Living with dignity anywhere depends upon how much freedom we get to do the things that we want to do as long as the doing of them is not illegal. One doesn’t exercise a choice in being born in a country; if at all, sometimes the parents may exercise such a choice. So, if you grow up in the country of your birth, wherein you did not exercise a choice to be born, you expect to live, above all, with dignity. This is despite your not being in majority; by your religion, caste, creed and vocation. I know that James Michener had commented, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.” However, JM’s comment is suited for those who exercise a choice. What if home is country or state of your birth? Where do you go if you reject the ways of your people? Worse, where do you go if people reject your ways? I am not talking about seditious ways chosen by some, eg, Arundhati Roy or Geelani.
I shall give you a few examples of how your dignity (not ego) gets adversely affected simply by living in India.
There are extreme examples of carrying night-soil that was banned only recently in India. Or there was this tradition of Sati – the self (sometimes provoked) immolation of a widow after her husband’s death. Dowry, poverty, being born a girl, having to face injustice or to be wrongly accused, would be some other such extreme examples. This article is not about these. This article is about the dignity of ordinary middle class people living ordinary lives.
My examples starts with my home (whatever that means) state Himachal. The other day a friend from Himachal asked me how is it that we settled in Himachal when we are Sikhs and Punjabi speaking. When I showed surprise he asked me a more direct question, “When did you migrate from Punjab into Himachal?” I told him that I was born and brought up in Himachal and that each one of the Indian states are supposed to be multi-lingual and multi-religious and that an Indian has got a right to settle down anywhere in India. I told him that there is a recent Supreme Court ruling on it. Now, it was his turn to show surprise. Even though well educated, he had never dwelled on this point and had taken it for granted that whilst Hindi speaking people can hope to live with dignity anywhere in the Hindi belt, others necessarily belong to where they are in majority, ie, Punjabis in Punjab, Bengalis in Bengal and so on.
I had read about the travails of a Muslim trying to buy a house in a predominantly Hindu locality in Pune. It was in the papers last year.
I tweeted and wrote a lot about the Navratri festivities in our part of the city. The cacophonic noise of filmy songs had nothing to do with any religious sentiments. At thirty past midnight, one night, I phoned the local police station to complain that with the excessive noise we couldn’t sleep. The constable on duty told me, “Nahin, Navratri mein nahin sone ka.” (No, Navratri is not meant for sleeping). Even though he did not say it, since the majority of people was involved, it was taken for granted that everybody must share the sheer joy of those festivities, even though outside legal limits. However, in the same breath an indoor ‘midnight mass‘ on Christmas eve had to finish by 2215 hours to keep us free from “excessive noise” caused by ‘Silent night, holy night’.
A time has come in India when one has to be apologetic about belonging to any community, caste, creed, and culture other than the majority’s. At many places it can be dangerous too. The Wikileaks revelation about Rahul Gandhi telling the US Ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer, that Hindu radicalism is a greater threat to India than Muslim fundamentalism was certainly well off the mark, at the verge of being anti-national (considering the damage to Indian societal fabric being done by such organisations as LeT and SIMI), and in poor taste. But, we must take notice of the fact that a potential PM candidate thought of voicing it. Do we still maintain that we give equal opportunity to other communities, castes, creeds, cultures in ordinary things that they can do? When I voiced it on Twitter the argument given was that we had a Muslim President, services Chief, Sikh PM and so on. I maintain, as I did above that this article is about the dignity of ordinary middle class people to live ordinary lives. I am not talking about extreme and isolated examples.
Here is another example. Poor driving habits kill more people in India in a year than in all the wars India fought with its neighbours. However, when the majority believes in jumping lanes, red lights, drives on the wrong side of a road with median, edges you out of the lane, honks relentlessly in case you have stopped to let a woman or old man to cross; try doing the right thing, see where it lands you? You will be a like a foreigner in your own place. Talking about foreigner, you can see Indians driving abroad; but, have you ever seen a foreigner in India driving in, say, Mumbai?
In case by lack of road signs or wrong road signs (they are aplenty) or because you are edged out by a lorry and you land up in the wrong, you have to face the traffic cop whose only assistance to you is to make you rid of some of your money. Indian police makes you feel like criminals even if you have stopped to ask for directions or gone to the Police Station to lodge a complaint. Try to do any of these things with dignity. Indeed, all so called public servants in India make you feel as undignified as possible for your error of judgment in having approached them for any help.
Now, if you belong to a niche group like Indian Armed Forces, who are largely disciplined, secular and upright; all attempts would be made to bring you down to the level of the majority for any small or big aberration or perceived aberration. At a bus stop in my native place I gently told a man, who spat out paan, that he could have done it in a trash can. He gave me a thorough once over and the conversation with him went like this:
He: Aap afsar ho? (Are you an officer?)
I replied in the affirmative.
He: Afsar ho to kuchh bhi kar sakte ho? (because of being officer can you do anything?)
I did not like the sudden unexpected turn he gave to the subject. However, he proceeded without paying heed to any interrupttion from me.
He: Afsar ho to hamare ghar aa ke hamari bahu betiyon ko bhi kuchh bhi kar sakte ho? (By being an officer can you force yourself into my home and do things to our women at home)
I tried to protest at the unfairness of it. But, by that time a sizeable crowd had formed and they asked him what had happened.
He: Pata nahin ji kya zamana aa gaya hai? Mujhe keh raha hai ke main afsar hun aur kuchh bhi kar sakta hun. (I don’t know what world we have landed in? He is telling me that he is an officer and can do anything)
At this another equally wise person remarked: Pehle Angrez afsar the, ab yeh aa gaye hain. (At one time we were under the British officers; and now we have these).
At this the wisest in the crowd remarked disdainfully, “Chhodo ji, mujhe to fauji lagta hai. Bechare ko civil tareekon ka pata nahin hai”. (Let it be. He appears to be a military man. Poor man doesn’t know the ways of the civilians)
Having said that, they “forgave me” for my effrontery in asking a man not to spit out paan in public. Phew.
In case this incident has to take place now, post Adarsh housing scam involving some senior officers from the armed forces amongst bureacrats and politicians, I can foresee the ultimate jeering, “Jao jao, jyaada adarsh mat bano“. (Go, don’t try to become adarsh (ideal in literal meaning but actually with an eye on the Adarsh scam)
Try to, with dignity, become adarsh when you board a bus, or train. You will be left at the station long after the bus or train has departed.
I am reminded of this scene from a Shyam Benegal movie in which a village teacher has his wife abducted and raped by the village goondas. He goes from one government office to the other asking for justice. Finally, he realises, with frustration, that the process of asking for his and his wife’s dignity to be restored is even more undignified.
If you are an Indian, you are used to such indignities as can rape your feelings and emotions, liberties and honour on an everyday basis. From the indignity of a woman being molested in public to your driving a car through extreme pot holes, filth, chaos, indiscipline, you are always under stress; more so, if you are law abiding citizen. Try standing overnight in a queue to obtain train reservation and face the indignity of knowing that your neighbour has managed better seats than you by paying underhand and getting the tickets delivered to him at home.
Adarsh, my foot. Indian society is as far from being adarsh as can be.
Have you ever been to an Indian court? I have been several times for a case involving our neighbours who have encroached upon my mother’s land. Eventually, you may win the case after decades. But, you have to decide whether you can go through the extreme indignity of dealing with lawyers, police, court clerks, officials, judges etc. Your only fault is that someone encroached on your land and now you are an equal contender in the case as the other party! A similar experience awaits you in case you are walking on an exclusive pedestrian foot-path and a vehicle knocks you off and you approach police or the courts for justice.
Here is what Rabinder Nath Tagore wrote in 1910:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Let us pause and reflect on how far we in India have come from these ideals.
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