The Struggle for Equality in India

The principle of equality is having a revolutionary effect on life in contemporary India. The impact is more dramatic there than elsewhere because perhaps no other major society in recent history has known inequalities so gross or so long preserved. In the traditional civilizations of Islam and China, the ideal if not always the practice of equality had an honorable and often commanding place in the culture. But in India the notion that men should remain in the same occupation and station of life as their forefathers was enshrined in religious precepts and social custom. While life was not as immobile as theory prescribed, and from time to time revolts against the dominance of particular social classes occurred, the idea of social equality never became as widespread in Hinduism as it did in other great traditions.

Even today, the visitor to India-whether from Europe or the Far East-is struck by the gross inequalities, not merely in material standards, but more profoundly in the attitudes of men toward each other. To be kissed on the foot by a beggar or by a supplicant for a job is, for one sensitive to the dignity of man, among the most degrading human acts imaginable. The stooped back, the outstretched hands of the groveling poor are in contrast with the stern and commanding voice and the fine carriage of the rich, the mighty and the highborn. Yet very recently the principle of equality has flowered in Indian life, and it is the changes that this has brought and its effects on other aspects of India's efforts at modernization that I shall try to describe here.


Remote roots of what social equality exists can be found in medieval Islam as it affected the subcontinent, and in the development of bakti or devotional tradition in medieval Hinduism, which sought to stress the notion of equality before God. But the concept became really influential with the appearance of anti-caste movements in the nineteenth century. The influence of Christianity and the rise of nationalism both contributed in their own way to its growth, as did the impact of socialist ideas among young nationalists in the 1920s and 1930s. But it is not our purpose to enter into any detailed historical examination of how the notion of an equalitarian society came to be accepted by the leaders of the Indian nationalist movement. Suffice it to say here that those who held it took power in 1947 and began to exercise the authority of the state to make it a reality.

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