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India’s Middle Class  

Sanjay Joshi

The category “middle class” can refer to quite different social entities. In the United States, it is often used as a synonym for “ordinary folk.” In the United Kingdom it references an elite with economic and social privileges. In India, “the middle class” acquired its own valence through a history that encompasses colonialism, nationalism, and desire for upward social mobility. At one level the Indian middle class was evidently derivative. Indians who wished to emulate the achievements and standing of the British middle class adopted the category, “middle class” as a self-descriptor. Yet the Indian middle class was hardly a modular replica of a metropolitan “original.” The context of colonialism, indigenous hierarchies, and various local histories shaped the nature of the Indian middle class as much as any colonial model. Composed of people—often salaried professionals—who were reasonably well off but not among India’s richest, being middle class in colonial India was less a direct product of social and economic standing and more the result of endeavors of cultural and political entrepreneurship. These efforts gave the middle class its shape and its aspirations to cultural and political hegemony. The same history, in turn, shaped a variety of discourses about the nature of society, politics, culture, and morality in both colonial and post-independent India. Contradictions were inherent in the constitution of the middle class in colonial India, and continue to be apparent today. These contradictions become even more evident as newer, formerly subaltern social groups, seek to participate in a world created through middle class imaginations of society, culture, politics and economics.