India’s Power Pyramid

Titled The Saint and The Doctor, Arundhati Roy’s introduction to a new, annotated edition of Dr. B R Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste is an intensive examination of the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate and its relevance in India. Excerpts:

Today, India’s one hundred richest people own assets equivalent to one-fou­rth of its celebrated GDP.  In a nation of 1.2 billion, more than 800 million people live on less than Rs20 a day. Giant corporations virtually own and run the country. Politicians and political parties have begun to function as subsidiary holdings of big business.

How has this affected traditional caste networks? Some argue that caste has insulated Indian society and prevented it from fragmenting and atomising like Western society did after the Industrial Revolution. Others argue the opposite; they say that the unprecedented levels of urbanisation and the creation of a new work environment have shaken up the old order and rendered caste hierarchies irrelevant if not obsolete. Both claims deserve serious attention. Pardon the somewhat unliterary interlude that follows, but generalisations cannot replace facts.

A recent list of dollar billionaires published by Forbes magazine features 55 Indians.  The figures, naturally, are based on revealed wealth. Even among these dollar billionaires the distribution of wealth is a steep pyramid in which the cumulative wealth of the top 10 outstrips the 45 below them. Seven out of those top 10 are Vaishyas, all of them CEOs of major corporations with business interests all over the world. Between them they own and operate ports, mines, oil fields, gas fields, shipping companies, pharmaceutical companies, telephone networks, petrochemical plants, aluminium plants, cellphone networks, television channels, fresh food outlets, high schools, film production companies, stem cell storage systems, electricity supply networks and Special Economic Zones. They are: Mukesh Ambani (Reliance Industries Limited), Lakshmi Mittal (Arcelor Mittal), Dilip Shanghvi (Sun Pharmaceuticals), the Ruia brothers (Ruia Group), K.M. Birla (Aditya Birla Group), Savitri Devi Jindal (O.P. Jindal Group), Gautam Adani (Adani Group), and Sunil Mittal (Bharti Airtel). Of the remaining 45, 19 are Vaishyas too. The rest are for the most part Parsis, Bohras and Khattris (all mercantile castes) and Brahmins. There are no Dalits or Adivasis in this list.

Apart from big business, Banias (Vaishyas) continue to have a firm hold on small trade in cities and on traditional rural moneylending across the country, which has millions of impoverished peasants and Adivasis, including those who live deep in the forests of Central India, caught in a spiralling debt trap. The tribal-dominated states in India’s Northeast -Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Assam – have, since ‘independence’, witnessed decades of insurgency, militarisation and bloodshed. Through all this, Marwari and Bania traders have settled there, kept a low profile, and consolidated their businesses. They now control almost all the economic activity in the region.

In the 1931 Census, which was the last to include caste as an aspect of the survey, Vaishyas accounted for 2.7 per cent of the population (while the untouchables accounted for 12.5 per cent).  Given their access to better healthcare and more secure futures for their children, the figure for Vaishyas is likely to have decreased rather than increased. Either way, their economic clout in the new economy is extraordinary. In big business and small, in agriculture as well as industry, caste and capitalism have blended into a disquieting, uniquely Indian alloy. Cronyism is built into the caste system.

Vaishyas are only doing their divinely ordained duty. The Arthashastra (circa 350 bce) says usury is the Vaishya’s right. The Manusmriti (circa 150 CE) goes further and suggests a sliding scale of interest rates: 2 per cent per month for the Brahmin, 3 per cent for Kshatriyas, 4 per cent for Vaishyas and 5 per cent for Shudras.  On an annual basis, the Brahmin was to pay 24 per cent interest and the Shudra and Dalit, 60 per cent. Even today, for moneylenders to charge a desperate farmer or landless labourer an annual interest of 60 per cent (or more) for a loan is quite normal. If they cannot pay in cash, they have to pay what is known as ‘bodily interest’, which means they are expec­ted to toil for the moneylender from generation to generation to repay impossible debts. It goes without saying that according to the Manusmriti no one can be forced into the service of anyone belonging to a ‘lower’ caste.

Vaishyas control Indian business. What do the Brahmins—the bhudevas (gods on earth)—do? The 1931 Census puts their population at 6.4 per cent, but, like the Vai­shyas and for similar reasons, that percentage too has probably declined. Accor­ding to a survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), from having a disproportionately high number of representatives in Parliament, Brahmins have seen their numbers drop dramatically. Does this mean Brahmins have become less influential?

According to Ambedkar, Brahmins, who were 3 per cent of the population in the Madras Presidency in 1948, held 37 per cent of the gazetted posts and 43 per cent of the non-gazetted posts in government jobs. There is no longer a reliable way to keep track of these trends because after 1931 the Pro­ject of Unseeing set in. In the absence of inf­ormation that ought to be available, we have to make do with what we can find. In a 1990 piece called ’Brahmin Power’, the writer Khushwant Singh said: “Brahmins form no more than 3.5 per cent of the population of our country…today they hold as much as 70 per cent of government jobs. I presume the figure refers only to gazetted posts. In the senior echelons of the civil service from the rank of deputy secretaries upward, out of 500 there are 310 Brahmins, i.e. 63 per cent; of the 26 state chief secretaries, 19 are Brahmins; of the 27 Governors and Lt Governors, 13 are Brahmins; of the 16 Sup­reme Court judges, 9 are Brahmins; of the 330 judges of high cou­rts, 166 are Brah­mins; of 140 ambassadors, 58 are Brahmins; of the total 3,300 IAS offi­cers, 2,376 are Brahmins. They do equally well in electoral posts; of the 508 Lok Sabha members, 190 were Brahmins; of 244 in the Rajya Sabha, 89 are Brahmins. These statist­ics clearly prove this 3.5 per cent of Brahmin community of India holds between 36 per cent to 63 per cent of all the plum jobs available in the country. How this has come about I do not know. But I can scarcely believe that it is entirely due to the Brahmin’s higher IQ.”  The statistics Khushwant Singh cites may be flawed, but are unlikely to be drastically flawed. They are a quarter of a century old now. Some new census-based information would help, but is unlikely to be forthcoming.

According to the CSDS study, 47 per cent of all Supreme Court chief justices bet­ween 1950 and 2000 were Brahmins. During the same period, 40 per cent of the associate justices in the high courts and lower courts were Brahmin. The Backward Clas­ses Commission, in a 2007 report, said that 37.17 per cent of the Indian bureaucracy was made up of Bra­hmins. Most of them occupied the top posts.

Brahmins have also traditionally dominated the media. Here too, what Ambedkar said in 1945 still has resonance: “The Untouchables have no Press. The Congress Press is closed to them and is determined not to give them the slightest publicity. They cannot have their own Press and for obvious reasons. No paper can survive without advertisement revenue. Advertisement revenue can come only from business and in India all business, both high and small, is attached to the Congress and will not favour any non-Cong­ress organisation. The staff of the Asso­ci­a­ted Press in India, which is the main news distributing agency in India, is entirely drawn from the Madras Brahmins—indeed the whole of the Press in India is in their hands—and they, for well-known reasons, are entirely pro-Congress and will not allow any news hostile to the Congress to get publicity. These are reasons beyond the control of the Untouchables.”

 In 2006, the CSDS did a survey on the social profile of New Delhi’s media elite. Of the 315 key decision-makers surveyed from 37 Delhi-based Hindi and English publicati­ons and television channels, almost 90 per cent of the decision-makers in the English language print media and 79 per cent in television were found to be ‘upper caste’. Of them, 49 per cent were Brahmins. Not one of the 315 was a Dalit or an Adivasi; only 4 per cent belonged to castes designated as Shudra, and 3 per cent were Muslim (who make up 13.4 per cent of the population).

That’s the journalists and the ‘media pers­onalities’. Who owns the big media houses they work for? Of the four most important English national dailies, three are owned by Vaishyas, one by a Brahmin family concern. The Times Group (Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd), the largest mass media company in India, whose holdings include The Times of India and the 24-hour news channel Times Now, is owned by the Jain family (Banias). The Hindustan Times is owned by the Bha­r­tiyas, who are Marwari Banias; The Indian Express by the Goenkas, also Mar­wari Ban­ias;The Hindu is owned by a Brah­min fam­ily concern; the Dainik Jagran Hindi daily, the largest selling newspaper in India with a circulation of 55 million, is owned by the Gupta family, Banias from Kanpur. Dainik Bhaskar, among the most influential Hindi dailies with a circulation of 17.5 million, is owned by Agarwals, Banias again. Reliance Industries Ltd (owned by Mukesh Ambani, a Gujarati Bania) has controlling shares in 27 major national and reg­ional TV channels. The Zee TV network, one of the largest national TV news and entertainment networks, is owned by Subh­ash Chandra, also a Bania. In southern India, caste manifests itself somewhat differen­tly. For example, the Eenadu Group—which owns newspap­ers, the largest film city in the world and a dozen TV channels, among other things—is headed by Ramoji Rao of the Kamma peasant caste of Andhra Pra­desh, which bucks the trend of Brahmin-Bania ownership of Big Media. Another major media house, the Sun TV group, is owned by the Marans, who are designated as a ‘backward’ caste, but are politically powerful today.

-by arrangement with the Outlook magazine

-references cited by the writer have not been included in this reproduction for reasons of space

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