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Many Immigrant Indians Can't Let Feudal Attitudes Go

New America Media, Commentary , Viji Sundaram Posted: Jun 26, 2008

Editors Note: India might be roaring toward becoming an economic giant, but there are some archaic practices, like feudalism, still very much a part of the culture, writes NAM editor Viji Sundaram.

Even as millions of Indians today walk around with cell phones clapped to their ears, and tool around in Toyotas and Hondas, it seems like some things about the country never change. Like feudalism. It would be unthinkable for a servant to call his employer by his first name, or even by his last name for that matter, even if it were prefixed with such a courtesy title as mister, or its Hindi equivalent, sahib. Although employees at many multi-national companies in India are on a first-name basis with their bosses these days, it would be considered insolence if domestic workers address their employers by anything other than sir or madam.

And when Indians migrate to foreign countries, many, even the well-educated ones, never really leave behind the feudal baggage they grew up with even though they might like to think they have.

The New York perfume manufacturing millionaire couple, Mahender and Varsha Sabhnani, convicted late last year of physically harming their two servant maids from Indonesia, are a perfect example of this. They are scheduled to be sentenced today, she to 12 to 15 years in prison, and he to five or six years. Among other things, they were found guilty of cutting the maids with a knife and burning them with boiling water.

There is no way on earth any Indian family in the United States could do what they were accused of, one of their closest Indian American friends is quoted in the New York Times as saying.

Perhaps the friend hadnt heard of the rich Berkeley, Calif., landlord Lakireddy Balireddy, who invoked his feudalistic right and brought young girls from his village in India to the United States to do his bidding. The mother of one of those girls told a U.S.-based reporter who visited the village soon after he was charged in 2000, that she didnt see anything wrong in handing over her 15-year-old daughter to the zamindar (landlord).

Feudalism is a mindset, asserts Hamid Khan, executive director of the Los Angeles-based non-profit South Asian Network, a grassroots, community-based organization dedicated to empowering South Asians in the United States. Its a subtle way of denying people their human rights, even if those rights are protected by law.

According to Karl Marx, the three elements that characterize feudalism are lords, vassals and fiefs. In other words, feudalism is another form of authoritarianism.

That form of feudalism is what allows for the shameful practice of manual scavenging, which was banned in India in 1993, yet continues today. Thousands of people are still paid to clean human waste from private dry toilets that have no flushing mechanism. Some say that it is one way the upper caste generally better heeled and in a position to influence changes maintain the caste system so they can continue to exercise control over the so-called untouchables.

Soon after independence in 1947, India signed a social contract, promising to end feudalism. But like many other social contracts, this one too never saw the light of day.

Many of the social ills in India and feudalism is one of them can only end if people like Sabhnanis friend stop denying that they exist.

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