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Counterpoint: Pity The Poor Drivers

If you are a poor man, struggling to make a living in the big city, worst of all, a driver, expect no respect at all, writes Vir Sanghvi.
None | By Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON APR 23, 2008 11:38 AM IST

If I were a driver, I would take a hockey stick and thrash as many airline pilots as I could get my hands on. Then, if I wasn’t too exhausted, I’d start on India’s politicians and give them a good thrashing too. If you’ve been following the saga of the Kerala MP Abdul Wahab and the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA), then you will understand the context.

Abdul Wahab was supposed to board an Indian Airlines (now called Air India) flight at Kozhikode airport on Tuesday. He arrived at the aircraft late, escorted by the Indian Airlines manager. The aircraft’s pilot began shouting at the manager and complaining about the delay.

Why there was a delay is a matter of some controversy. According to Wahab, he had reached the airport on time, and had waited patiently in the VIP lounge to board. He suggests that Indian Airlines may have taken too long to emplane him. The pilot initially claimed that he had arrived late and expected the aircraft to be held up for him, but this claim has now been tempered.

What happened next, however, is clear. Wahab told the pilot to stop shouting at the Indian Airlines manager and said that he was no more than a ‘glorified driver’.

This was enough to leave India’s pilots frothing at the mouth. Official protests have been lodged with the chairman of Air India/Indian Airlines. The pilots are now threatening to ban Wahab from all flights flown by members of the ICPA.

I have no idea why Wahab boarded late. Nor do I know why the pilot shouted at the hapless Indian Airlines manager. And there’s no doubt that Wahab should have been more restrained in his rhetoric. He had no business calling the pilot a ‘glorified driver’.

But here’s my question: what does it say about India’s pilots that they are so outraged at being compared to drivers, that they want to ban a passenger for daring to make the comparison?

It isn’t as though Wahab used an obscenity; it isn’t as though he questioned the pilot’s parentage; and it isn’t as though he called him an arrogant, overbearing idiot, who kept up the grand Indian tradition of pilots shouting at ground staff who dare not fight back for fear that the pilot will stalk out of the cockpit.

All he said was that the pilot was a driver. And perhaps mindful of the hours of training that go into the creation of a pilot, and the many lakhs that India’s pilots earn every month (packages of Rs 6 lakhs a month are not uncommon), he was careful to add the term ‘glorified’.

That the pilots should regard this as an abuse on par with a maa-behen ki gaali tells us something about their social snobbery. Clearly, they have contempt for humble, poorly-paid drivers who have neither their training nor their massive salaries.

If I was a driver, struggling against the chaotic traffic every day, coping with the vagaries of insensitive employers, and striving to educate my children, I would be enormously offended by the snobbery implicit in the pilots’ stand.

What, I would ask, is so contemptible about me that you treat any comparison to my job as grounds enough to ban a passenger?

I would say the same to Wahab. What did he mean? That the pilot shouldn’t complain about a flight delay because drivers have no rights, deserve to be kept waiting, and should never let sahab know how they feel?

The exchange tells us something about the language of discourse in India. We are still shamelessly class-ist. We regard certain professions as so contemptible that any reference to them is treated as an insult. Nor are we embarrassed about this: the pilots expect us to sympathise with them because somebody dared compare one to a driver.

This snobbery has always been around. When RK Dhawan was India’s second-most powerful man in the early 1980s, it was routine for journalists to refer to Indira Gandhi’s private secretary as a ‘steno’. Dhawan fell into the trap. Instead of saying: “What’s wrong with stenos?”, he said, “I was never a steno, I was a PA when Indira-ji picked me up.”

And ironically enough, even ‘pilot’ was used as a derogatory term by the Opposition to run down Rajiv Gandhi when he was Prime Minister. The suggestion was that a mere pilot was unfit to steer the affairs of state, which, presumably, was best left to the rabble-rousers, fixers and demagogues who constitute India’s political class.

But while class-ist abuse is alive and well, we have done an about-turn — and thank God for that! — on some caste insults. Mahendra Singh Tikait’s agitation collapsed the moment he called Mayawati a chamar. There was widespread recognition that he had gone too far. Tikait apologised and Mayawati won that battle.

On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if we haven’t now gone too far to the other extreme. Don’t get me wrong. I loathe casteism just as much as I despise racism, communalism, class-ism and the rest. But we’ve begun to practise a politically-correct kind of anti-casteism in which it is unacceptable to say anything bad about the backward castes or the Dalits. But they can say what they like about the upper castes — presumably on the grounds that it is not casteism if you abuse Brahmins or other allegedly higher-born Hindus.

Sometimes, this blatant reverse casteism can be amusing. There is a persistent story to the effect that when Jyoti Basu visited Bihar over a decade ago, Lalu Yadav presented him to a rally as the champion of backwards, claiming that he had even named an entire university after Lalu’s caste: Jadavpur University. Jyoti babu managed a tight smile and offered no comment. (For the record, I asked Lalu about the anecdote and he denied its authenticity.)

But sometimes it’s not so amusing. Take Mayawati’s attack on Rahul Gandhi last week. She claimed that after spending the night with a Dalit family and, indeed, whenever he met Dalits, Rahul went back to Delhi for a purification ritual. What’s more, he even had a bath with a ‘special saabun’.

There are many curious things about this story, not the least of which is the obvious question: how does Mayawati know what soap Rahul uses? Does she conceal herself behind the towel rack in his bathroom and peer out suspiciously to investigate toiletry usage when Rahul is showering?

But shorn of the obvious flaw, i.e., it is a complete lie, the story reveals the extent to which reverse casteism is now entirely acceptable in political discourse.

Turn the story around. Supposing a Brahmin leader had told his upper-caste followers that he avoided touching Dalits and that each time he brushed against one, he rushed home to be purified with Ganga jal? How do you suppose we would have reacted? My guess is that the leader would have been finished in Indian politics forever.

So why is it okay for a Dalit to make up podgy little whoppers about a non-Dalit politician? Why has there been no widespread condemnation of this naked casteism?

That’s how wrong political correctness has gone these days.

Oddly enough, the one area where we seem to have got the language of political discourse about right is Hindu-Muslim relations. If you read the authorised accounts of the Ayodhya movement, you will notice that the ghastly Sadhvi Rithambara has been airbrushed out of history. In the 1980s, however, tapes of her venomous anti-Muslim tirades (they had dirty toilet habits etc) were circulated by the Sangh Parivar. Even Narendra Modi was relatively restrained during the last Gujarat campaign. At the election before that, he had endeavoured to link every Indian Muslim with Pakistan. But now, the rhetoric has been moderated.

The same is true of the Muslim community. The sinister Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid has been revealed for the marginal figure he really is. Nobody pays any attention to his tirades about Hindu oppression, and when he tried to enrol Indian Muslims in the battle against America on behalf of the Taliban, Javed Akhtar shut him up by suggesting that he be air-dropped into Kandahar. That way he could help his beloved Mullah Omar, and Indian Muslims would also be rid of him. No significant Muslim politician today would consider making the kinds of attacks on Hindus that Mayawati routinely makes on upper castes.

So that’s the new balance in the Indian political lexicon. If you are a Hindu or a Muslim, your religion will not come up. If you are a Dalit, your status will be treated with respect. If you are an upper caste, then you should expect to be called names by lower castes.

And if you are a poor man, struggling to make a living in the big city — or, worst of all, a driver — expect no respect at all.

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