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.

With virtually no debate, the principle of political equality was enshrined in the constitution when all adults, literate or illiterate, were given the right to vote. The initial effect was the further extension and intensification of party political organization, especially in rural areas. The governing Congress Party, which enjoyed the legacy of the nationalist movement with its relatively well established mass base, clearly won the race-but not without unexpected results. Congress politicians, like those of other political parties, discovered that voters were moved more readily by appeals to their caste, religion, tribe and language than by appeals based on broad public policy. With a skill that would do credit to a New York or Chicago politician, Indian party leaders shrewdly sought "balanced" tickets. Lower castes, which are large, soon clamored for more seats in municipal bodies, state legislative assemblies and Parliament, as well as for more posts in the party organization. Century-old rivalries among communities burst forth. Local politicians made their own constituents aware of the benefits to be obtained from government and awakened them to the power which they could obtain as a result of universal adult suffrage.

Thus linguistic, caste and tribal organizations have multiplied, and throughout the country particularistic loyalties have been intensified. This was demonstrated in the general elections for Parliament and the state assemblies last February. Except in the much publicized North Bombay constituency, election issues rarely involved ideology or public policy. On the contrary, the electorate tended to vote in accordance with traditional loyalties; issues, such as they were, tended to be parochial.

Another related consequence of universal adult suffrage is that social classes which had hitherto been politically dormant have now come to play an increasingly important role in local politics. In many of the urban areas especially, the respectable, high-caste, prosperous and well educated leaders who guided the party in the past have been replaced by a less educated, status-hungry class of shopkeepers and minor clerks. Their drive for position and prestige has often led to bitter struggles for control of the local Congress Party organization, and especially for the position of local party president; for it is he, with the district collector and other high officials and respected citizens, who welcomes visiting ministers from the state and central government to the city. In the eyes of a lower middle- class politician, the post is a coveted one and it is no wonder that the struggle for this office has shattered many urban Congress Party organizations. Though many other factors have contributed, it is not surprising that the Congress Party has lost municipal elections in many cities in recent years, including Madras, Delhi, Madurai and Coimbatore. But regardless of who wins, municipal governments are increasingly falling under the control of men of lower social status.

In the rural areas, however, power is still in the hands of large landowners, prosperous rural businessmen and, in general, men of comparatively high social status, caste and education. But even here it is becoming difficult to generalize, for there is a growing struggle by the more populous lower classes to get control of the Congress Party organization and-particularly during the last few years-the newly constituted village and district councils.

In late 1959 two states, Andhra and Rajasthan, inaugurated what is known in India as panchayati raj, or democratic decentralization. Under this program, a three-tiered system of local government was established and is now being extended throughout India. At one level is the village panchayat, an elected council with enlarged powers of central government. At a second level is a samiti usually constituting the heads of village panchayats from an area of about 60,000 people (the number varies from state to state). At the third level there is a zilla parishad or district council made up of the samiti presidents. The area of the samiti coincides with the administrative units of the government-sponsored community development program, which was established during the First Five Year Plan to develop the country's rural areas. And the parishad has as its major responsibility the coördination of all development activities within the entire district, an area encompassing more than a million people. The samiti and the parishad thus constitute units not only of local self-government but also of rural development, with substantial budgets for primary and secondary schools, medical dispensaries, road construction, well digging and agricultural development, including minor irrigation works.

From the very beginning, these organizations of local government have been largely controlled by the high-caste landowners who dominate the countryside. But gradually, the numerically superior lower castes have become more active and in some areas they have gained control of the village panchayats, and even occasionally the samitis. While the spread of political participation may be desirable, it often means that power is taken by those who have had no experience in managing governmental bodies.

We can illustrate the consequences of this development by describing a village near Baroda in an area from which many of India's nationalist leaders (including Sardar Patel, India's first Home Minister) have come. In this region, the landowning patidars are the dominant caste in control of the Congress Party organization, local government bodies, credit institutions and coöperatives. As in most of the villages in this area the baraiyas, a caste of landless laborers and tenants, are the largest single caste. In 1951 a popularly elected panchayat was created and the dominant patidars won. But as a result of a controversy within the panchayat, the patidars resigned, leaving a handful of baraiyas in control. Once in power, they developed enough self-confidence to wish to retain control, and in subsequent elections they were successful.

Under baraiya control, the panchayat has been lenient in collecting taxes from the baraiya community while continuing to make collections from the patidars. When a new water works was established in the village, the panchayat at first refused to provide connections to the homes of patidars. The panchayat also meets infrequently, passes resolutions without discussions and is generally badly run. And within the local coöperative a conflict has developed between the landless baraiyas, eager to use the coöperative to purchase and store food grains at low prices, and the landowning patidars who want the coöperative to invest its limited funds in the purchase of cheap manures.

The growing participation of the baraiyas in the political life of this area can be further illustrated by the role they played in the February elections to the state assembly. In order to oppose the patidars effectively, the baraiyas joined the newly formed Swatantra (Freedom) Party, The result was that Swatantra candidates won in a number of constituencies in which the baraiyas are numerically large.

Elsewhere, the rise of lower castes into the panchayats and samitis is frequently accompanied by favoritism toward a particular community, a marked rise in the inefficiency of local government and an increase in corruption. These side effects of universal adult suffrage, as well as the intensification of class and caste conflict which we have noted, are widely decried by many educated Indians. The crass struggle for office seems to be far from the ideal of British democracy which the Indian intelligentsia holds dear. As a result, many intellectuals wish that they might call a halt to processes which they helped to set in motion. The cry grows for indirect elections, for outlawing political appeals to caste and religion, and for limiting tenure in a public office to a period of no more than ten years. One measure already taken by some states to reduce local conflicts is to award a bounty to villages which elect members of panchayats unanimously.


The application of equalitarian principles to education is also a matter of concern to many Indians. In an effort to improve the economic position of backward communities, state governments have passed legislation reserving a specified proportion of openings in the colleges and universities for particular castes declared by the government to be backward. For these same groups, a percentage-often a large percentage-of government jobs is also set aside. The principle of equality of opportunity, it is held, cannot be applied, because Brahmins and other high castes-by virtue of their head- start in education-would then be in a preferred position in obtaining both admission to college and, thereafter, one of the limited and coveted posts in the Civil Service.

The inevitable consequence of such a quota system, however, has been a marked decrease in standards. Examination marks for college admission and for securing government jobs have been lowered for the backward communities. High-caste leaders now argue, with some force, that the principle of appointment by merit has been almost eliminated. Since so many advantages accrue to a backward caste, there is great pressure on state governments to enlarge the list, and in some states as much as half the population has been declared backward. Many Indians point out that these policies have served to intensify caste loyalties and organization, but not necessarily to equalize the position of individuals, since many high castes have economically backward individuals and many low castes have wealthy families. If the lot of backward peoples is to be improved, it is argued, then the test of economic backwardness should be applied to individuals rather than entire communities.

The conflict between the goals of equalizing the position of individuals in society and of improving or at least maintaining educational standards has become most dramatically apparent with the enormous increase in higher education. State ministers of education have had to choose between mass education and high standards, no matter how much they may have hoped for both. Whereas there were 250,000 students in colleges and universities at the time of independence, the number is now rapidly approaching the million mark in less than 15 years. And since the First Five Year Plan was started in 1951, the number of colleges has been increased from 542 to over 1,000. Some of the older colleges such as St. Stephen's in Delhi, St. Xavier's in Bombay and the Presidency Colleges in Calcutta and Madras are still good- though one can start an argument with any educated Indian by asking whether they are as good as they used to be. But clearly the newer colleges and universities are, with a few notable exceptions, inferior.

The centrally sponsored University Grants Commission has cautioned state governments against precipitous mushrooming of colleges, against increasing admissions without a commensurate increase in teachers, and against hastily switching to more easily understood regional languages when adequate teaching materials are not available. But the political pressures at the state level have been enormous, and the number of students demanding entrance into college is probably still increasing more rapidly than new openings are being made available.


The application of the principle of equality has probably slowed the pace of economic growth in some areas, quickened it in others. In the halls of Parliament and at dinner parties in Delhi, the most acrimonious subject for discussion is the matter of locating industries. The issue became dramatic in 1958, when the central government decided to build a refinery in the state of Bihar to refine the newly discovered oil of Assam. The Assamese launched a militant protest and the Indian Government finally agreed to build the refinery in Assam, and a second one later in Bihar. Two principles were involved. On the one hand, it was obviously desirable to develop industries in the most economic location. On the other, the Planning Commission has committed itself to the principle of giving special attention to the less developed areas of the country in an effort to equalize standards of living. The poorer areas like Assam have clamored for and received a larger share of public investment than they would have obtained if exclusively economic criteria had been applied. Similarly, the government has recently agreed to build a fertilizer plant in every state in India irrespective of economic costs and benefits.

The Third Five Year Plan explicitly states that "balanced development of different parts of the country, extension of the benefits of economic progress to the less developed regions and widespread diffusion of industry are among the major aims of planned development." But the report goes on to admit that "as resources are limited, frequently advantage lies in concentrating them at those points within the economy at which the returns are likely to be favourable." The planners have taken the position that the primary concern should be to increase national income and that "once a minimum in terms of national income and growth in different sectors is reached . . . it becomes possible to provide in many directions for a larger scale of development in the less developed regions." But in practice, the location of many factories within the public sector has been determined more by the persuasiveness of particular ministers in the central government and of chief ministers in the various states than by economic and technical considerations.

In agriculture, too, the political pressure for equalization in development has often been more effective than the arguments of agricultural economists. At the beginning of the First Five Year Plan a community development program was established as the instrument for rural development. Community development blocks were created and assigned agricultural, educational and social welfare officers who collectively were concerned with the all-around development of the villages within their blocks. Those who initially developed the program argued that the quality of the extension officers would be a critical factor in the success of the program, and that therefore the expansion of the program to encompass all of the country's villages should occur slowly. But this note of caution was effectively dismissed by those who argued that in the shortest possible time all villages should enjoy the advantages of the program. Within a brief nine years the program was extended to reach 370,000 villages, and by October 1963 it is expected that all of India's approximately half-million villages will be included in the program. Consequently, the quality of the development officers is understandably not as high as the planners had hoped, nor has the program fulfilled expectations.

In 1960 the Government of India agreed that an alternative method had to be found to increase the country's present rate of agricultural growth. This was estimated to be 17 percent in the first plan, and 16 percent in the second, which meant that over the past decade the growth rate in agriculture amounted to 3.3 percent annually compared to a population rise of about 2.1 percent per year-an increase of some 77,000,000 souls from 1951 to 1961. The Government decided to concentrate its agricultural experts and additional financial and administrative resources in seven selected districts where a combination of soils, availability of water and other resources was likely to bring the maximum increase in productivity. No sooner had the seven districts been selected than intense pressure was applied on the central government by states which had been overlooked. Recently the central government agreed to expand the program to include a district in every state.

While in some respects the application of the concept of equality in the development program has slowed the rate of growth, in other respects it has quickened the country's development. The beneficial effects are seen primarily in the private sector. As a result of the decision by state governments to give priority to the backward classes, many of the best- educated Indians, who used to enter the Civil Service as a matter of course, are now going into private business. Indeed, many social classes have taken to entrepreneurial activities for the first time on a large scale. The general effect of providing special benefits to lower castes has been to increase their self-awareness and arouse their expectations. As these classes increase their local political influence-an inevitable consequence of universal adult suffrage-they have also become more skilled at getting the licenses and permits from the government necessary to open shops, engage in the export-import trade and start small-scale industries. One can point to many communities now in private business which were not previously so engaged, at least at the present scale-the Nadars in Madras, Sikhs in the Punjab, Patidars in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra.


It would be misleading to assume that all policy moves in the direction of greater equality in India. The social, political and economic gulf between those who have land and those who are landless is a vast one. The political equality permitted by "democratic decentralization" has helped to bridge that gap, but the sheer weight of economic inequalities in many areas makes it difficult for the poor to assert their claims. In most states land- reform legislation has been passed, but it is widely agreed that the landlords have evaded much of the legislation imposing ceilings on land by the simple expedient of distributing titles to other members of their family. None the less, two factors are at work which may serve to increase the power of the landless even when they do not obtain land. One is the growth of the powers of local government and the introduction of universal adult suffrage in local elections. And the second is the creation of compulsory primary education which is likely to be nearly universal throughout India by the end of the Third Five Year Plan in 1966.

India is now in the process of changing from a relatively rigid, hierarchical social system to a mass society in which the great psychological, social and economic gulfs between human beings are reduced. To achieve this objective Indians have been forced to make hard choices, for the goal of an equalitarian society often conflicts with other values which Indians cherish. But how committed the leadership is to this goal is indicated by the price which they have often, though uncomfortably, been willing to pay-an increase in particularistic loyalties, a diminution in educational standards and perhaps even a decrease in the rate of economic growth. How hard the doctrine of equality should be pushed and how heavy a price with respect to other values should be paid are obviously issues which each society must weigh for itself.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now