chance of being recognized in Indian consciences that he took so much trouble over setting up constitutional systems that would guarantee legal equality for members of the lower castes. He saw this as a means of bringing about social endosmosis, so dear to John Dewey whom he read assiduously, otherwise impossible given the separation between a privileged and a subject class. As president of the committee in charge of drawing up the Constitution, Ambedkar thus managed to ensure that the reservation or quota policy, favouring castes traditionally perceived as untouchable, was included, as well as the declaration making untouchability illegal.


In 1935, he publicly swore that he would not die a Hindu: although he was born a Hindu, he saw Hinduism as consubstantial with caste domination. After exploring different avenues, he chose Buddhism for its egalitarian attributes. As he stated on 3 October 1954 in an All-India Radio interview: ‘Positively, my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. Let no one, however, say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the Buddha.’

Ambedkar thus converted to Buddhism in Nagpur on 14 October 1956, on the day of the Hindu festival of Dussehra. Several hundreds of thousands of people, belonging to various ‘untouchable’ castes, travelled there to be converted along with him. Ambedkar died shortly after this, on 6 December 1956. His cremation provided yet another opportunity for mass conversions.

Regardless of its limitations in terms of political effectiveness, Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism is certainly an act that best reflects the mark he left on Indian society. By this choice, which symbolized a total rupture with Hinduism, Ambedkar opened the way to a process of struggle and resistance to the power represented by Hinduism and the caste system. He succeeded in drawing attention to the idea that acts of resistance to Hinduism should permeate every level of existence – not only at the political institutional level but also the religious level.

Ambedkar was fully aware that breaking with Hinduism meant a transformation of every moment; as this act modified social interactions, the relationship to ones own body and to others’ bodies, to ideology and work – in short, the relationship to power in its minutest dimensions. No ‘untouchable’ who decides to break with Hinduism can avoid the pressures of such a choice, and Ambedkar was recognized as a guiding figure for this leap into the unknown. His portrait occupies a place of honour on the walls of many Dalit homes and Ambedkar remains the paragon, par excellence, for a large number of Dalit families.


Ambedkar’s personality, even today, continues to inspire activists and movements fighting for equality in a variety of different ways. The first is solely electoral and is related to what Christophe Jaffrelot calls the ‘silent revolution’, or the slow but decisive progress made by low caste groups in the political game.11 In recent times, Mayawati, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (a party clearly focused on the defence of Dalit interests) who was twice elected chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, can certainly be seen as the best exemplar of electoral success. The movement also draws encouragement from the growing engagement of the Dalit administrative elite, largely motivated by Kanshi Ram. He had insisted on the need for senior civil servants who had experienced social mobility, to retain their solidarity with the Dalits that remained on the other side of the fence.

The second type of Dalit activism is counter-cultural. It draws support from an uncompromising activist network and intellectuals trying to retain a radically anti-Brahman tradition of thinking. The Dalit Panthers movement that was born in Maharashtra in the 1970s is a good example. Inspired by the American Black Panthers movement, it popularized the term ‘Dalit’, a marginal one at the time, making it central today. The Panthers focused their actions by publicizing the denunciation of the massacres that occur with increasing frequency in the villages.


Another stream of the Dalit movement has concentrated on global exposure and worked closely with international NGOs. Their discourse has often tended to focus on the sordid and they attempt to garner support for the Dalit cause from international institutions and organizations. This faction of the movement also believes that change cannot come exclusively from within India, which is too Hindu and casteist; it is thus necessary to mobilize support elsewhere to bring about change in the Indian context.

Finally, we should note the endurance of religious movements that focus on conversion to more egalitarian religions like Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism in the wake of Ambedkar’s appeal to convert out of Hinduism. Aspects of Dalit religious movements also flourish within various Hindu sects, which are often in the same vein as movements like the Bhakti. We could, for example, look at the Ravidassia movement that has a large following in Punjab and abroad.


Since the middle of the 19th century, the vagaries of the idea of equality continue to shape contemporary India. Thus, we still find today, mutatis mutandis, and in a largely euphemized form, the same logic of double standards that prevailed during the colonial period, when the in vogue utilitarian ideology encouraged the spread of the idea of equality, while at the same time, the very existence of colonialism was based on exclusion, difference and inequality. We could call it an Indian variant of the Bossuet paradox.12 At independence, Ambedkar tried, in vain, to use the law as a means of injecting the idea of equality as relationship at the centre of Indian society. Yet, while the principles of economic and legal equality remain at the heart of Indian law and, less frequently, of public policy, the notion of equality as a relationship is denied at every moment. The electoral instrumentalization of caste too has not led to an abolition of caste privilege and even less to an abolition of the social and symbolic boundaries that give rise to these ‘separate worlds’.

This, however, does not provide confirmation of Louis Dumont’s thesis, which claims that the hierarchical principle constitutes the essence of Indian society. As has been rightly argued by Béteille13 or more recently by Roland Lardinois,14 such a theory of hierarchy necessarily implies the reference to an ultimate value that includes all the elements of the system under study, and which is necessarily external to it. Roland Lardinois reminds us that such a position is based on a strong metaphysical premise, and has decisive theoretical consequences: by locating the origin of meaning that transcends the agents’ specific experiences, beyond the social world, Dumontian anthropology abdicates its Durkheimian references and renounces any kind of attempt towards a sociological understanding of Hinduism as a legitimate cultural and social order.15

It is important not to postulate a hierarchical ontology of Indian society. On the contrary, we should be attempting to further historicize the trajectories of the idea of hierarchy and of equality. Juxtaposing egalitarian societies and hierarchical societies as being fundamentally different prevents us from considering the vicissitudes of the idea of equality in the Indian context. It implies concluding at the outset, and even before attempting any kind of an analysis, that the negation of equality is inevitable. On the contrary, it seems more pertinent to seek to understand how upper caste Hindu men managed to arrogate certain privileges and to perpetuate them over the centuries, more specifically during the 19th and 20th centuries, when ideologies that could have called their privileges into question were circulating within the Indian context.

Just as Pierre Rosanvallon16 refuses, in the French context, to apprehend the current crisis of equality as a short-term regression, and attempts to situate it within the long-term historical context, it is crucial to not postulate a priori the ontological impossibility of equality in the Indian context. The idea of equality truly exists in India and even has a history, which is important to elucidate in order to understand the challenges it faces today.



1. N. Jaoul, The ‘Righteous Anger’of the Powerless Investigating Dalit Outrage Over Caste Violence’, South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, 2008.

2. S.S. Jodhka and K. Newman, ‘In the Name of Globalisation: Meritocracy, Productivity and the Hidden Language of Caste’, Economic and Political Weekly, 2007, pp. 4125-4132.

3. A. Banerjee, E. Duflo, M. Ghatak, et al., Marry for What: Caste and Mate Selection in Modern India. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2009, mimeo.

4. R. Ray and S. Qayum, Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2009.

5. L. Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: le système des castes et ses implications. Gallimard, Paris, 1979 (1966).

6. B.S. Cohn, An Anthropologist Among the Historians and Other Essays. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1987.

7. N.B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2011.

8. S. Bayly, Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

9. E. Zelliot, From Untouchability to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement. Manohar, New Delhi, 1992.

10. C. Jaffrelot, Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and Fighting Caste. Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2005.

11. C. Jaffrelot, India’s Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India. Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2003.

12. This is the way Pierre Rosanvallon designates the act of blaming general inequality while implicitly recognizing as legitimate the specific structures that condition it.

13. Andre Béteille, ‘Homo Hierarchicus, Homo Equalis’, Modern Asian Studies 13, 1979, pp. 529-548.

14. R. Lardinois, L’invention de l’Inde: entre ésotérisme et science. Editions CNRS, Paris, 2007.

15. R. Lardinois, ibid., 2007, p. 286.

16. P. Rosanvallon, La société des égaux. Seuil, Paris, 2011.