The 'untouchable' lightness of reality

Some thoughts about the IHDS survey controversy

The preliminary results of IHDS-II survey on the practice of untouchability have raised another storm in the tea cup. This time, a libertarian economist, who happens to support India's cultural nationalists because of their ideological merits (emphasis: nothing to do with any caste/class preferences), has come up with what she apparently deems as uncomfortable questions from the liberal-leftie-leaning journalist elites, exposing their wicked agenda to malign Hindus. Again, one need to be on guard against any seeping doubt (let us call them doubting Duryodhanas) about such a cross talk having a familiar conspiracy theory flavour. She couldn't be clearer about what she thinks. This is the summary of what she wrote here, in her own words:

Debatable methodology, selective leaks and politically correct conversations around caste combine to reinforce a particular narrative, that Hinduism is irredeemably regressive. Oh, and does concern about hygiene make you a “casteist bigot”?

The context of this article, for those who did not follow, is about the concerns she raised about the survey methodology and by implication, the rather surprising results it came up with, allegedly to show Hindus in bad light. One can read more about the survey results and methodology from a blog post by one of the lead researchers from the team here. Let me quote:

The second questionnaire for the 2011-12 wave, asks a direct question to the respondent ‘Do any members of your household practice untouchability’? seeking a yes or no response. This question is followed by a second question for those who respond negatively to the first, ‘would it be ok for someone from the low caste community to enter your kitchen or use your utensils’?

Assumptions about the elites who apparently spared no mercy in attacking this down to earth non-elite (I wonder whether she even claims to be a subaltern) notwithstanding, let us just pause and look at the issues she raised about the survey methodology:

1. How exactly was “untouchability” translated and how would it be interpreted by the households surveyed?
2. A more sensible question would have asked: “If in the event you allow someone from the upper caste to enter your kitchen and use your utensils, would you also allow someone from a lower caste to do so?”

At the outset let me make it clear that it is not my intention or interest to defend the particular survey team against mistakes they might have committed or the real or fictitious slanderous elites in question. The point I want to convey is the superfluous nature of her objections and not that they might be technically incorrect. More importantly, I want to address her imagined conspiracy to malign Hindus through political correctness.

At a well in Natwargadh, Gujarat. In 29% of the surveyed villages, Dalits were denied access to common wells. Read more here. Image Credits: FRONTLINE

Let us take the first question. Prima facie sensible looking, this indirectly raises another question, that whether a nationwide survey of this scale is done by a bunch of incompetent people who do not understand the complexity of this nation. One has to note that NCAER and University of Maryland has conducted several such previous surveys, the datasets of which are available from the IHDS website. One has to be a cynic of divine scales or an insecure nationalist to make any such assertion about competence of the agency on this topic, if that is what she had in mind.

The doubts raised about translation raises the question whether the word 'untouchability' is alien to the regional vocabulary in India. Given the history of our nation, the struggles from the various mainstream political quarters and the Dalit movements against this practice, it is highly unlikely that the word has to be misunderstood by anyone, unless the person in question is an ABCD of sort. The practices which are directly linked to caste identity can hardly be ever missed by a person from this subcontinent, unless one makes a deliberate attempt to misrepresent or mistranslate them, although people are more likely to deny than accept, to having followed them. One has to be a perfect alien to the country to have misinterpreted “lower caste” and “untouchability”. If she is unaware or has doubts about the power of regional language vocabulary, let me give a few examples:
Sanskritic bases: Hindi- अस्पृश्यता (Aspr̥śyatā), Bengali- অস্পৃশ্যতা (Aspr̥śyatā), Gujarati- અસ્પૃશ્યતા (Aspr̥śyatā)

Dravidian bases: Malayalam –അയിത്തം (Ayiṭām) or തൊട്ടുകൂടായ്‌മ(Tottukuudaima), Tamil -தீண்டாமை (Tīṇṭāmai)

Arabic base: Urdu-اسپرشیتا or اچھوت(Achot- untouchable)
These are available by simple google search which is something for which you do not need an expertise.

The fact that she points to 'translation issues', the lamest of all arguments, does show her own caste privilege and how the real elites like her, and not necessarily she as a person, could easily cover up bigotry with language play. Hygiene and concerns of purity in real India have a clear caste base. It is as much clearly casteist as the practice of segregating women during menstrual period is patriarchy and not a matter of physical hygiene. Her argument which suggests “mistranslation” as a possible reason for over reporting does not even stand in the light of what is revealed through a mere cursory glance at the situation, as evidenced from here, here, here or the latest from here. Or tell us how many do you need to see the elephant in the room? Since the survey results, which if anything, are only likely to have underplayed the prevalence of the practice, are also largely representative of the expected regional variations, her question is at best rhetorical. Or did she really expect a much lower rate of incidence? What is her basis for making such an assumption, if she did indeed expect a lower number of incidences?

Her second argument, I would admit, for all technical reasons, is logically correct. The statement would have been more consistent and up to the point although a bit more tedious had it been framed the way she suggests. The issue is whether that should have biased the sample to any appreciable extend. I would affirmatively put the answer as no. If the second question, which follows the query whether any members of their household practises 'untouchability' to which they have answered 'no', were to be answered as yes, it is sensible to assume that they know what they were referring to- untouchability, as a caste based social practice. If one is to answer 'no' to the follow up question, at the same time is actually non-casteist, it has to be someone who did not understand the context at all or an extremely strange case. Take this example:According to Dinanath Batra School of Social Sciences and their allied Khaps, non-vegetarians are morally depraved. Let us construct a possible survey scenario.

Question 1. Do you think that non-vegetarians are morally, culturally or character-wise depraved?

In the event that the answer of this question happens to be no, there is a follow up question.

Question 2. Would you invite a non-vegetarian to your home for a meal?

If the answer to the follow up is 'no', I would affirmatively put the response as “prejudiced against non-vegetarians”.Of course, technically speaking there could be a case where you would not like to invite any human beings to your home. The survey questionnaire could have been more precise by asking “in the event that you invite a vegetarian to your home for a meal, would you also consider inviting non-vegetarians?”. Also, if the person happens to be such a loner, the chances are that he or she might respond as “I do not invite anyone”. In the scenario of a social survey, that response will invariably be put in the category of either “non-prejudiced” or “unable to determine” (if there happens to be such a section). I do not think that an economist would have missed this much so easily. Therefore, unless they have really goofed up the data or the people who collected the responses were ignorant about the purpose, the probability of a bias because of such technicality has to be very low, if at all any.

According to the survey, Brahmins lead the way with 62% and 39% admitting to the practice, followed, surprisingly, by the OBC groups with 38% and 23%, and trailed by forward castes with 29% and 18% in the rural and urban regions respectively. Sikhs with 23% and Muslims with 18% overall are not surprises either.

I do not believe that what irked an economist to the extent of claiming an 'anti-Hindu' bias is not the technical aspects that she cared to pin point. It is something far more interesting, although quite obvious. Talk about the numbers that the survey came out with. Brahmins lead the way with 62% and 39% admitting to the practice, followed, surprisingly, by the OBC groups with 38% and 23%, and trailed by forward castes with 29% and 18% in the rural and urban regions respectively. Sikhs with 23% and Muslims with 18% overall are not surprises either (I wonder why the rhetoric is anti-Hindu while it does accuse Muslims too). The higher incidence for the Jain population could be a small sampling bias, although food habits and practices play a definite role. These numbers do not shock anybody except people who are still in the denial mode or have hallucinations about Indian society. Untouchability is just one among the caste based discriminations that exist in India. Taboos against inter-marriages, eating together and sharing spaces are so common that real numbers could be so much higher than the survey results. The argument of hygiene that she uses, in the particular Indian context is almost invariably a proxy to a hardened caste practice put in mild language. The real political correctness game is played by people who pretend to deny the existence of rampant caste prejudices, and accuse the surveys which reveal them as rigged or manipulative.

Let us also look at what else the survey points to. The people of West Bengal, Kerala and North-Eastern states practise 'untouchability' to a much lesser extent than the ones from UP, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Bihar. This fact is intuitive if we even check the other indices related to caste discrimination, for instance, inter-caste marriages as found here (with a notable exception of Andhra). So is the correlation with education, although the 'non-admitting but practicing in reality' cases are also expected to be high with higher level of education.

After a series of weak arguments that miserably fail to look at the reality, and constructing a narrative for '2+2 = 22', here comes the conclusion.

It’s far easier to simply label anyone who expresses legitimate concern about how to interpret a poorly designed survey on caste prejudice as a casteist bigot, since this shuts off any possibility of a serious conversation. Further, it reinforces a particular narrative, that Hinduism is irredeemably regressive, which, one presumes, is the real agenda.

Please do not laugh, for madam is serious. One should have expected much more sense than an average crackpot conspiracy theorist from a well published economist. Alas, it was not to be so! I am not surprised given that many (not all) self-proclaimed libertarians find it so easy to justify heinous practices as a matter of choice, without looking at structural coercion, just like slavery was for many of their predecessors, once up on a time. Any religious or political philosophy, Hindu or otherwise, that fail to recognise equal human dignity and practise discrimination to this extent, is regressive. If numbers show a picture, then the honourable course would have been to call for a change, rather than indulging in a silly we-are-not-that-bad kind of justification jugglery.

The fact of the matter is that the results were just too obvious and accusing “shock value” and ascribing a motive for “leaks” is just naive, or in all likelihood ideological. It simply does not shock anyone, not Indians at least. Rupa Subramania is shocked for reasons she knows best. If I have to hazard a guess, it is because there is a mirror which showed her or what she identifies with her, as ugly. And yes, one is free to complain about that.