In his article, ‘The tragedy of the missing middle’ (The Sunday IE, March 14) former Union minister and senior Congress leader P Chidambaram takes the easy path of castigating the Indian middle class for its alienation and indifference to many of contemporary extra-parliamentary struggles like that of the farmers, plight of migrant labour during the lockdown and the anti-CAA protests. He contrasts the current scenario with that of the days of the nationalist struggle.
Contrary to Chidambaram’s claim, however, despite the presence of the Mahatma during the Non-Cooperation Movement, the middle class were not drawn into the national movement as much as the masses. This was evident from the fact that courts, administration and educational institutions functioned normally during the movement. About 20 years later, during the Quit India Movement, only 60,000 people went to jails. The recruitment process in the army continued despite no conscription because of the possibility of securing a pair of new boots. The limited and passive mobilisation during the nationalist movement is mentioned by the American social scientist Barrington Moore Jr. in his classic Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. It is also noteworthy that Gandhi in his autobiography My Experiments with Truth expresses his surprise at the lack of protest despite the large number of cases of police atrocities in Punjab, a province that provided the largest number of soldiers to the British Army. In his letter to Lord Irwin, before the salt satyagraha (1929) Gandhi pointed out the “unmanliness of Indians” and pleaded that Indians ought to have the right to carry firearms.
In post-Independence India, the middle class remained passive in several landmark movements including the food movement in West Bengal in the late 1950s and 1960s, the anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu, the JP movement against corruption and the imposition of Emergency by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. All these were led by the political class. Students played an active role in the anti-Hindi agitation and in the JP movement. The middle class everywhere, including in India, likes to play safe, as it seeks personal elevation and a lifestyle comparable with the Jones.
The mobilisation of the people against social causes is always initiated by the political and social leadership in which some people from the middle class join. It requires a JP, a Mandela, an Aung San Sui Kyi to lead or an unwinnable war like Vietnam to act as a catalyst for such mobilisation.
Chidambaram ignores the fact that the Congress in post-Independence India did not nourish factors that are required to mobilise people for social causes. Rather it diluted its own lofty ideals to accommodate and perpetuate one family’s oligarchic control. It is easy to blame a small middle class when the actual culprits are the political parties, the ones in Opposition who fail to transmit reasonable demands to the public domain and/or to the decision-making processes. Had these parties been credible, the middle-class support could have consolidated against the government as it did in 1977.
The writer retired as professor of political science, Delhi University