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?