I must begin by telling you that the social and economic differences, which we observe today between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, are not only being intensified, but are also being more and more bitterly felt. Differences in wealth and worldly possessions have existed as far back as one can see, but the contrast was never as great as it is today. Big landlords, whose dues were collected in cash and kind, were in the habit of disbursing them back again among their tenants and dependants. This is still the case with some of those living in remote parts of the country. I remember, some years ago during one of my visits to Lahore, I heard of a big landholder of the Punjab lying ill there. I heard that during his illness he was being visited by hundreds of people from his part of the country. They came to inquire after his health. Every one of these visitors would bring a present for the ailing chief: sheep, a quantity of rice or some home-made sugar. The chief, on his side, had instituted a big kitchen and all these supplies were supplemented and utilized for feeding the string of visitors from the countryside. His illness lasted two or three months. So the arrangement continued during this time.
What I wish to say is that, in spite of differences in wealth, the wealthy were in the habit of using their goods and possessions in a manner which occasioned no resentment. Again, in the past the relation between the master and the servant was on a basis very different from that of today. In well-to-do families servants and dependants were treated as members of the household. Distinctions were no doubt maintained. For instance, a master would not marry his daughter to any of his servants, nor was it considered proper for the master himself to marry a servant girl. Nevertheless, the distance between the master and the servant was not so great, nor was it stressed so much as it is today. The master sat on the floor and his servants and dependants sat freely around him. The mistress and her serving women similarly spent their time freely together. Today the master sits on the chair and the servant must remain in attendance standing in a respectful attitude. However tired he may be, he dare not sit in the presence of the master. Even the new modes of travel serve to maintain and stress distinctions. In the past the master and the servant used to ride together across the country. No doubt the master was better mounted than the servant, but both rode together in companionship. Today while the master travels first or second among his own class, the servant travels among his fellows in the third class. Again, the residences of the rich and the poor today exhibit much more emphatically the difference between their conditions than they did in the past. So long as the principal article of furniture was carpets, however rich the stuff or varied the design, the poor could imitate the rich with cheap varieties of their own. Today furnishing and apartments have assumed a standard and a variety which the poor cannot hope to imitate, however cheaply. In the past a rich man’s carpets could be matched by a poor man with a drugget or even with a cotton print, but today there is so great a variety of sofas, chairs, tables, cushions and curtains that a poor man cannot hope to attempt even a cheap imitation of them. In short, the distinctions between the rich and the poor have become wide and emphatic, and make for sharp contrast, resentment and bitterness.
The spread of knowledge, on the other hand, has made the common man more sensible of these differences and more sensitive to them. In the past, people used to adopt a more resigned attitude towards these matters. The common idea was that all wealth proceeded from God. If one was rich, it was because God had made him rich; and if the other was poor, it was because God had made him poor. This idea no longer holds. It is now felt that the poor are poor because they have been deprived of their share by the rich, and the rich are rich not because God has bestowed riches upon them, but because they have unjustly appropriated to themselves what really belongs to the poor. This change in the point of view has served to add to the resentment between the classes. In the past the poor man, if he was pious, was resigned and content. If he had to pass the time in hunger and privation, he accepted his lot as proceeding from God and praised the Lord accordingly, and if he found good and sufficient food for himself and his family, he praised the Lord for his beneficence. If a poor man was not so pious, even then he resigned himself to his poverty and helplessness and said nothing. Today, the responsibility, which used to be laid at the door of God, is fastened on the shoulders of man. It is felt that the rich oppress the poor, and this feeling adds to the bitterness between class and class.
At one time it was hoped that with progress in every direction, the disparities would disappear, but these hopes have not been realised. The advent of industrialism was viewed with apprehension by both sides. The rich said that the multiplication of machinery would provide large scale employment and ameliorate the lot of the workers. The workers feared that one machine would displace several men, and employment would be reduced. In spite of the increase of employment that has resulted from machinery, the distinction between the rich and the poor has become more emphatic than ever.
It is true that improvement has been effected in some respects here and there as the result of humanitarian effort by good-intentioned statesmen and industrialists, but these are only in the nature of alleviations, not an attack on the problem. The social systems have not been reformed, so the root of the evil remains.
Even today a rich man’s dogs are fed on dainties left over from his table, while a poor man’s children have to go to sleep on empty stomachs. This is no exaggerated contrast. There are hundreds of thousands of parents who have to put their children to sleep unfed. Even if the well-to-do were anxious to remedy this state of affairs, it would not be possible for them to achieve the desired end through individual effort. A rich man, however benevolent, cannot know that in a hut on a far away hill a poor man’s child is dying of starvation? How can the opulent town-dwellers learn the vicissitudes through which the distressed populations of remote areas pass? True, often even the will to help is lacking, but assuming that the wealthier classes are willing and even anxious to help, they would lack the necessary knowledge and the necessary means by which they could banish poverty and distress from the world.
If a rich man feels out of sorts, his physician prescribes expensive patent medicines; and if the patient does not fancy the taste or smell of any of them, the same or another physician is ready to prescribe other equally expensive medicines. A rich man suffering from a common cold may spend on patent medicines what to a poor man may be a fortune. But when a poor woman’s child contracts pneumonia she may beg in vain for a penny to buy the herbs for the brew which a country physician may have prescribed. The distress suffered by a mother’s heart over her child’s illness is the same whether the heart is that of a poor woman or rich, but the affluence of one enables her on the slightest occasion to command all the resources of medicine and pharmacy, and the penury of the other compels her to witness the severest sufferings of her child in abject misery. Does it not often happen all around you that the lives of the poor are put in jeopardy, or even lost, when only very little might have put them out of danger or saved them? The extremes of poverty which you witness all around often reach unendurable limits.
Once a poor woman came to me and took quite a long time to tell me the object of her visit. She said again and again that she had come to me with great hopes and appeared to be much afraid lest she should be disappointed. The more I tried to reassure her the more humbly she proceeded to entreat me. I imagined that she must be in need of money for the wedding of a son or daughter, but when at last I was able to persuade her to tell me what she needed, all she asked for was an eight Annas. I cannot forget the shock I experienced on that occasion. How long had she taken in coming to the point, how humble and hesitant had she been to put forward her demand, and how pitiful was the demand! Not more than eight Annas! It may be that she thought that nobody with means would be prepared to spare even eight Annas for a poor woman. Or, perhaps she imagined there were few who possessed or could spare an eight Anna coin for her. Whatever the reason of her fear and hesitation, it was a terrible extreme of misery which this incident disclosed. If she felt in common with all others of her class that nobody would be prepared to spare even eight Annas to afford relief to a poor woman in distress, then no wonder, the poor hate the rich so bitterly. If the poor, immersed in privation and misery, imagine that nobody has even eight Annas to spare, and the one who has is lucky, what a commentary would that be on the depth to which vast sections of mankind have fallen!