Wednesday, October 19, 2005

An Eminent Dalit Author and Economist

Dr. Narendra Jadhav is on a book tour, promoting the new American edition of his book called Untouchables: My Family’s Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India. I attended his book reading & signing event at the Stanford Bookstore today evening. Dr. Jadhav – a Dalit (a Mahar, a former untouchable) and a first generation learner – has a Ph.D. in economics and currently works as the Principal Advisor and Chief Economist at the Reserve Bank of India. In addition to being such an accomplished economist, he is the author of a truly extraordinary book that describes his family’s journey out of the bottom of the caste system in India. When the father Damu retired from his job, his youngest son Narendra (Dr. Jadhav) persuaded his virtually illiterate father to write down his memoirs. This eventually formed the foundation of a book, which was first published in 1993 in Marathi with the title Aamachaa Baap Aan Amhee, and which has since enjoyed unprecedented success. It has been published – with some additions – in various editions and in many languages. I have read the version called Outcaste – an English version published a couple of years back for the Indian market. Here is a review of that edition. The English version for the American market has just been published and is the reason for the current book tour.

Dr. Jadhav is an eloquent speaker and hearing him speak was a wonderful experience. Unlike typical book readings, he did not actually read from his book. He spoke for about half an hour on how the book came about, gave some background about the caste system and his ideas about it, talked about his views on Gandhi and Ambedkar, and painted a highly optimistic view of the future. After that there was a Q&A session for about half an hour. In the following paragraphs, I list some of the aspects of his talk that I found especially interesting.

I had expected that Dr. Jadhav to be in favor of globalization – economist that he is. However I was surprised at just how vehemently pro-globalization he is. I, of course, share his sentiments completely on this issue. He said that the best thing that has happened to Dalits in India has been globalization. In his opinion globalization has opened up new opportunities for vast numbers of India’s poorest sections. It has also forced companies to be more efficient and thus forced them to judge employees by ability and performance rather than caste or community, which can only benefit Dalits. He reeled off statistics showing how India’s poverty rate has declined significantly, and the economic growth rate has gone up, since the era of economic liberalization started. I have often found that activists who claim to speak for the downtrodden (Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy, Sandeep Pandey, Vandana Shiva, etc.) are of the view that globalization has been an unmitigated disaster for the world’s poor. These anti-globalizers claim that people who have benefited most from globalization in India – people from the educated urban "middle class" (like me) – have done so entirely of the expense of the poor. Of course I don’t agree with that bleak viewpoint, and there are many reasons why I think that view is incorrect. However it was good to hear from Dr. Jadhav, no less a person than the Chief Economist of the Reserve Bank of India, and a Dalit himself, that globalization, far from hurting, is actually helping the poor, at least in India. It seems that he completely rejects the anti-globalization worldview that the modern economic model, which includes the modern paradigm of development along with things like globalization, WTO, multinational corporations, etc., is fundamentally exploitative of the poor. In the anti-globalization worldview this system is so bad that it needs to be rejected in totality (rather than incrementally improved and refined), thereby justifying the strongest protests possible. Dr. Jadhav seems to think that, on the contrary, it is the traditional economic model of village-based economy that is fundamentally exploitative, at least as far as the Dalits in India are concerned, and the modern globalized economy offers them immense possibilities. It may be noted that while the anti-globalization brigade is certainly committed to the poor, none of them actually belong to the Dalit or any other downtrodden community. Much like Gandhiji, the anti-globalizers appear to have a very patronizing attitude towards those whose interests they claim to uphold.

As is to be expected – and as is fully justified – Dr. Jadhav does not seem to have a very high opinion of Gandhiji, at least as far as his dealings with Dalits are concerned. His inspiration of course is Dr. Ambedkar. Dr. Jadhav said that the word he hates more than anything else is “Harijan” – he considers it to be unbearably patronizing. In his view Gandhi never accepted the fundamental bigotry of the caste system, and sometimes even passed it off as “division of labor”. However it was not just a system of division of labor, but also a system of hierarchical division of laborers, a rigid division of people based on birth, with strict limitations on social interaction between them. In Dr. Jadhav’s view Gandhi never truly opposed the caste system. He narrated an interesting anecdote to highlight Gandhi’s prejudice. Once after a meeting with Ambedkar, Gandhi remarked to someone (Mahadev Desai, if I recall correctly) that it was difficult to believe that Dr. Ambedkar was a Dalit as he did not believe that Dalits could be so intelligent (or words to that effect). Dr. Jadhav also pointed out that Dr. Ambedkar and Gandhi had different views on almost everything, for example Gandhi urged people to go live in the villages, while Ambedkar exhorted people to go live in the cities.

As I had expected, Dr. Jadhav expressed strong support for the reservation system of affirmative action in India, while at the same time accepting that some changes are needed to improve it. His argument is that if we start with the assumption that intelligence and ability are distributed randomly in the population, one should expect to see the overall population composition reflected in the various professions, at least in broad terms. If this is not so, it reflects the fundamental unfairness of the system. And reservations are needed to counter this fundamental unfairness of the system. I broadly agree with this. However I do think that reservation quotas should be determined by an independent commision or some other competent body, but not by politicians who tend to carve out quotas for castes based on how many votes that caste can deliver in the upcoming election.

One aspect of Dr. Jadhav that I had not expected, at least to such a degree, was the extreme optimism that he expressed in India’s – and in particular the Dalit community’s – future. He has great faith in the future and in India's democratic system. He pointed out the great strides that Dalits had made in recent years, with Dalits aspiring to excel in all occupations, from art to neurosurgery.

There were a few questions on how the status of Dalits in India compare with the status of African Americans in the U.S. Other than saying – correctly in my view– that the situations were very different, Dr. Jadhav was clearly out of his element on this topic. In any case, he has never claimed to be an expert on this.

There was however one issue on which I did not agree with Dr. Jadhav. He claimed that the caste system was solely – or at least primarily – responsible for India’s backwardness. I believe that the caste system was a symptom of a much larger and much more overarching malaise in Indian society. Had there not been such a malaise, surely the caste system would have withered away much earlier. I do feel that after 1857, Indian society has finally got on the right track. The extent of change that has taken place since 1857 (and which is continuing) is breathtaking, and is cause for much pride as well as optimism.

Dr. Jadhav was interviewed by Michael Krasny on KQED radio. You can listen to the recording here. Two interesting articles on Dr. Jadhav can be found here and here.


Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

I had posted this piece on Sulekha as well. Generated lots of comments. See here.

January 17, 2006 12:15 AM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Dr. Jadhav has recently been chosen to be the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Pune. Congratulations Dr Jadhav! I am sure Pune University will benefit immensely from your leadership.

August 15, 2006 9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a publisher from Chennai and seeking the email id and/or other contact details of Dr Narendra Jhadav. Somebody can help me? Please mail me to

March 10, 2007 3:58 AM  
Blogger tushar sheel said...

this article was really very informative i feel very proud that we are developing very fast also to be a dalit and a buddhist and also proud that I'm not a hindu cuz in hinduism there is no place for reason , social equality and justice as said by The Great Ds.B.R.Ambedkar

June 23, 2012 9:38 AM  

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