I sometimes wonder if there is really a middle class in India with middle class values of Constitutional correctness, concern and care. I know there are individuals who possess those values, but as a ‘class’ those values seem largely absent today.
By contrast, look at the freedom movement. In 19th century India, there was a small number of rich people and the rest were poor. The introduction of the western education system — especially the teaching of English and teaching in English — and the western legal system gave rise to an educated intermediate class that became the middle class. For the first time, there emerged an intelligentsia of teachers, doctors, lawyers, judges, government servants, military officers, journalists and writers who constituted the core of the middle class.
Barring a handful, most leaders of the Indian National Congress that led the struggle for Independence were from the middle class. Notable names included Naoroji, Gokhale, Lajpat Rai, Tilak, C R Das, Rajendra Prasad, Patel, Azad, Rajagopalachari, Sarojini Naidu, Kelappan and Potti Sriramulu. Dr Tara Chand in his History of the Freedom Movement in India has said: “The credit of spreading national consciousness among the masses of the people, organising national liberation movement and ultimately emancipating the country from foreign rule must go to this class.”
Leading from Front
The people responded to the call of these leaders. Together with the peasants’ struggles and industrial workers’ struggles, the freedom movement became unstoppable. What distinguished the middle class leaders and their followers was their total unselfishness: they asked nothing for themselves, only freedom for the people.
The middle class-led struggle for Independence was passionately concerned about every development in the country. Despite the absence of television and the Internet, news travelled fast. The Champaran Satyagraha, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the Purna Swaraj resolution, the Dandi March, the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, the Quit India movement, and the success of the Netaji Bose-led Indian National Army electrified the masses, thanks to the energy and leadership brought to the freedom movement by the middle class.
That middle class is conspicuously absent today. Nothing seems to stir the middle classes out of their self-imposed isolation. The relentless price rise, the crushing tax burden, the massive unemployment, the tragic internal migration of 2020, the uncounted millions of Covid-related deaths, the excesses of the police and investigating agencies, the flagrant denial of human rights, the hate speeches, the fake news, the systemic exclusion of Muslims and Christians, the egregious Constitutional violations, the oppressive laws, the subversion of institutions, the overturning of electoral mandates, the unspoken border conflict with China — nothing seems to disturb the middle classes.
Let me illustrate with a few recent developments: Mr Nana Patole resigned as the Speaker of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly in February 2021. The rules of the Assembly provided for election of the Speaker by secret ballot; they were changed by the Assembly to allow election by open voting. The Governor — a former Chief Minister of Uttarakhand belonging to the BJP — whose only duty was to fix a date for the election of a new Speaker, stalled the election on the ground that the change of the rule was in dispute before the courts! He stalled the election for 17 months during which the Assembly was functioning without a Speaker! With the help of the BJP, Mr Eknath Shinde toppled the government and became the Chief Minister on June 30. He requested the Governor to fix a date for the election of a new Speaker, the Governor obliged immediately, and a new Speaker was elected in an open vote on July 4. The objections of the Governor to the change of the rule mysteriously vanished! Except for a few proforma editorials, there was no public outrage. Apparently, the people of Maharashtra — especially the educated middle classes — are not concerned at all by the questionable conduct of the Governor or that the office of Speaker was vacant for 17 months or that there is a book called the Constitution of India. Can you imagine such unconcern if the office of Speaker had been kept vacant in the United States or the United Kingdom?
Here is another example. At the 47th meeting of the GST Council (dominated by the BJP), 5 per cent GST was slapped on pre-packed food grain, fish, paneer, honey, jaggery, wheat flour, unfrozen meat/fish, puffed rice, etc.; the rate was increased from 12 per cent to 18 per cent on printing, writing or drawing ink, knives, spoons, forks, paper knives, pencil sharpeners and LED lamps; and 12 per cent tax was imposed on hitherto-exempt hotel accommodation up to Rs 1,000 per day. These levies were slapped when the WPI inflation is 15.88 per cent and the CPI inflation is 7.04 per cent. RWAs, Lions Clubs, mahila groups, chambers of commerce, trade unions, consumer organisations, etc. do not seem to care. I am certain few remember why Mahatma Gandhi started the salt satyagraha.
Reading the newspaper as a morning ritual, glued to Netflix and entertained by IPL cricket, the middle class has voluntarily removed itself from the national discourse. The farmers fought. The aspiring soldier-candidate is fighting. A small number of journalists, lawyers and activists is fighting. I wonder if the middle class realises that the outcome of these battles will determine the future of this country.