Neera Chandhoke

India cannot allow more students to sacrifice themselves on the cross of poverty and humiliation.

The tragic death of a young woman studying in one of Delhi’s elite colleges has, and should, catapult apprehensive questions onto the forefront of political and academic agendas.

There is nothing more heartbreaking than an avoidable death. This death need not have occurred if only fellow students and teachers of the young woman had shown some understanding of her predicament.

Suicides do not happen just like that, they are most often than not the product of depression, anxiety and frustration.

Why is it that no one saw the distress of a talented woman who could not participate in the digital age as an equal? Perhaps, she could not have participated. For digitalisation – that is supposed to signify a ‘new India’ – privileges the already advantaged and further dis-privileges the disadvantaged.

The digital divide, in effect, has made the divide between the wealthy and the poor all too obvious.

In January 2020 Oxfam released a study in Davos ahead of the 50th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. The study reported that the richest 1% of the population in India owns more than four times the wealth held by 953 million people who make up the bottom 70% of the population.

“The gap between the rich and the poor cannot be resolved without deliberate inequality-busting policies, and too few governments are committed to these,” said Amitabh Beher the Oxfam India CEO.

Statistics on poverty are not new. Seldom in the history of the publishing industry has so much energy been expended on the theme. A number of analysts from statisticians, to economists, to anthropologists, to practitioners of development studies, relentlessly concentrate on poverty.

But poverty is not only about numbers, it is a relational phenomenon which is socially produced and reproduced. It is a product of capitalist society; an outcome of the overproduction and under-consumption which marks this particular order.

Resultantly the poor are banished to the periphery of the social order. Here, removed from all the advantages that accrue to other citizens, they are reduced to a living that is much below the standards of what a civilised society owes its people.

Society, in short, is complicit in the creation and recreation of poverty. The consequences are heartrending.

One set of consequences motivated a young woman to take her own life. She was exceptionally talented. Regrettably her talent, her skills, her drive could take her only so far and no further.

She could have gone a long way, she could have been one of India’s success stories as a mathematician. She lost out because she lacked the advantages other students of the college possess, like a laptop and a smart phone, let alone the kind of life style available to the affluent.

Reflect on the humiliation she must have suffered when she could not attend online classes, when she could not keep pace with digital India because of circumstances beyond her control. Think how her talent and her hard work were fated to oblivion because of birth into a disadvantaged family, which simply did not have the wherewithal to meet the demands of a commodified educational system.

We are not speaking of poverty in isolation from other social factors, we are speaking of equality and the terrible costs of rampant inequality. Equality has regrettably gone missing from our political discourses and our academic ones. In academia mediocrity reigns and insightful work is shrugged away as elitist.

In politics we are obsessed with the nation and its security. Where are the major debates on what a society owes its members and what members owe each other?  Everyone is too busy counting heads according to religious affiliations, everyone is too preoccupied with a muscular nationalism that has succeeded in obfuscating normative concerns.

Today very few know how many of our own people belong to the category of the very poor, and how many manage to subsist barely above the poverty line. Policy makers are too busy celebrating the entrepreneurial self, the self who will not ask the government for a job but find some form of self-employment, whatever the sort of employment it may be. Jobs are important but the quality of work is equally important. It is only when workers realise the dignity of work that they can relate to others as equals, as possessed of self-respect because others respect them.

No one can achieve self-respect in a society where some persons are poor beyond belief, and others are rich beyond belief. Poverty, and the living of a life much below the level of what society owes its members is comparative as well as relative.

P is poor, we can say, when she does not possess access to those basic resources which enable Q, or S, or M to consume nutritious food, avoid ill health, attend an elite college, take up a well-paid job, own a home, go on holiday and drive her own car. P is not just poor, she is unequal to Q, S, or M, since the latter three, unlike P, have access to certain advantages that P does not.

The disadvantaged are not only denied access to basic requirements that enable them to live a decent life, they are likely to be socially marginalised, humiliated, dismissed, and subjected to intense disrespect in and through the practices of everyday life. To be poor is to be denied the opportunity to participate in social, economic, and academic transactions from a plane of equality. Institutions of higher education are, sadly, not exempt from this malaise.

Can we reflect on poverty without taking on background inequalities in society? And unless we confront these background inequalities directly, will not poverty continue to be produced and reproduced along with the production and reproduction of an unequal social order, indeed as an integral part of this social order?

What is then the role of the university teacher in a highly unequal society?

The question has to be asked because universities are supposed to be crucibles of citizenship, forums in which citizens learn to accept and respect others. I have taught in the university, at the undergraduate and the postgraduate level for long years, and I cannot help but conclude with distress and with regret that we have failed in our duty.

A teacher is not only expected to provide students with information; that they can get on the internet. She is expected to teach students how to make sense of all that data, how to analyse the material available so readily, and how to derive normative principles from social, economic and political life.

She has to impart knowledge, which is of course distinct from information, to paint with broad brush strokes a picture which tells us why inequality is a curse on our society. It diminishes the poor and it diminishes the not so poor. And above all young people have to be told-this is what we owe our fellow citizens, below this we cannot fall.

Revolution is no longer preached in the classroom, not only because it will be treated as treason in our world, but also because we know that revolutions devour their own children. There are, however, other routes to the making of a just social order, routes that might be near- revolutionary because they lead to subversions. One route is to be aware of our prime responsibility- of the need to broaden minds, finely tune imaginations, allow students a glimpse of a life that is lived with all the self-respect we owe others, and to encourage them to reach out to others.

The Scottish moralist Adam Smith called this ‘reaching out’ sympathy.

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it…[Emotion] like all the other original possessions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and the humane…The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society is not altogether without it.”

This is the paragraph Smith authored in his intricately conceived and magnificently crafted The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Smith is known and celebrated for his work on An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The famous sentence from the book – “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” – is the staple of neo-classical economics based on individualistic self-interest.

It legitimises indifference to the fate of others. The arguments in the two books, are so different that it is difficult to believe that they were scripted by the same author. The Germans called the debate on whether emotions on the one hand and self-serving action on the other can be reconciled as the Das Problem Adam Smith.

On second thoughts, Smith’s argument was not all that contradictory, because no society cannot be held together only by self-interested action. We have to relate to people on grounds other than selfish motives. Otherwise society will fall apart.

This is precisely what Smith indicated when he argued that our relationship with others is based on an original passion we call sympathy. The emotion of sympathy for Smith is, and yet is not only what we can term fellow-feeling. I may experience fellow feeling for another person who happens to admire the same poem, or the same picture as I do, insofar as I admire the justness of his admiration.

However, admiring the same picture is not the same as sympathising with the predicament of others or sharing their happiness.

If, writes Smith, “you have either no fellow feeling for the misfortunes I have met with, or none that bears any proportion to the grief which distracts me; or if you have either no indignities at the injuries I have suffered, or none that that bears any proportion to the resentment which transports me, we can no longer converse upon these subjects. We become intolerable to one another. I can neither support your company, or you mine. You are confounded at my violence and passion, and I am enraged at your cold insensibility and want of feeling.”

It is sympathy that establishes warm relationships among people, gives us the ability to grieve for the calamities that befall others, inspires us to resent harm done to another person, and enables us to rejoice at the good fortune of our friends and companions. People who cannot feel sympathy cannot be approved of, they lack the finer feelings that enable sociability and are, therefore, condemned to isolation.

What enables us to sympathise with others? For Smith we are able to do so because we possess imagination.

Through imaginative projections we can switch roles with others, and form some idea of the pain or pleasure felt by them. We can feel the joy of others, experience their sorrow, because we are able to conceive what we ourselves will feel in that situation. But this requires a conscious exercise of imagination. Someone might have to point the way.

We are born into a country therefore, we inhabit a community of fate. Surely the pandemic should have made this explicit. We cannot be secure if our fellow citizens are insecure. We cannot proclaim we are a democracy if our fellow citizens are less than equal. And above all no society can be built on the principles of the market. We have to cultivate the moral sentiment of sympathy. The cultivation of this sentiment has to draw and build upon the robust principle of equality.

Legal norms are just not enough, they are too cold, too formal, too abstract, and even too harsh. It is time for university teachers to encourage young people to walk the path of sympathy that connects them with others. India cannot allow more students to sacrifice themselves on the cross of poverty and humiliation.

Courtesy The Wire