Free Press Journal

The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities by Namit Arora- Review


Title: The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities Three Essays Collective 2017
Author: Namit Arora
Pages: 290
Price: Rs 395

“Equality” may be as old as human imagination, says Namit Arora, but what exactly we want is seldom clear: is it of “rights” (civil, fundamental), of results (socio-economic outcomes), or of opportunities (a level playing field)? Constitutionally protected as in India, the first set of rights is subject to socialist, legalistic debates – and erosion, as seen in the right to property; it can also deteriorate to a roadside sense of justice of majoritarian moral policing.

About equality in “results”, Arora observes that “social stability requires the results not to be spread too much”. Equality of opportunity (the third set) is “a good and necessary goal.” The Indian Constitution guarantees equality of opportunity in matters of public employment, prohibiting discrimination on various grounds; it abolished untouchability (raising the “lower” strata), and “titles” (lowering at least the ostentatious part of the “higher” strata) – and provided for “reservations” along with legislation for prevention of atrocities against persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes/Tribes. Reservations continue under every political dispensation, with several groups demanding inclusion among the Scheduled. “Good and necessary” though it is, the level field is yet a distant dream.

In analysing the psychological, social and ideological barriers to the level field, Arora chooses three areas: our psychological disposition to believe in a just world (as in: success comes to those who deserve it); shared social attitudes, beliefs and practices where members implicitly accord equal moral worth and consideration to each other; and the ideology of the dominant class (the dominant class promotes that which perpetuates its own dominance). All three, he says, discourage an egalitarian order.  A delicious discussion follows on each of these “barriers” – laying the foundation for understanding the “forces that help sustain the fiction of deserved successes and rewards, perpetuate inherited privileges, and obstruct equal opportunity for all.”

The book – a compilation of articles published in ‘3 Quarks Daily’ between 2010 and 2016 – is divided into four sections. The first contains reviews of books that highlight the “quiet sense of outrage” among those “who have clawed their way into the urban middle-class through their wits and education, sometimes with the help of reservations,” carrying with them memories of bigotry and abuse; who live in fear of being ‘found out’ and reminded of their ‘proper place’. One would agree with Arora when he says: More Indians ought to read these stories… “and let its hard edges get to work inside them”. There is a review also of an autobiography of a transgender, which Arora concludes with the words: the ‘sickness’ or ‘defect’ is not in their authors, but in those who continue to deny them an equal humanity.

Having thus introduced the reader to some level of truth about segregation in India, Arora gives an overview of the caste system (origins, spread and persistence), followed by an interesting analysis of Indian Democracy, “an unlikely nation,” “notoriously diverse, with identities spanning caste, class, region, custom, language, religion and more.”  Here, Arora tries to “make sense of Indian Democracy’s attempts to combat inequalities of birth especially via reservations.”  We need to stop thinking, he says, of caste-based reservations as a benefit only for dalits, etc.  Reservations benefit the upper castes by making the society they belong to more inclusive, one with greater social trust and cooperation – perhaps an intellectual pleasure not many shares.

He then looks at the various points of criticism against “reservation”: Against the charge that reservations are being hijacked by a handful of castes, he says that it is still better than reaching none; and regarding the charge of “permanent entitlement” he says this is a symptom of upper caste conservatism. He later says that, “Unless a sizable proportion of elites, benumbed by privilege, open their eyes and learn to see both within and without, can there be much hope from relief from our inherited inequalities.” Arora tries to show also that there is no drop in the efficiency in any field where reservations have been in use – interestingly, he has not mentioned the departments of the Government which have been specifically excluded from the reach of reservations.

Arora then dissects inequalities in other areas such as gender violence and patriarchy. Deploring the impression created about Delhi being unsafe for women, he speaks of the unreported rapes within homes and against women from marginalised communities. The final section dwells on Dr B.R. Ambedkar, including Arundhati Roy’s introduction to his classic text: ‘The Annihilation of Caste’. The last essay is based on Perry Anderson’s “The Indian Ideology” (2012) which covers the idea of India from the colonial era to the present.