If they don’t have a roof, let them die
To many, the explosion of thunder and snuffle over the Salman Khan case is now old hat, given the ephemeral lifespan of news items. Yet aspects of it, particularly the reactions of a significant section of India’s ‘beautiful people’, merit attention. These reminded me of the incident on the eve of the French Revolution in which Marie Antoinette, told that the people were clamouring for bread, asked why did they not eat cakes instead. On reflection, however, the Queen of France was much kinder. Her fault was ignorance of the fact that people desperate for bread could not afford cakes. There was no animus against bread-seekers.
On the other hand, implicit in what some of the actor’s fans said, and the actual words that at least a couple of them used, displayed a distinct hatred for the poor. One of them even asserted stridently that those who slept on pavements deserved a dog’s death! For one thing, no dog deserves to be run over for sleeping on a pavement. For another, people sleep on the pavement not out of choice but for lack of the money needed for sleeping elsewhere.
The author of the obnoxious remark that the pavement-sleepers deserved to die like dogs was either not aware of this or justified such an end for them even though he knew of their plight. The first possibility could only be right if he generally lived in the midst of clouds and occasionally visited terra firma to serve Bollywood, a state of affairs which would not perhaps seem credible to even the most believing mind. The alternative, that he knew but still said what he did, indicates either or both of two things – his own contempt and hatred for the poor, and the general worldview of his peer group which made him believe that people would see nothing wrong in his assertion.
The first would not have been of any concern to anyone but for the second, which indicates the mindset of at least a section of people, associated in reasonably important positions, with perhaps the country’s most important entertainment sector. One would doubtless now hear that it would not be right to extrapolate such a conclusion from a solitary statement. But the fact that a lady belonging to the same film milieu has also made a statement to the effect that the pavement was no place for people to sleep, suggests he was not alone his pattern of thinking. Further, seen in the context of the fact that few of those who went into a state of mourning following the trial court’s sentencing of Salman Khan to jail or soared to a state of ecstasy following his release on bail, had any word of sympathy for the victims of the accident, this sends a simple message: Most stars that twinkle in Mumbai’s film firmament, could not care less for men and women sleeping on pavements, and the effulgent platitudes they mouth on the silver screen to show their ‘deep’ concern for the wretched of the earth, are meant only for box-office consumption.
The stars, of course, are not alone in this. There has been a marked change in India’s value system, the order of its priorities and the yardstick for measuring esteem, particularly during the last couple of decades or so. In ancient India, the highest respect was reserved for forest-dwelling sages whose deep philosophical reflections went with utterly simple, often subsistence-level, living. The qualities valued were their wisdom and saintliness grounded on a deep commitment to truth and strict adherence to ethical principles. Even the kings venerated them.
The political, economic and social scenario changed over India’s vast canvas as history unfolded. Yet the prioritisation of virtue and those considered its custodians and proponents, mainly teachers, priests and people regarded as holy, continued in popular esteem as all religions with followings in the country emphasised their primacy. And all religions dwelt on the plight of the poor and emphasised the importance of helping them. Forces that would undermine this common basic cast of the mind were, however, at work since the coming of capitalism, which originated in the West, where it all began with John Calvin (1509-64) arguing that
success in one’s chosen calling indicated that one was pre-destined to attaining salvation.
One can debate Max Weber’s theory in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that Calvin’s identification of success in one’s calling, which included business enterprise, with one being pre-destined to salvation, was critical to the rise of capitalism, as was his emphasis on unostentatious living, which conduced to savings.
There can be no doubt, however, that it gave a certain status to enterprise and entrepreneurs which was lacking earlier when they were placed below the clergy and royalty. This, and the increasing power that money yielded led to the removal of the restrictions on economic activity, such as usury, which hindered business activities and money-making.
In his Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, RH Tawney shows how the process progressed in Britain and how rules of economic activity were removed from the jurisdiction of the Church and made into an autonomous corpus under secular civilian law. Economic activity acquired its own morality in most of the rest of the world, including India, where capitalism came to prevail. Yet, one could not ignore the poor who had organised in the form of trade unions and other bodies that had received political support. Besides, the progress of capitalism globally had stopped at the borders of the erstwhile Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s switch to the capitalist path, dismantled the global barriers to the spread of capitalism; both also lent to the latter a political legitimacy it lacked earlier. More, with Deng Xiaoping asserting that it was glorious to be rich, and others echoing his sentiment, the rich became the role models, particularly with advertising, the market economy’s cutting edge, associating status with high consumption levels.
Since the avoidance of pangs of conscience over indifference to suffering is facilitated by hatred for the victims, many came to despise, often through a subconscious process, the poor as receiving the just desserts for their laziness and incompetence. The harsh fact is simple: Hatred and contempt for the poor are now integral to the mindsets of a large number of affluent and successful Indians.