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.