The study of inequality in India has to be holistic and take into account the inequities arising from caste, imbalances in distribution of land, power structure and opportunities, says India’s top sociologist Andre Beteille.
“If you are to write about social inequality in a village, you cannot escape caste and other inequities that arise from inequality of land and power,” he said.
The 77-year-old sociologist was at India International Centre Friday to take part in a discussion on his book, “The Andre Beteille Omnibus” , published by Oxford University Press. The omnibus compiles three of his seminal works, “Caste, Class and Power”, “Inequality and Other Essays” and “Equality and Universality”.
The three books in the omnibus are works spanning nearly 40 years, Beteille said. “The first book was written in 1965 and the last one in 2003. That makes it nearly 40 years,” the sociologist said.
The omnibus, however, does not contain two significant aspects of Beteille’s research.”There was a time (in 1968) when I was interested in studying the agrarian social structure. It has not been included in the omnibus. What is also not included is my work on the nature of sociology as an intellectual discipline,” he said.
Recalling his research on the caste system in Tanjore in southern India, Beteille said, “In 1962-1963, I had stumbled upon the significance of social inequality and the changes taking place in a village”.
Beteille said he had to study the changes taking place in all these aspects in order to write about transformation in villages.
“In my work, ‘Caste Old and New’, I wrote about inequality of caste on a wider canvas. The sociological understanding of a society is a collective fieldwork. I decided that my agrarian social structure would have to deal with inequalities between landowners, wage earners, share-croppers and tenants,” he said.
According to Beteille, the idea of equality is made of components that have tensions between them. “There is tension in the equality of opportunity, and we can carry on the argument of equality only up to a certain point.”
Citing an example, Beteille said: “If you look at education in the country and the access to education, I think the criteria of access to education changes as you move from one level to another”.
If universality is a criteria when a parent is seeking admission for a child to elementary school, you can grant it without any consideration, he said. But when it comes to higher education, “can one say that access should be open without consideration of ability, merit and talent?” he said.
“Our contemporary life is permeated by the contradiction between the principles of equality and the price of inequality,” he said.
“This contradiction is particularly marked in India where a constitution with its strong emphasis on equality confronts the most bewildering variety of inequalities in almost every sphere of life,” he said.
In his book, “The Idea of Natural Inequality and Other Essays”, Beteille says, “It is remarkable how greatly the political concept of equality of opportunity has altered from the first half of the 19th century to the second half of the 20th century”.
“At the beginning of the 19th century, it was a radical concept offering the prospect of a new kind of society in which inherited privilege would be replaced by individual achievement. By the time it came to be written into the constitution of India, equality of opportunity as an ideal had become a little too commonplace to be considered radical,” Beteille observed.
He said if he was studying Indian society today, he would recognise the importance of identity politics.”And I have an ingrained antipathy to identity politics,” he said.
Beteille has taught in several institutions of higher learning, including the Delhi University, the Delhi School of Economics, Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Chicago.
Beteille, who was born in Chandannagore in West Bengal and studied in Kolkata, has been honoured with the Padma Bhushan. He is known for his studies of the caste system in south India.
His book, “Caste, Class and Power” first published in 1965 is considered a classic in Indian sociology. Based on his doctoral thesis, the book illustrates the process by which modernity transformed a traditional village with a caste-based social structure to one based more on political parties or panchayats.