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Prosperity, Dreams and Human CostsS.G. Vombatkere for Salem-News.com
Prosperity, Dreams and Ideals.
(NEW DELHI) - The word prosperity most frequently refers to increase in material wealth. Not so often, it refers in a wider sense to all round development of individuals and society, with justice and social equity being the corner stone.
There is perhaps no society, past or present, in which all sections of people have become prosperous, especially in the latter sense. The fact of human proclivities of material greed and lust have always resulted in some individuals and groups becoming more prosperous and powerful, sometimes vastly more so, than some other individuals and groups. Democracy is a social mechanism meant to reduce the prosperity gap by recognizing the unalienable right of every human being to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as Thomas Jefferson aptly put it in 1776.
Over the centuries, philosophers dreamt of justice, equality and classless societies and prescribed ideals for the societies of their times, and started religions, ideologies and social movements. These philosophies, ideals and codes of behaviour are sourced from dreams or divine revelations.
All of them teach that human beings are created equal; that peace is the way to prosperity; that greed, lust and anger are to be abjured; and that there is more to life than mere material prosperity. Of course, history is replete with examples of these ideals being hijacked by some individuals or a section of society, resulting in a new or different set of injustices and inequalities.
However dreams are not the prerogative of philosophers and religious leaders. Over the ages, ordinary people as well as people suffering under the power of others have had their own dreams for justice, equality and material prosperity.
Perhaps the most fervent prayers, dreams and hopes have been of those who have suffered oppression, attack, imprisonment, rape, humiliation or destitution by acts of people in power in various societies on different continents through the ages.
History also has many noble examples of individuals from better-endowed sections of society who have started movements for justice and equality - in our own country Siddhartha (Gautama Buddha) and Emperor Ashoka millennia ago, and more recently Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, are examples that come to mind immediately. Especially in a world that is only recently being understood to have finite resources, prosperity has a global cost.
In the widest sense, effects such as global warming and depletion of resources such as petroleum and minerals and even fresh water are being viewed with concern as costs, even if actions do not match the concern. Any holistic view of prosperity should therefore consider its social or human costs at least as seriously as its material costs.
The human cost of caste
In the Indian sub-continent, caste divisions of brahmin, kshatriya, vaisya and sudra had a social reason in the distant past and were perhaps a practical system so long as caste was not hereditary. But when vested upper caste interests (for material wealth and power) made caste hereditary, every possible kind of injustice became rampant at all levels of society.
This persists in today’s India. In some parts of India even in the memory of people alive today, sudras were not allowed to let their shadows fall on upper caste people, they were not permitted to wear footwear and their women were not permitted to cover their upper bodies, all on pain of beating even unto death.
Even though the Constitution pointedly denies caste, extant Indian society is still one of the most iniquitous because caste consciousness survives in its majority Hindu population. The rise of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, though centuries apart, were a reaction to the stranglehold of caste. Over the centuries Hindus, mostly from the “lower” castes, have converted to Islam or Christianity or Buddhism for economic or social reasons and even now continue to do so.
An interesting modern aspect of the caste system is the cultural aspect that causes caste distinction to remain within the Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities though in an attenuated form, that gives a definite Indian “flavour” to these religions as practised in India. Today some sections of the majority Hindu community vehemently oppose conversions to Islam, Christianity and Buddhism.
At the same time they do little to remove extant social inequalities such as (practised) untouchability, denial of entry into temples, denial of use of water sources, denial of freedom of association (especially marriage) with “inferior” castes, etc., all of which are motivations for leaving the Hindu fold by conversion, in pursuit of their dreams of prosperity. In today’s India, prosperity is the privilege of the few at the cost of the needs and dreams of the majority who are the socially and economically backward classes regardless of their religion. But this is nothing new; it is merely accentuated by the rapid pace of social change.
The most backward untouchables were called chamar, chandel, etc., but more recently they have been given “respectable” names like harijan, dalit, bahujan, scheduled caste (SC), scheduled tribe (ST), etc. However these new names have made no material difference in their social or economic status. The reservation policy as implemented has not removed persistent caste distinctions particularly in rural areas. On the other hand, in the pursuit of dreams of prosperity in an ambience of non-governance or mis-governance and economic drift, caste distinctions are being perpetuated as people demand reservations based on caste.
There is growing economic polarization of people that is apparent between urban and rural as well as within the urban and rural settings. Prosperity is extremely uneven. Starting with the New Economic Policy of 1991, at one end of the economic spectrum a few thousand young educated people have jobs that provide them individual incomes of over half a lakh of rupees per month, while at the other end are illiterate millions who earn less than a couple of thousands to support entire families. Prosperity basically requires land and labour.
Money being the medium of exchange in today’s economy, it can purchase land and/or labour, and prosperity can be conveniently measured by the money that one possesses or commands. Even today the lands and livelihoods of poor rural and tribal people are being snatched away for infrastructural projects that contribute principally to the prosperity of those who are already relatively prosperous.
It needs to be stated here that possessing money is certainly no crime, but if the method by which money is obtained and the manner in which it is spent or utilized is not in the interest of society at large, then it is sure to cause levels of dissatisfaction to grow as many dreams remain unfulfilled. But sadly the polarization in India is not only economic but also social and worse still, emotional.
Youths from affluent families are by and large unaware of the interdependence of various strata of society and are narrowly focussed socially and culturally. Is it coincidental that most of these youths come from families who are in power in the political-bureaucratic-industrial setup of Central and State Governments, in which the acknowledged main problem is corruption?
Human costs of prosperity across centuries and continents
Let us leave sub-continental India and go to Africa. South Africa (in which, until relatively recently a white minority had ruled over the indigenous black majority for centuries with the vicious practice of apartheid) is where a young barrister named M.K. Gandhi started what became a movement that Nelson Mandela in Africa, Martin Luther King in North America, and others have emulated.
The prosperity of the whites in Africa was achieved starting in the 15th Century through ownership of land by military conquest, scheming politics for business interests, and assumed superiority and right to rule by virtue of colour of skin. This was undisputed by the white people of Europe and North America even though there was dispute and even warfare between them for power on the African continent. The indigenous peoples of Africa became slaves or economically and politically subservient in their own land, and the natural resources and their manual labour contributed to the prosperity of white settlers in Africa and North America and their parent European nations.
The prosperity of USA is closely linked with the events on the European and African continents commencing in the 16th Century. In North America, land was taken over from the indigenous people by European settlers through force of arms, manipulative politics by violation of treaties and outright cheating.
Settlers in North America were first English but later other European people also migrated to the “land of opportunity” and they fought England to get Independence in 1776, but they continued to snatch land from the indigenous people. This process took around two centuries during which the indigenous people along with many species of animals were virtually exterminated, principally the American buffalo in the 1870s.
In the 21st Century, most of the remaining descendants of the indigenous people live in poverty in designated areas called Reservations  and the few surviving herds of buffalo are protected in sanctuaries, while the descendants of the white settlers who “won the West” are feted by the rest of the world as role models of prosperity.
But we have discussed only land and are still to look at the labour component of prosperity that is linked with the slave trade that European nations and later USA conducted for over 200 years. They found that the indigenous peoples were not hardy enough to work as labour on the farms but slaves imported from the West coast of Africa were excellent for the purpose. The English had started profitable plantations of tobacco, sugar and later cotton, and profitability was based on the availability of slave labour.
With the first load of African slaves being brought by a Dutch ship in 1619 to the English colony of Virginia, there began an import of African people who were treated as property to be bought and sold for use as a work force on the farms established on lands taken from the indigenous peoples of North America. This import of human beings was established as regular slave trade in which England, and after 1776 the USA, had the biggest hand and profited the most. Men, women and children were shanghaied or tricked into entering the slave ships and were beaten and crowded into the holds and transported across the Atlantic Ocean never to see their homes again, many arriving dead.
In the mid-19th Century the slave population in USA was more than 4 million. According to Congressional records, a total of about 50 million African people were taken to North America as slaves during the course of over two hundred years; the actual figure is likely to be much more. Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Declaration of Independence in 1776 that "all men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
At that time these ideals (later coming to be known as the American Dream) applied only to white men, for in those days black people were not even counted as human beings and their dreams of freedom from bondage, flogging and hard labour did not count. The prosperity of the USA stems from the rape of the societies of two continents, with white settlers taking control of the land of North America and the death of the dreams of millions of African slaves.
Sex, Skin colour and Rights
In spite of Jefferson’s Declaration of 1776, women in USA had an unequal position in society with respect to men. They agitated for voting rights starting in the 1820s but won them only in 1920, while black and coloured people won voting rights only in 1965 under the Gandhi-inspired leadership of Martin Luther King. The status of black women in 20th Century USA can be imagined when even white women had no voting rights. In 21th Century’s Independent India, being a widowed dalit woman is perhaps a fate one should not wish even for one’s enemy.
African slaves were bought and sold in USA and could trace no ancestry beyond a bill of sale; their languages died out and they spoke only English; they were made Christians but were taught that they were inferior and God wanted them to work for their white owners; they had no individual identity since they took the surnames of their white owners and their names changed with their owners; and their culture vanished as men, women and children were sold as individuals and families were broken.
They were mere property having no rights whatever, flogged for the pettiest of causes, sometimes to death, treated worse than farm animals and referred to as Niggers (usually prefixed by expletives) or Negroes, terms that referred to the colour of their skin. In the 20th Century, the words were seen to be humiliating and they were renamed blacks; the latest politically correct name for these descendants of slaves is “African Americans”.
After Marco Polo’s reports of the fabulous wealth of India and China, prosperous European traders sought a sea trade route to India in place of the overland route. In the 15th Century, North America was “discovered” but mistaken for India and the natives were thought to be Indians. When the error was discovered, Europeans called them Red Indians or Redskins because of the colour of their skin, but now they are called “Native Americans”. These people too, like the slaves, have lost their language, their culture and their original identity. Well into the 1950s Hollywood “cowboy” movies and comics that glorified the intrepid white pioneers’ Westward advance in USA, decimating the redskin savages, were available in India.
Just as changing the name for untouchables and tribals in India has not made a difference in their social status, so also in USA the names by which the descendants of North American tribes or African slaves are referred to have not made material difference.
Untouchability was made illegal when India became a Republic in 1950 but the practice is not yet dead; in USA slaves were only technically free in 1865 with the passing of the 13th Constitutional Amendment. The SCs in Independent India have voting rights where they had no rights at all earlier, and so also the descendants of people of two continents in USA. But in India, over 54 years after Independence, bonded labour still exists, and SCs cannot worship in all temples nor draw water from wells used by “upper” castes.
Likewise today, even 226 years after Jefferson’s Declaration, in many places in USA non-white people are still second-class citizens in real life. Some SCs have reached the upper echelons of Government in India and so have some non-white Americans in very recent times. SCs are to the upper castes in India almost precisely what coloured people are to the whites in USA. The origin of democracy is the ancient Greek states, but these States had slaves who had no rights because they were captured in wars. Both India and USA are democracies, one said to be the most populous and the other the oldest existing but, despite the statute books, both still only have islands of prosperity or affluence in oceans of deprivation and virtual if not actual slavery; the less said of broken or unfulfilled dreams, the better.
In the 1890s the United States followed the lead of northern European nations in asserting a duty to "civilize" the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America , who, it is important to note, do not have white skin. In the 19th Century USA also captured California, Texas and New Mexico on the mainland (Mexican War 1846-48), and Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam from the Spanish, and Hawaii in an unrelated action , all for material resources for their own prosperity. In 1898 USA took over the Philippines from Spanish rule by military force and ran it as a colony without statehood because “little brown or yellow Filipinos were inferior to big white Americans”, and so did not deserve statehood  .
Here the colour of the people was brown or yellow. Philippines was “granted” independence only in 1946. The US Congress enacted immigration limits in 1921 and tightened them further in 1924 and 1929. These restrictions favoured immigrants from Anglo-Saxon and Nordic countries  where, please note, people are very fair-skinned. The colour of people’s skin has influenced USA’s internal and external policies in the past and there are many indications that it continues to do so.
Dreams for a Prosperous India
Prosperity has a cost. The remarkable prosperity of USA, arguably the most prosperous nation, has been at considerable cost, and we have seen what a large component of that cost has been. The examples of sub-continental India and the continents of North America, Africa, and Europe spanning thousands of years show that material prosperity on the one hand and justice and equity on the other are different things, and one cannot pre-suppose the other; rather, they frequently are in opposition.
In the modern world, change of laws to enhance justice and equity is resisted by those who are in power and benefit from them, and when laws are changed or new laws enacted, a new power group emerges with different or fresh promises of prosperity. The change of the power structure due to the French Revolution and the American Revolution both in the 18th Century, the Russian Revolution in the 20th Century and the recent collapse of the Soviet Union are typical examples of changes of the beneficiaries of prosperity. India’s long struggle for Independence from British rule culminating in the formation of the Republic of India in 1950 is not different.
The narrow concept of prosperity as increase in material wealth, neglecting natural justice and social equity in an ambience of greed for power and material possessions has made the world what it is today. Prosperity of society as a whole (which includes justice and equity) enhances the quality of life of the individuals in society, whereas prosperity of an individual (material wealth and comfort) raises the standard of living of the individual but does little for the quality of life of society.
The prosperity of society can be seen as the sum of individual prosperity only in the context of justice and equity. The prosperity of individuals has always been and is perhaps necessarily based on dreams; but dreams of individuals for society have to be practical, implementable and for the greater good.
Visions of development and social progress are not practical if they are for a future of plenty but fail to address the immediate and basic needs of millions of people BPL. India’s scientists, engineers and economists, the so-called intelligentsia, appear to have precisely such visions and dreams.
The dream of making India “developed” is noble, but it must be understood that the means are as important if not more so than the end, if the dreams of weaker sections of society for food, water, health, primary education, employment and freedom from fear (of police, goondas, loss of job, etc.) - all of which constitute the quality of life - are not to be dashed on the rocks of hi-tech excellence, environmental degradation or consumer greed.
Economic pressure through iniquitous WTO trade laws, and veiled or naked threat or actual use of military force by prosperous nations against any country that resists its advances is only the 21st Century manifestation of greed at an international level some examples of which, spanning centuries past, have been discussed above. In the present scheme of things, perhaps the only way out for the developing nations (a term for nations that is perhaps the equivalent of “Nigger” for black-skinned people not so very long ago) to prosper is to understand that the prosperous nations need them for consumer destinations (markets), or natural resources, or dumping grounds for outdated or dangerous technologies and wastes, or testing grounds for armaments, and not vice versa.
Also for poor people in every country to realize that the wealthy need them more than they need the wealthy. While this may appear radical at first sight, it probably steers closer to a solution than following a system that is designed by the globally and locally prosperous to increase their own prosperity regardless of global or local human cost. Socialism is said to have failed (though only prosperous individuals say so) and capitalism admittedly has no ideals beyond crass profit.
Is there a Third Ideology? Rudyard Kipling in his poem “IF” says, “…If you can dream, and not make dreams your master // If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim //… (then) Yours is the World and everything that’s in it…” Good intentions, dreams and visions are necessary for progress, but these must not be allowed to get confused with planning for prosperity that has to be based upon social equity and justice.
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5. Julius Lester, “To Be a Slave”, A Newbury Honor Book, Scholastic Inc., New York, Toronto, London, Auckland, Sydney, 1968. Quoting the Fisk University Collection of Slave Narratives, the Library of Congress, Transcript of Hearings held by the House of Commons on slave trade in 1790-91, and from “The Negro in Virginia”, and large bibliography.
6. Basil Davidson, “The African Slave Trade”, Atlantic-Little, Brown, Boston, 1961.
7. “Evidence on the Slave Trade”, Cincinnati: American Reform Tract and Book Society, 1855.
8. “The Negro in Virginia”, Federal Writer’s Project, New York, Hastings House, 1940.
9. John Hope Franlklin, “From Slavery to Freedom”, 3rd Edition, New York, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1967.
10. Theodore Weld (Ed.), “American Slavery as it Is : Testimony of a thousand Witnesses”. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1839.
11. Charles H. Nochols, “Many Thousand Gone: The Ex-Slaves Account of their Bondage and Freedom”, Lieden, Germany, E.J. Brill, 1963.
________________________________Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere retired as Additional DG (Discipline & Vigilance) from AG's Branch, Army HQ, New Delhi. He is a member of the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) and People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). He may be contacted at: email@example.com
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