Posted by: Vikram | August 20, 2010

Reflections on the three great flaws of Indian society

Jayprakash Narayan (MLA: Kukatpally, AP) recently toured America and spoke to Indian communities in various cities about the contemporary socio-political situation in India and the work of his party, Lok Satta. While the articulate Mr. Narayan made many excellent observations and points during his discussions, one set of statements stood out. He recalled a conversation with a lady social scientist from America who was doing her research at the American Studies Research Center at Osmania University.

She identified three critical flaws in Indian society,

1) Birth as an accepted determinant of status and destiny
2) Very low levels of trust across society
3) The lack of belief in a collective fate

This blog has touched on these themes repeatedly, particularly on the acceptance of birth as a determinant of destiny and the collective failures of Indian society, especially the middle class. Is ‘being blind’ to caste an effective antidote to the first flaw ? Can a unity based on ‘cricket’ and ‘Bollywood’ give rise to the belief in a collective destiny ?

Tocqueville the famed French historian, opens his incomparable ‘Democracy in America‘ with the following words,

Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States. nothing struck me more than the general equality of conditions.

The ‘equality of conditions’ that Tocqueville refers to is not material equality, America was quite unequal materially in 1835 when his monumental work was published. Rather, it reflects the general social equality he found in people’s day to day interactions. Inside their estates, the big landowners might have been lords and aristocrats but outside they were citizens just like anyone else. This ‘equality of conditions’ was wired into the genus of American civilization through the first line of the American Constitution. As such, the very opposite notion is wired into the genus of Indian civilization. And as I have noted earlier, the Indian Constitution has to not only declare a change in this genus but also has to take on the society to uproot inequality, a formidable task.

It would seem that based on the results of the last 60 years, the Indian Constitution is lacking the firepower to neutralize India’s ‘inequality of conditions’. The Indian state’s personnel seem to be indifferent or even hostile to the Constitution’s vision. It is evident that steps need to be taken to enforce people’s control over the personnel of the Indian state and ensure their ideological commitment to the values enshrined in the Constitution. The Right to Information was such a step, and pressure has to be exerted on the government to take more such steps and not just build roads and power plants. The spread of Constitutional values is also important. The document is hardly part of the urban, ‘educated’ Indian’s lexicon. This generation has to work hard to place the Constitution and its values firmly in the natural discourse of India’s middle classes.

I will address the third point before the second. Collective fate. Why can BP not get away with an oil spill in Lousiana like Dow/Union Carbide seems to be doing with Bhopal ? The reason is simple, people in Texas, Seattle and Maine do not treat such national calamities with the indifference that even ‘new Bhopal’ shows towards ‘old Bhopal’. Americans are too fused to let BP get away. Obama knows that California and Nebraska will not forigve him if he lets Louisiana down. But South Mumbai has not cared about the Maharashtra government letting down Dharavi for decades, forget Bhopal !

How can this be overcome ? Today being cynical and not giving a damn are accepted social behaviour as is breaking the law. Waving away Bhopal, breaking the law or being cynical about voting has to be socially unacceptable, not by threats or guilt but by clear indications that this is undesirable, unappreciated and ultimately counter productive to one’s own well being. Just think about how we react to a foreigner speaking his mind about our ‘culture’. The same reaction needs to arise when someone who calls him/herself an Indian waves away the plight of the wretched people of India in his/her indifference and cynicism.

Finally we have the issue of trust. Narayan in the video above notes that in India, trust within the family, clan or caste is almost absolute. While outside of this, there is almost zero trust in any person or institution. Again, the critical role of the state come to the fore. With low trust in most societal institutions due to their legacy of oppression and discrimination, the state should have been a neutral arbiter between Indians of all classes and backgrounds. Instead, our society seems to have eaten up the state and reduced it to being the spoils of an electoral caste war. Middle class folks like me have responded by abandoning all faith in the state and seeking solutions in the corporate world or migrating.

The middle class must understand that Tata and Infosys can make and sell lots of goods and services but they cannot provide justice. ‘Fortune 500’ companies cannot provide relief during natural calamities and they cannot guard borders from terrorists. Reliance can and will make thousands of ads invoking freedom and patriotism but it cannot and will not take on Khap Panchayats. A moral, credible and competent state is an absolutely irreplaceable component of a nation in which people can feel at home and thrive.

Simply put, the three great flaws of Indian society can only be defeated by a state forced to function competently and abide by the Constitution that is the basis of its moral authority. No amount of impotent rage or charity can do that job.

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Responses

  1. You’re spot on about people not caring about the values in our Constitution. Over the past few years I’ve heard many people claim that it’s a “foreign import”, that it’s “just a piece of paper” and that it must “reflect the changing times.”

    But I’ve also met a lot of people who love India’s constitution and the values it seeks to uphold. And all in all, I think these people are winning out.

    India is still a young country. The US is 225 years and only recently did Texas for example decriminalize homosexuality in 2003! Legalized race discrimination was removed only in 1965. Compared to the US, I think India’s doing pretty good.

    We have lots and lots to improve. I think it’ll take another 100-150 years, and so what if it does? It takes a long while to change the attitudes of people, mainly because we need many generations to come and go. We won’t see it happen in our lifetimes, though we will certainly see improvements. And we have seen improvements. Many of them.

    I must be an optimist, cause I always look on the bright side of things. And as long as I’m not fooling myself, that’s a better thing to be than a cynic!

    • @ Bhagwad, I agree with you 100 % 🙂 India is a young nation in an ancient society. And in fact, Narayan points out the video that it took the US an extremely bloody civil war to get where it is in terms of society.

      I am also an optimist, thats part of the motivation behind the blog. The only thing I disagree is the timeline change. I want things to change every day, even if slightly.

  2. good topic
    i have something to share…will get back to you soon on this, after i manage hurtling train of my research ..

  3. I love reading your articles…keep them coming!

    Thanks Abhishek ! Please keep reading and commenting !

  4. […] See more here: Reflections on the three great flaws of Indian society […]

  5. Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan is one of the most promising political activists in India. His Loksatta party has made mild political gains, but it has definitely influenced the political consciousness in Andhra Pradesh. One can only hope it forms the government. But for that to happen, Telugu people have to transcend the rigid caste loyaltiies that define electoral politics here.

    The 3 points mentioned by that sociologists are very interesting. I think they have a lot of merit, and should be pondered about. Thanks for bringing them to my attention. From my perspective, the most interesting is the 3rd one – the lack of belief in a collective fate. Hindu faiths, unlike Abrahamic ones, don’t think of a collective judgement or even a judgement day. I always thought of this to be a logical position to take philosophically. But it may not be very utilitarian with respect to the society at large.

    Your example about Lousiana oil spill vs. Bhopal disaster is fetching. But I don’t know if India today would tolerate a similar disaster in an Indian city – the Indian self-consciousness has become more assertive and aggressive towards foreign interference (compare a similar rise in China). However, towards injustices committed by one Indian against another, more people might easily turn a blind eye.

    How can we fix this ? Mahatma Gandhi drew from the very religious ethos of India to right historical wrongs such as untouchability and the caste system. His disciples at that period (not the politicians, but those who lived with him in his ashram) followed severe fasts & other Gandhian methods to secure the entry of Dalits into temples etc. The story of Potti Sriramulu from Andhra is one example. However, in due course of time, these methods have lost currency in India. Today, a woman might fast for a whole 10 years and still nobody cares about her elsewhere in India – I am talking, of course, about Mrs. Irom Sharmila of Manipur.

    So again, how can we fix this ? We probably need another Gandhi, who can look at the problems with modern eyes, but who can also connect with the Indian tradition and history. It is probably a tall order to ask for, considering we hardly have any leaders worth their salt in India.

    • Thank you vakibs (Kiran) for this comment. Totally agree with you on JP, but I think something you said in the last part of your comment leads me to think that there are limits to what he can achieve. From the speeches and media I have heard, JP is quite professorial, like a sharp surgeon telling the patient whats wrong and proposing a remedy. He doesnt seem to have the ‘fitrat’ for the grand gesture and symbolic statement.

      About the Hindu faiths, there is indeed a very strong sense of morality at a personal level, a deep sense of right and wrong. But the collective consciousness is weak, I dont see a problem with this, if we can simply develop Indianness as a proper collective consciousness.

      One critical point regarding MG’s methods and their effectiveness was that at that point we had a common foe. So his appeal in a certain transcended caste and to a much weaker extent religion. Once the foreigner was gone the underlying divisions surfaced and that contributed to decline of the effectiveness of his methods.

    • On the 3rd point; The hindutva movement started by Savarkar was about the belief in the common fate as a nation.The people who are living in Hindustan, are Hindus. He tried to infuse concept of one common Jati i.e. rastra (Bharat) for all. You can read about it in detain here http://tinyurl.com/nlwrn5y

  6. Important observations of flaws in Indian society. Indian society is religious, but most of the religious beliefs and practices are mere superstitions. I am calling any “blind belief” as superstition. The result: we see a society whose belief in God is rock-solid but it’s still plagued by numerous defects, three crucial of which are listed above. These problems run much deeper that that can be cured by healthy-functioning state alone. All three of above flaws originate from following religion blindly. Each and every individual in indian society must understand what is truth. Truth is what we perceive through our senses. Science makes objective analysis of these observations and so analysis done by science is accepted. Any analysis done by our minds is not acceptable as truth if it does not succeeds this test of objectivity. Once the things are objective (as against subjective), the barriers between minds collapse. When one reads Hindu scriptures with this illuminated outlook, one has to follow the route of Advait philosophy as propagated by Vivekananda. This simple philosophy takes care of above 3 flaws brilliantly:

    1. When everything is one or it’s all absolute manifesting itself in diverse forms, where is the question of putting caste barriers by birth? Hinduism is yelling ,” Please do not label me regressive. I never intended to assign caste of birth. All I talked about is caste by karma (decided by virtue) equivalent to the term profession in modern times.”

    I am not sure if you also meant astrological superstition by “birth decides destiny”…Even if you did not mean it, it is also a very common flaw and it can be readily cured in this interpretation of HInduism which tells(and can be proved) “Man is the maker of his own destiny”

    2. If you wouldn’t trust your Godsent brother-sister, what’s the use of your religion?

    3. When everything is one, concept of collective fate becomes supremely important.

    Again, i went into this religious mode since that is THE most important thing in the life of many Indians. They are very moral personally as JP himself says. THey have to further know that their interpretation of religion needs improvement.

    Islam readily fits into this Advait Vedanta interpretation of Hinduism.

    • Very interesting Chetan. If I understand correctly, a correct (or maybe more modern) interpretation of Hinduism can help rectify the flaws in Indian society. Question is how will Hindus be exposed to this interpretation of Hinduism ?

  7. As my advisor said, May be I should start a sect and have followers….jokes apart, Ramkrishna mission is already spreading teachings and thoughts of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, but that’s clearly not enough, as you can see…..otherwise Gandhi practiced Vivekananda’s teachings all his life. Still we see rioting, all divisions…clearly significant section of society which engages in this, never liked Gandhi and so his thoughts…the main problem here is the identification of truth with Individuals…Kuchh kehte hai, “Gandhi ne kahaan, toh karon, baki Kehte hai, Gandhi ne jo kahaan woh mar karon….so this “subjectivity” that is creeping in our approach to truth is killing the truth there itself. A particular aspect is true (to you) only if you are convinced about it, not because someone else whom you respect tells you. That’s why Vivekananda says, “Be an atheist if you want, but never accept anything without question.”…basically we need to approach everything scientifically since science is the most flawless method to approach truth as recognized within human limitations. I talked to my school teachers back in India about it, why don’t they teach students on science and religion….I have some ideas in which it can be done….currently what is happening is you get biased education about your religion from your family….in School, one can’t do that…all religions will have to be treated equally etc etc…

  8. Did I miss this article! Oh I really did.


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