The “society” of apartments, where I spent most of my life, continues to be one of my standing landmarks in sociological understanding of middle-class. My family moved there when I was around 9, where the neighborhood was (and continues to be) Hindu middle-class middle-caste, with a stronghold of the RSS (the far-right Hindu nationalists according to most political analysts). It has seen a change in the kind of families that moved in and out, with the most remarkable one being our current neighboring family: a family of five members consisting of a married couple, their teenage son (lets call him Ashok) and his aging (paternal) grandparents. The family moved here in 2006. Ashok is the first generation in this family to be born and raised in a city. The mother of Ashok is a woman pretty similar to my mother, arranged-married at a young age, growing in regrets of what could have been done. She finds herself increasingly seeking my mother’s company through the newly introduced Watsapp in the Indian middle class. She decided a couple of years ago to shun the traditional sari for more “urban” attire of kurta (a loose long shirt) and jeans, supported by my mother, to the total despair her mother in-law .
This mother in-law, Ashok’s grandmother is the infamous woman who told my mother that I was too dark and ugly, unlike my mother. She is the one who spied on my activities, on men coming in late night into my apartment, commenting on the shorts I wore or bra-straps I showed, while I spent around 8 months living by myself when my family moved to Kenya. She always has an odd comment to make on my life-choices every time I go back home for summers now. She has, from this invisible and omnipresent consensus of norms, taken upon her to be my moral police.
Ashok’s family to me represents, like my family, what the political analysts called the neo-middle class during the 2014-election commentaries, a rising class of families that are migrating from rural parts to cities, while creating a form of collective nostalgia for the form of “morality” that existed in the villages. One of the examples is that of patriarchy, where men are forced to take over the roles of oppressor as they grow in family status (from being the husband living with father, to becoming the grandfather living with son). Women take on the role of the oppressed when they are married into a family, but they also need to make sure that the woman marrying their son takes on the role of supreme-oppressed. The hierarchy needs to be preserved, and even if you are being oppressed, it won’t stop you from oppressing the one below you in the hierarchy line. And this preservation is trumpeted as the great Morality.
Morality comes from odd places in odd situations. The current female to male ratio in Gujarat is 919 to 1000. Selective abortion of female fetus, one of the reasons for such sad figures, is an expensive act to undertake, mostly because it is illegal in India and the places where you could do it would be a private clinic willing to risk and charge you the risk (its called bribing). And its this “morality” class that is funding these figures. I also just came across a great report on another bit of sad news: the lack of support and funding for fighting AIDS in India in the recent years. It quotes the union health minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan, saying “The thrust of the AIDS campaign should not only be on the use of condoms. This sends the wrong message that you can have any kind of illicit sexual relationship, but as long as you’re using a condom it’s fine.” This moral rhetoric dates from before the coming of the new BJP government in 2014, but today it is only more visible.
What is sad here is that abstinence is taken to be the scientific cure to fighting AIDS. Banning LGBT sexual-act as “not natural” is also portrayed to be scientific. The rhetoric never loses its obsession with looking scientific, while clinging to the abstract morality. I have wondered if bringing in a stronger welfare-state to replace the threat to losing “moral community” – the biggest form of social security today for most Indians – could bring in a change. Do you have other ideas?