Saturday, 12 April 2008

A Nation of Hypocrites - Ramesh Ramanathan in MINT

I read a news report a few weeks ago of a terrible incident that took place in Delhi: a 12-year old boy whose bicycle was damaged by a car that was part of a wedding reception. When he asked for compensation so that he could repair his cycle, the people in the party took offence, beat him up and burned him to death in a nearby field. The story was buried in the regional pages, and generated hardly any public outcry.

A few days later, there was a story of a 2-year old child who had been trapped in a borewell – a common occurrence across the country. Incidents like these capture the public imagination, and the media obligingly provides a minute-by-minute report of the rescue efforts.

I wondered at these two occurences and reached an uncomfortable conclusion. We Indians are a nation of hypocrites. Our inconsistencies are not always in such stark and horrific terms, but in thousands of other ways, small and big.

Let me begin with a list of my own inconsistencies: I got my MBA from a prestigious American University, whose founder made his money by profiting from India’s colonisation. I fly business class, even though I profess to work on issues concering the urban poor. I guiltily let the water run when I shave because I find the sound of running water comforting – small trickle, but still. I talk about power sharing in the work that I do, but at home, I struggle to share power with my children.

There are more examples, but this isn’t a therapy session. The point is that I don’t want to sound like a sermonising moral high-grounder; I just want to talk frankly about the challenges we have as Indians.

Hypocrisy is a big issue in most societies, but it’s a particularly problematic one in India. We believe that “mamatha” - a mother’s affection - is a sacred emotion, and yet unflinchingly inflict horrors upon our women. We take bribes, and then hope to wash away our sins by thrusting thousands down the slit-eyed hundis of our temples. We speak of compassion, but show little for the household help who toil away in our homes. We study “moral science” in our schools – whoever coined that phrase – and are tested to see if we got the spelling right when we have the essence wrong.

We learn about civics and citizenship, and yet are often asked – and ask ourselves – why we have such a strong sense of family, but such a poor sense of a larger community: how can our homes be so clean, and our streets so littered with garbage? Clearly, I am generalising here - there are thousands of Indians who would justifiably take offense at being called hypocrites, and for good reason. But they are a minority in today’s India.

Every day, in every sphere – business, politics, social work or sports - across the length and breadth of this country, millions of Indians indulge in acts of hypocrisy that collectively add up to an epidemic.

And yet, it seems that there was some noble past, a link between thought and action, where values were cherished. The signs are there: in the sublime music, in our dance forms, in the incredibly sophisticated material about human spirituality, and so on. So how can a country with so much collective wisdom and spirituality be broken in so apparent a fashion?

It feels that we got massively unhinged somewhere along the way. What is left today is only a frustrating graffitti of greatness: each artefact by itself a tantalising glimpse into a life that was, but somehow dismembered, leaving more questions than answers.

We have lost a sense of individual agency in our thoughts and actions. Like children of over-achieving parents, we seem overwhelmed by the legacy of great ideas in our society. It’s almost like we need to exfoliate these oppressive layers of crusted wisdom that have settled upon our consciousness, and discover our own morality for ourselves. To see the relationship between values, thoughts and actions, and agitate over the inconsistencies that we see in ourselves. To acknowledge that words like "honesty" and "caring" and "respect" are most powerful when displayed in action, not recited by rote.

Getting rid of these layers takes an enormous amount of introspection, a ruthless sense of honesty, and the courage to act upon the schisms when we encounter them. These will be painful. But if we had the perspective to consider our actions, and the courage to correct ourselves, we could rekindle the greatness that our society seems to have once had. And maybe rediscover our moral compass, one person at a time.

To know more about Ramesh Ramanathan, click here.

My friend Sapna Karim, works for Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, founded by Mr. Ramesh Ramanathan. Janaagraha is a non-profit institution aimed at improving the quality of public governance by deepening democracy. Launched in December 2001, more than 100,000 citizens have participated in Janaagraha’s activities, and more than 5,000 volunteers have given their time to support the idea.


  1. Cant agree more with Ramesh,people in India are like that,have short memory,the media adds to the fizz by making "hot breaking news",i really felt sad for the kid,what would he be knowing at that age,i really dont know where we are heading for.The basic starting point for people is to come out of their false mask and start questioning things arnd them....

  2. SS: People have started questioning it allright. Its just that they expect the Govt to do it all while they themselves will not lift a finger:-P. Ofcourse there is a minority who try to make a difference but even they get crushed under the Bureaucracy and Red Tape.

  3. and i completely missed the last post ?!! :)

  4. "And maybe rediscover our moral compass, one person at a time."

    Well gotta say its an eye opener, but it does take courage to do all this...

  5. Oh My God Nancy--I didn't read the title--I started reading the post--and then i think "Why is Nancy shaving?" Is he a man or a woman what?!!
    Couldn't stop laughing after that--so sorry.
    But yes I have heard of jaanagraha.I volunteered for an year with an NGO too teaching the underprivileged children--but left after an year because I was disgusted with many things.Now I teach some really poor people near my house.

  6. ISH: ur first comment got deleted in some confusion.
    coming back to the 2nd comment...u must really busy huh:-D.

  7. a lil busy .. job hunting in dubai.. u can imagine.. hope boss doesnt follow my blog:)

  8. ISH: hehee Good Luck on ur job hunting.

  9. Sunshine: Yeah it's not impossible, right. We can start fr home itself. Like if our kids throw choclate wrappers on the street, v make them take it & put it in the trashbin. Power is there within each of us to do something abt it.

    Preethi:LOL, had a good laugh too.
    So far Jaanagraha seems to be holding good. My friend Sapna joined there as a volunteer at first, is now working there fulltime & is one of the very few who gets a salary:-). She keeps enthusing abt her work & I always think tht when i go back i'll definitely get involved.

  10. When I face some harm/inconvenience caused by someone else, the general urge is to get to the root and resolve it. But in today's times, it is so difficult (not impossible) to manage that. For example, when we met with that accident, My idea was to sue those guys. But for that, after filing the FIR, one has to appoint a lawyer and take it to court. For that, one has to take time off from work several times a year to attend court. And if the defendant does not appear in court it keeps getting postponed several times. There are just so many loopholes.

    But like I tell my husband, change starts with each one of us. We have to make the right effort in the right direction.

    Apart from lack of laws and a zillion loopholes in our legal system, we Indians are a lazy lot. There is a lot to be done and just a few of us holding fort....

  11. Bins: U have put it EXACTLY like how it is. This is the main reason why people back off from taking an initiative.

  12. everyone is a paradox here,thanks to indian psyche


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