Living in a state of fear

Published : Aug 29, 2003 00:00 IST

The Labouring Poor in India: Patterns of Exploitation, Subordination and Exclusion by Jan Breman; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003; pages xi + 351, price Rs.595.

JAN BREMAN has had a distinguished career in anthropology. He has studied the lives of poor and oppressed groups in Gujarat for 40 years. This enables him to comment on socio-political conditions in the State from a perspective that few other social scientists can match. Given the horrific events in Gujarat in early 2002, when thousands of innocent Muslims were terrorised and butchered in pogroms encouraged by the state, analysts studying that State have an urgent responsibility to help us understand how these brutal events came about.

While this is not the sole focus of this collection of essays, The Labouring Poor in India: Patterns of Exploitation, Subordination and Exclusion, it does shed much light on the events of 2002, while also, implicitly, providing an agenda for further research. It is thus a very timely book and deserves to be widely read. I emphasise this because the book is not an easy read, given that the essays span a 20-year period (1982-2002) and are of varying interest. This format also entails considerable repetition in some essays, where key issues re-emerge. Judicious editing would have helped here. Several syntactical and typographical errors remain uncorrected.

Despite all this, The Labouring Poor in India is a remarkably interesting book and well worth reading. Breman's central focus is on the working poor at the bottom of Gujarat's society. In the introduction, he challenges Immanuel Wallerstein's thesis (2000) "that world capitalism is in an acute and even terminal state of crisis" and that the poorest workers at the bottom of national economies "have at last... finally managed to strengthen their bargaining position vis-vis capital and exert upward pressure on wage levels" (Breman: 6). Breman dismisses this claim, drawing on evidence from his own four-decades-long research on the informal sector in Gujarat. He notes that in South Asia "states are both unable and unwilling to appropriate a reasonable portion of the value added to capital in the process of production... Consequently, no social safety nets are introduced to help minimise the vulnerability of poor people while expenditure on public housing, education and health care is much lower than what is minimally required" (page 8).

Breman (like Barbara Harriss-White in her recent book1) draws attention to the huge impact of the black economy (page 9). In the introduction, he asks a central question: "Are prosperity and democracy for a minority of the world population really compatible in the long term with the exclusion from these `goods' of the larger part of mankind, condemned to live in dire poverty and subordination?" (page 10). This question has close relevance to India's class divisions too. Breman points out that the global trend towards the informalisation of all employment and the "non-implementation or even dismantling of statutory labour rights" illustrate fundamental changes in notions of what `development' means (page 12). He concludes his Introduction by noting that, in a world where the gap between the rich and the poor is not narrowing but steadily increasing, not only are the poor increasingly treated as if they are merely troublesome burdens on society, but in countries like India they are also very susceptible to political use as pawns and mercenaries in "the communal hate politics instigated from above" (page 13).

Breman argues that the incitement of the poorer classes to communal violence needs to be recognised for the smoke-screen tactic that it is, a deliberate tactic used by those in power as part of their hidden class warfare. This hidden `class war' that has been waged on India's poor has become much more open in recent years, he argues, because it now receives legitimation from the neo-liberal credo of the World Bank and the international financial institutions, which argue that notions of the state's responsibility for the welfare of its impoverished citizens must be rejected. Thus, today in India, and in particular in Gujarat, "the fight against poverty seems to have been transformed into a fight against the poor", who are now viewed as "an excessive burden that cannot be included now or in the future, in the economy and society" (page 13).

The central themes of the book come together in Breman's impassioned concluding paragraph in Chapter 7, where he writes: "I have endeavoured to demonstrate the untenable and unjust nature of current economic policies in the case of the majority of people living and working in Ahmedabad. Persistence with the doctrine of neo-liberalism, with its almost social Darwinist mindset, will lead to further widening of the gap between rich and poor... Gujarat could be understood as an experiment for trying out what will happen to state and society under a policy regime which does not attempt to harness the most brutal consequences of a market-led mode of capitalist production. The total eclipse of the kind of Gandhian values which, for the better part of the last century, were so important in the promotion of a public image both within and outside the country, has also led to the shrinking of the social space needed for humanising economic growth. The disappearance of a climate leaning towards social democracy and tolerance has been accompanied by an increase of communal hate politics" (pages 246-7).

Since the themes of the 11 essay-chapters vary, it is useful to briefly review them. Chapter 1 deals with intra-rural labour circulation and the landless Halpati tribal caste in the context of sugarcane cultivation. Breman notes that sugarcane "is cut by an army of around 100,000 workers", all of whom are migrant labour, owing to "the outright refusal of co-operative factories [owned by wealthy higher caste farmers] to rely on local labour" (page 35). This is part of the punishment they mete out to the Halpatis, who now are no longer their bonded labour. But for the Halpatis their `emancipation' is almost meaningless, because "for many the daily misery has become even greater because they no longer have the basic security on which they could formerly depend. Their newly gained freedom [therefore] ... means little more than that they have the freedom to starve" (page 35).

This is a crucial issue because it implicitly calls into question the very meaning of `freedom', `rights' and `democracy' in India today. As Breman notes elsewhere in this book, all the large promises of social justice and genuine democracy made to the poor during the struggle for Independence, have been belied by the deeds of India's ruling classes. The pauperisation of many `resettled' tribal communities in Gujarat, which have been "robbed... of their land" in order to facilitate irrigation projects, "results directly from the type of development policy adopted by the state" (page 37). This is an important theme of the book: the state consistently sides with rich farmers and therefore virtually never supports landless labour in its struggles with employers. Thus the state's rhetoric, which insists that "social harmony" exists, hides "an essential unwillingness to introduce any change into the extreme inequalities between the rich and poor" in Gujarat (page 46).

Chapter 2 is a gripping account of how a young, landless, Halpati man was tortured and beaten to death at the hands of the village elite in 1994. Breman observes that such beatings were designed to intimidate and silence agricultural labourers. He argues that when political parties quickly stepped in, ostensibly to defend the local labourers, they were in fact solely interested in gaining electoral advantage by blaming their opponents for defending those guilty of the murder.

Chapter 3 is the intriguing story of a young Halpati man who gained sufficient education to get a `reserved' public sector bank job. But, Breman argues, despite `reservations' in higher education and government jobs, caste discrimination is still very active and as poisonous as ever, ensuring that "Scheduled Tribe" individuals, such as the protagonist, who climb up the class ladder remain extremely isolated socially. He reminds us of the "explosion of violence" from the upper castes, in the anti-reservation protests in Gujarat in 1981 and 1985 and comments that "[t]his not only brought to an end the sustained dominance of the Congress party in Gujarat, but seemed to herald a decline in institutional efforts to create extra opportunities for people seeking escape from economic deprivation and social discrimination" (page 113).

Chapter 4 is an excursion to Kolkata, where Breman considers the position of the city's rickshaw-pullers. This essay is impressionistic and lacks the depth of the essays on Gujarat. Chapter 5 reviews the World Bank's "World Development Report" (WDR) of 1995. This WDR was entitled "Workers in an Integrating World". Breman's review is a hard-hitting polemic against the World Bank's labour policies, highlighting the neo-liberal ideology that underpins the report. He has written for several years about the ways in which jobbers and middle-men ruthlessly exploit migrant labour in the informal sector. He is therefore able to highlight the absurdity of the World Bank's characterisation of these, in his terms, "ruthless operators" as, instead, admirable agents who "contract with farmers, act as employment agencies, and contribute to the flow of information across labour markets" (WDR 1995:26, quoted in Breman, page 174).

Chapter 6 critiques Hernando de Soto's ideas on development and concludes on the following note: "de Soto's analysis has a one-sided bias in favour of capital and entirely ignores labour as a factor of production... [it] boils down to the formalisation of the factor capital in such a way that the trend towards the informalisation of labour relations can continue unabated" (pages 218-9). These three chapters (Chapters 4 to 6) constitute the weakest section of the book, possibly because they contain the least discussion of Breman's own ethnographic findings.

WITH Chapter 7 - perhaps the best essay in the book - we return to analysis based on first-hand fieldwork, focussed on Ahmedabad's ex-mill workers. This interesting essay has valuable insights to offer on what happens when 85,000 mill workers lose their secure formal sector jobs and are thrown into an insecure existence where they and their families have to work in exploitative, poorly paid informal sector jobs. Breman argues that the great hardships of this new poverty result in some of them being tempted into high-paying illegal activities, as well as into becoming mercenaries who persecute minorities - for example, Muslims - on orders from above. This is hardly surprising "in an economy where more than half of the total money circulation takes place outside the legal-administrative purview" (page 239, emphasis added throughout2). More specifically, in Ahmedabad, "Working on one's own account and at one's own risk may be combined with membership of gangs hired on a regular or incidental basis by landlords and slum bosses to drive out squatters, by politicians to intimidate opponents or to persecute minorities... " (page 239). Breman quotes other research on Ahmedabad as follows "... crime, particularly economic crime, had become a way of life in Ahmedabad" (Spodek 2001: 1632, quoted in Breman: 240). In short, the growing criminalisation of politics emerges as a powerful factor behind the targeting of Gujarat's Muslims in the pogroms of 2002.

The remaining four essays take this discussion further. Breman provides accounts of rural reactions to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992 (Chapter 8) and the shocking pogrom of Muslims that followed in Surat that month (Chapter 9). Based on his own investigations, he suggests an explanation for the surprising fact that the worst atrocities were committed by killers "who came from among the horde of labour migrants who have flocked to Surat" (page 273). He argues that the conditions of work and life for these young male migrant workers are so brutal that they constitute contexts and processes that dehumanise and alienate these young men to such a degree that it becomes easy for them to become violent and bestial killers, when given political carte blanche to go on the rampage (pages 273-277). This is a provocative thesis - but one worth serious consideration, because Breman's account draws our attention to the underlying economic, social and political factors hidden behind these dreadful events.

Chapter 10 describes Breman's visit to Hindu and Muslim slums in Ahmedabad in January 1993. He emphasises that to see the repeated driving away of poor Muslims from their slum neighbourhoods as a form of `religious' harassment is to be hoodwinked, because both his own investigations and those of other researchers (for example, Nandy et al. 1995, quoted in Breman: 299) indicate that "economic and political interests are at stake" here for slumlords and real estate developers (page 299). Thus the supposedly `religious' attacks on Muslims stand revealed as "the continuation of earlier back-stage manipulations involving mafia dons, bureaucrats and local politicians who colluded to whip up the communal frenzy" (page 299). What becomes very clear here is the extent to which the massacres of innocent Muslims in 2002 were a further phase in the steady brutalisation of an entire State, a dreadful symptom of a deeply diseased society and economy. This is worrying, given that the plagues of Gujarat appear to be spreading elsewhere in the country, both in increasingly rapacious capitalist forms of exploitation of labour that are encouraged by the government's neo-liberal stance, in the growing criminalisation of politics in the looming shadow of India's black economy and in the new intolerance towards vulnerable groups, whether they are Dalits, Christians or Muslims.

GIVEN the structural similarity of the positions of Dalits and religious minorities, one of the puzzles and great disappointments of the communal violence in Gujarat has been the apparent co-option of some sections of Dalits by Hindutva politics. Breman refers to "significant Dalit participation" in the post-Ayodhya violence against Muslims in 1992-93 (here he cites Chandra 1993 on Mumbai and Surat, see Breman: 306) and in Chapter 11, the final essay, Breman confirms this again in his investigations conducted in the aftermath of the Gujarat pogroms of 2002. He observes that the pogroms have to be understood in the context of "the well-entrenched nature of the Hindutva movement... in this part of the country, strongly opposed to communal harmony... The mobilisation of low and intermediate castes to participate in the activities of the Sangh Parivar organisations in the last two decades has broadened the base of Hindu fundamentalism as a socio-political force. The price these previously denigrated segments have to pay for their acceptance within the Hindutva fold is their willingness to express antagonism to Muslims as members of the religious minority and, in brutal acts of confrontation, to do the dirty work of `cleansing' on behalf of their high-caste brothers and sisters" (page 322).

But social identity is closely affected by economic position, and Breman emphasises, once again, the fact that "in this still ongoing [economic] crisis, close to 100,000 workers have lost their jobs" (page 322). The closure of the textile mills has been accompanied by the "dramatic... collapse of the social infrastructure that has accompanied it. It is certainly not a coincidence that the orgy of violence that has taken place in Ahmedabad since the end of February 2002 seems to have reached its climax in ex-mill localities populated by the social segments from which a major part of this industrial workforce used to be recruited: subaltern Hindus (mainly Dalits, OBCs and intermediate classes... ) and Muslims" (page 323).

Breman draws attention to the central role of working class solidarity in past decades, when the Majoor Mahajan Sangh (MMS), the mill workers' trade union started by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920, had the unquestioned support of Hindu and Muslim workers alike (page 323). The MMS promoted a number of welfare practices that created meeting points within the mill localities "which facilitated interaction between people of different identities" at "sports clubs, reading rooms, classes for adult education... day nurseries, primary health centres" (page 325). Thus - and this is of central importance - "The `other' was not at a distance but highly visible and touchable as a workmate, a neighbour or a friend with whom close contact was maintained both within and outside the mill. This mesh of social cohesion that transcended the separate niches of caste and religion broke down once the MMS started to fade away" (pages 325-6).

Breman's insight here is of fundamental importance. Such social interaction in intercommunal networks based on political institutions such as trade unions is crucial, argues Varshney in his important recent analysis of communal violence in India, which concludes that such socio-politically based intercommunal solidarity has proved the strongest guarantor of social harmony in India (Varshney 20023). Breman's book thus raises issues of crucial importance to India's political economy, and, in fact, to all our lives. Its great value lies in his insistence that we have to investigate the broader contexts and processes from which events result. Such an understanding is essential because without it we cannot prevent the politically inspired plagues of Gujarat from infecting the economy and society of the entire nation.


1. India Working: Essays on Society and Economy by Barbara Harriss-White; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003 (see review in Frontline, May 9).

2. See Harriss-White's book for important discussion of the subject at the national and Tamil Nadu State levels.

3. Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India by Ashutosh Varshney; Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2002. Indian edition: Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002. The book was reviewed in Economic and Political Weekly, 37:38, 3921-22.

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