Thursday, May 20, 2004

Tom Friedman, Untouchable child typists, and angry commentors

Tom Friedman is getting criticized for his column on the Indian elections. Mostly he rehashes what many others have already said -- not that exciting. The difference is, he includes a sizeable anecdote about a visit to a free boarding school started by a returned NRI named Abraham George. The boarding school is called Shanti Bhavan, and its students are entirely children from extremely poor families. You should read the whole op-ed, but here is the paragraph from Friedman that might be considered contentious:

The Shanti Bhavan school sits on a once-scorpion-infested bluff about an hour's drive — and 10 centuries — from Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley. The students are all "untouchables," the lowest caste in India, who are not supposed to even get near Indians of a higher caste for fear they will pollute the air others breathe. The Shanti Bhavan school, with 160 students, was started by Abraham George, one of those brainy Indians who made it big in high-tech America. He came back to India with a single mission: to start a privately financed boarding school that would take India's most deprived children and prove that if you gave them access to the same technologies and education that have enabled other Indians to thrive in globalization, they could, too.

I visited Mr. George's school in February, and he took me to a classroom where 8-year-old untouchables were learning to use Microsoft Word and Excel. They were having their computer speed-typing lesson, so I challenged the fastest typist to a race. She left me in the dust — to the cheering delight of her classmates.

In my view he plays up caste a little too much, and shows ignorance at moments. In particular, I find his phrasing unfortunate when he says "a classroom where 8-year-old untouchables were learning..." It accepts the word "untouchable" a little too easily. I might have replaced the word there with the word "students," since he has already established the caste background of all of the students in the school.

The Indian commentors in the "forum" attack him pretty harshly for misrepresenting the situation. Here is an example from someone identifying himself as "umichi":

I am an Indian; I grew up in a small city, and belong to the "higher castes". The extremely repressive caste system has existed in India for centuries. But things have changed very rapidly in the last few decades. I grew up with kids belonging to the "lower castes". I was never aware of this fact, and I have not known anyone who was. I would be very surprised to find an educated person belonging to the middle class (economically) practicing such discrimination. And there are 300 million such people in India.

I know that things are very different in villages and rural areas, and a few under-developed states such as Bihar. But, in my opinion, this attitude is not as wide-spread as portrayed in the Western media. It is a situation somewhat similar in its extent to the racist attitude in the US. Its unthinkable to find such a person in the big cities and industrialised states, but one only has to travel a certain distance to before you notice a distinct change in the attitude.

Therefore, it is very upsetting to find a description of the "untouchables" in a column like this, which isn't really about the caste system in India. I agree that it is a serious problem wherever it exists, and must be addressed with the greatest urgency; however, it is unfair to play it up in any remotely relevant discussion of the Indian society.

In other words, caste-ism is dead. "It is a serious problem wherever it exists," but don't talk about it in the western media please. This commentor, in my view, ruins his own argument with inconsistencies and over-reliance on anecdotal evidence.

Another commentor (samsampath) takes issue with Friedman's quoting a woman named Lalita Law:

People, even the poorest, will prefer to go without a bath rather than dirty themselves by using gutter water for bathing. I did credit Friedman with greater intelligence. In this case, he has allowed himself merely to be a spokesman for George who has effectively misused him, knowing that he commands a global audience. Such privilege carries great responsibility; Friedman has betrayed it. He has also brought a bad name to the entire christian missionary group as well.

Do really poor people bathe in gutter water in India? I don't claim to know. Still, I think this commentor is getting stuck on a phrase of Lalita Law's that was simply part of her attempt to explain the level of poverty of the children who are brought into the school. Clearly 'samsampath' is more worried about what he feels is Abraham George's manipulation of Friedman than anything else. (And the bit about Christian Missionaries simply doesn't make any sense)

The bottom line: Many of my moderate NRI friends find the western obsession with caste in India to be misplaced and outdated. In their minds, the real social divide in India is between rich and poor. Caste divisions (and even religious divisions) should always be considered secondary to the primary consideration of class, which dictates access to education and employment opportunities. In this light, I have a feeling Friedman's piece will bother more than just the people on the forum (I myself am a little unsure, with reservations about his phrasing already noted).

Indeed, the description of the goals of Shanti Bhavan at Abraham George's website makes no reference to caste, just social and economic deprivation. So is the reference to caste in Friedman's piece pandering to a western audience? Is it an oversimplification based on Friedman's ignorance and/or the presumed ignorance of his readers? Or is his reference to caste substantially true, and therefore fully appropriate?


Anonymous said...

NGOs tend to play up the caste/untouchable angle because it feeds into the West's preoccupation with it as something exotic of anthropological interest and obviously revolting. If there are two NGOs I have to choose between to fund, I will prefer the one that claims to work with untouchables.

Of course caste exists. It looms large in fact. The Indian commentators get offended at the use of words like 'untouchable' which are archaic and offensive.

- member of notorious hindu majority

1:43 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

I think there are better alternatives to the word "untouchables," But, I think many Americans wouldn't know them. Friedman is always simplistic in his columns. I linked to this too and said that I had no major objections. The basic message here si that India's reforms should continue. and, that they should benfit more people.

I did think about how it portrayed India in a bit of an Oriental light. But, Friedman also spoke of the techies that have been so important to the world economy also.

I thought maybe it was the length of the columns that forced Friedman to be so simlpe but his books on globalization are just as free of sophistication. In each of his columns, he relies too much on one interview to provide a wide ranging assesment of a culture or society. considering he's being paid an enormous amount of money for a prestigeous column space I find him lazy as a reporter.

But, mostly it's his eternal optimism that tends to harm his narrative. He rarely talks about desperation and hardship without also promoting an idealized Western solution.

1:55 PM  
Anonymous said...

Another thing that offends people when caste is talked up is how it is made to be a Hindu thing. It seems to me that when something positive is to be said about India and Indians, it is credited to India and Indian culture but anything negative gets tagged to Hinduism and Hindus. So, although many sikhs practise casteism, it is reported as a practice carried over from Hindu roots. Likewise for Christians. If you do not believe other religions practise caste, look at any Indian matrimonial site. Caste is also used by missionaries as a tool for conversion. This makes Indians esp Hindus sensitive to the topic when it comes up in the Western media. Everything about India is complex. You cannot say anything without the opposite being true to some degree as well. Never take anything said by an Indian at face value. If I have managed to convey this little bit of wisdom to Diaspora Singh, it will ensure me a place in Hindu Heaven.

-member of notorious majority community

2:40 PM  
Amardeep said...

Another thing that offends people when caste is talked up is how it is made to be a Hindu thing.What you say about caste as practiced within the Sikh and Christian communities is true -- I've seen it here and there.

The other issue -- which I was a little nervous about raising in the original post -- is that of reservations. My own sense is that the SC (Scheduled Caste) reservations made sense historically, while the OBC (Other Backward Caste) ones were less justifiable. Now people complain about the caste reservations endlessly, often arguing that it is government regulations, more than anything else, that keep the idea of caste alive in India. The reservations system is also often seen as corrupt.

If we're acknowledging that caste does indeed 'loom large' in Indian life, what should the role of reservations/affirmative action be? Should the structure remain as is? If not, on the basis of which philosophy should it be reformed? Do the reforms need to be merely qualitative, or structural?

(Of course, politically any reforms that lead to reduction in reservations may be impossible, so maybe this question is just a 'hypothetical')

BREY: Yes, Friedman is infuriatingly optimistic and maddeningly 'flexible'. Indeed, his initial response (in a Houston newspaper) to the elections was one of disappointment... Also interesting that this anecdote about the boarding school in Bangalore didn't find a place in his long series of pieces on outsourcing in the NYT two months ago. There he seemed much more interested in his experiences playing golf in Bangalore than in dirt-poor children.

3:06 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

We could agree all day on this. Friedman makes me so mad because he usually picks an interesting timely topic but never quite gets to the root. I hesitate to say this but I think he's guilty of ivory towerness. He's become spoiled and lost the edge that was there in From Beirut to Jerusalem. Not everythign can be solved by immitating America. Otherwise, America would be paradise.

3:19 PM  
Anonymous said...

It is all in the implementation. In the present form, reservation does more harm than good because it is a sop to those who don't need it. All benefits go to people who have made use of it many times - what they call a creamy layer within the backward community. If they have to make sense you have to combine caste with economics. If you want to give freebies at least make sure they go to someone who is really needy - the most needy within the lower castes, not the least needy within the lower castes.

4:41 PM  
Anonymous said...

Dr. Singh:

Friedman may well have overstated the 'untouchability' of the students in this school. One of the pages at the URL of Shanti Bhavan describes the background of the kids in grades 1 to 3. Briefly, the majority are Hindu (68%) with substantial nos. of Xtns (38.2%) and a sprinkling of Muslims (1.5%). Caste, according to their web-site, is only a property of Hindus! Bracketing the fatuity of that assertion, here's the breakdown for Hindus:

Caste No. of Families (%)
Adi Dravida 10 (14.7)
Boyer 7 (10.3)
Reddy 5 (7.4)
Gownder 4 (5.9)
Naidu 4 (5.9)
Kuruvan 3 (4.4)
Backward Caste 1 (1.5)
Chetty 1 (1.5)
Dhobi 1 (1.5)
Uppar 1 (1.5)
Vanniar 1 (1.5)
Gold Smith 1 (1.5)
Ghola 1 (1.5)

4:45 PM  
Anonymous said...

I posted too quickly. Let me just point out that the Reddys, at least, aren't treated as untouchables in India. So Friedman is clearly mistaken about the school being populated soley by 'untouchables'. Again, I refer to contemporary treatment, not what may or may not be prescribed in some dharmashastras.

Btw, the url for this page is


4:48 PM  
Amardeep said...

Thanks Kumar. I hadn't bothered to research the site so carefully. Adi Dravida is an SC I recognize. But Boyer? Gold smith? I don't know these.

Still, it answers the question of Friedman's accuracy pretty concretely. Perhaps someone should write a short letter of correction to the NYT?

In fact the other information on that page about the background of the students is also quite interesting.
In general, I'm impressed about how transparent the George Foundation is being about the way they are running their school.

4:57 PM  
Anonymous said...

Dr. Singh:

I doubt a letter correcting Friedman's mistake will be received enthusiastically by the NYT. In any case, given their consistent errors about J&K State--an area I know firsthand--I tend to discount their coverage of South Asian issues.

I'd like to take up your query about affirmative action (AA) in India. I think such programs ought to be based on economic criteria alone, so avoiding both the problematic morality and stigma associated w/ current AA programs.

I'll elaborate on my reasoning later.


7:12 PM  
Anonymous said...

In Peter Gran's book, "Beyond Eurocentrism," there is an excellent chapter in which he attacks the idea that "caste" can tell us anything important about Indian history. But I think it is historical accounts of the cast system itself that provide the most interesting critique of how cast is discussed by most Westerners today. The fact is that the cast system was itself much more fluid before the colonial period. The British census fixed people into rigid categories suitable to a modern bureaucracy, but these categories did not reflect the reality of how the system actually functioned.

Kerim Friedman

8:24 AM  
Amardeep said...

Kerim, Thanks for the tip on Gran -- I'll look for it.

BTW, thanks also for your link last week.

1:45 PM  

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