A National Lament: We Are All Guilty

Decline in moral values is as much to blame as abdication of governance for the crime against women in India.

When Damini, a human being and a woman first — medical student, daughter, sister, friend, someone’s sweetheart, law abiding citizen — not just a Delhi gang- rape victim died on Dec. 29 in Singapore, India’s soul splintered into a billion bits and disappeared to a land beyond shame.

At times like this, it is natural to point fingers and lay blame for the crime to a breakdown of governance. While, I agree that the declining (or would non- existing be more pertinent) standards of political stewardship have significantly contributed to dumping India into an economic, moral, and lawless abyss, it would be a grave error to lay all the blame on just the government’s doorstep.

We are all guilty.

Because deep down this heinous crime is a commentary on who we are as a people. The abysmal lack of sabhyata — civility and basic goodness;  sadbhavna — goodwill to others, and satkar — respect for all, goes beyond a breakdown of governance. It represents the disintegration of the fundamental institutions of a civil society — the quality of its families, the orientation of its citizens’ hearts, and the nature of the gods they worship.

No, I am not exonerating Manmohan Singh and company, or the plethora of institutions that routinely fail to protect women’s most basic rights. I am urging that we go beyond lambasting the government and the police. Let us dig deeper, and take a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror. We may find a few poignant clues that may help secure a more enduring cure to the epidemic confronting us.

The first institution that has failed its contract to the country is the family — the cradle of citizenship. Codes of personal conduct — sabhyata — are indispensable for the smooth functioning of democratic and civil societies. These standards of personal conduct need to be taught, they can’t be produced by mere legislation.

Consequently, even small dysfunctional practices occurring within families, often considered of no concern to the society and State, have the potential of becoming a breeding ground for larger social ills.

In his poem Tempest, the insightful Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran declares, “… show me the face of your mother and I will tell you exactly who you are….”

Damini’s ghastly tragedy — a national soultricide — is an unequivocal warning that the Indian family system is rapidly disintegrating, and if not repaired will continue to spawn dangerously defective human beings like Ram Singh, the main culprit of the beastly crime. These parasites come from all over India — Haryana, Punjab, Bihar, UP, Delhi, AP — and are not the work of the devil, or an evil foreign power brutally antagonistic towards women; they are homegrown, the output of malfunctioning factories called average Indian families.

Children are like wet cement. The impressions imprinted on them at a very young age are surprisingly durable hard wiring them for the rest of their lives. It is time to ask tough questions: “Who’s doing the imprinting? Are the persons primarily responsible for this imprinting- the Parents; present, or have they abdicated? “Why is the average Indian family failing its contract to the country? Is it even aware of its obligation to the country and to society? And if yes, is there a willingness to honor it?

The contract is not just producing children. Mankind and India have known for a long time that children are not plug and play gadgets, nor do they come with elaborate how to raise your child instruction booklets. Raising children is effortful, requires knowledge, requires that parents actively teach their children, not passively watch them grow up in the care of nannies, 48” plasma TV sets, unholy serials, Bollywood or Hollywood tripe, shopping malls, IPL, and the streets surrounding their homes, where only a limited kind of savyiness is rewarded.

On most measures, most Indian parents will be lucky to get an F- on parenting. They are failing their children, and hence the country. Want hard proof? Remember Jessica Lal? Who killed her? Just Manu Sharma? Or was it Manu Sharma, and Mr. and Mrs. Sharma, and everyone in their social system who had a hand in raising him? Even an amateur psychologist knows that, like monkeys, children observe and then do. Even the faintest signals are received, remembered, and some later stage in life recalled and enacted. If that signal even remotely says that it’s OK to kill, it’s OK to rape — then the Manu Sharmas and the Ram Singhs of the world will rape and kill.

Families where parents don’t show up for work; persistently look the other way, approach child rearing with proclivity for laissez faire, can never be the cradles of citizenship and civil behavior.

As long as families place emphasis on the passive seekh jayenge, as opposed to the active sikhana, the probability of breeding Manu Sharmas and Ram Singhs will continue to stay high.

We are all parents. We, all of us, belong to one family or another. We are all guilty.

The second failure is of our shriveled hearts, bankrupt of prem or sadbhavna. For convenience I will default to the English equivalent, the overused and much abused word — Love.

Children, like flowers, bloom when brought up with love, they shrivel in its absence. So the question is have our hearts grown over the years and retained their capacity to love, or have they shrunk and forgotten what it is like to truly love another. And by love I don’t mean the counterfeit version that is paraded on the silver screen, on TV in wooden soaps and serials, and in cheap boy-meets-girl romance novels. By love I mean the entire suite of virtues and values — respect, concern, sincerity, attention, the ability to listen, the ability to say yes, the ability to say no, the ability to say no, not now, later — encompassed so eloquently in the simple axiom, “Do unto others, as you wish others to do unto you.”

 If we truly loved our mothers, sisters, and daughters, we would not rape others’ mothers, sisters, and daughters, because we would love them as our own. But if we don’t truly love our own mothers, sisters, and daughters, what if we only pay lip service to loving them… Then what?

Let’s look around, let’s take a good hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves the tough question, “What currency do our hearts use in social interactions with others, love or fear? Do we really behave towards others as we would like them to behave towards us, or do we bicycle — suck up to those who we perceive as higher than us, and crush those who we perceive as being lower.”

We don’t need the sleuthing powers of Sherlock Holmes to deduce that in India love rarely figures in the equation; we are a fear-based culture, no ifs; no buts!

The influence of love has shrunk with parents spending a large part of their lives getting their children to be afraid of them, then spending the rest of their lives being afraid of their children. Take schools, where is the love, there is a lot of fear; children afraid of teachers, teachers afraid of parents, parents afraid their children will not be awarded the grades that will propel them onward (notice the emphasis on awarded, not earned); hardly the best atmosphere for learning.

Take the work place, where is the love; its hierarchical, it is full of fear; it’s a rare boss who approaches is his staff with love and friendship, under my thumb command and control is still the norm.

OK, so we can’t all be Mother Teresa? Fine! But do we have to be her exact opposite. Must we actually harm other people? Yes, says one MLA from UP who I bumped into in January 2011. Unfortunately he is not alone; there are many others like him. Excellent command of Hindi, uncommonly articulate — a true modern-day Machiavelli — this is what he offered me by way of education, “Sahib agar main aap ka nuksaan nahin karoonga, aap mujhse darenge kaise (if I don’t harm you, how will you be afraid of me). He then followed it up with this gem, “Jis raja se praja nahin darti, woh raja zaada der gaddi pe nahin tikta (Kings who can’t get their subjects to fear them don’t last long).”

Brilliant! Here is a person, supposedly to protect his electorate and constituency. But his avowed objective appears to be making them afraid of himself. With love he can’t control them, but with fear he can make them dance any which way he likes.

There are others who are not MLA’s — parents, teachers, managers — who don’t have to play the politics of fear, but who still cast a vote in favor of fear over love every single day. It’s a negative commentary on us, not just our government.

Each time we vote in favor of fear, we vote in favor or rape and murder, and a million other social crimes. Fear, anger, and hate are identical triplets, one can’t exist without the other (have you ever known a person who is not angry to hate?). As Alfred Adler so eloquently reminds us, “Fear and Anger are the same emotion; fear is directed inwards, we are its object; anger is nothing but fear directed outwards, others are its object.” When love is missing, anger steps in, and hate walks out on to the streets; Hitlers devastate, Ram Singhs rape, and Manu Sharmas murder.

We all have hearts that choose daily, love or fear. We are all guilty.

The third failing lies in the gods we worship. Not Shiv, Vishnu, Kali, Laxmi — Gods we can’t see — they are OK, but those we can. Gods we have created of things that we worship — money, power, food, shiny new cars, iPhones, alcohol, tobacco, brand name clothing, helping others, harming others, love, fear, behaviors engineered to achieve one and only one goal, a feeling of “I am better than you….”

Emily Dickinson pricks us when she declares, “I'm nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody, too?” Brilliant poetry; unfortunately wouldn’t fly far in India, especially not among adulators of power. Everybody is a somebody…“Hum bhee koi cheez hain (I too am something…), and not just an everyday somebody, but somebody who is big… badee cheez (…a big shot).” To be a “nobody” is to suffer a fate worse than death.

Both as a country and as a people, we are thickly coated with a sense of, “I am a big shot.” And when you perceive yourself to be a big shot, you feel you are superior to others. And when you believe you are superior to others you consider yourself to be above it all; none of the rules apply to you. And when you are above it all, you feel entitled, entitled to have whatever you want — the world owes you — recognition, praise, applause — and perhaps the most dangerous, instant gratification.

And it doesn’t stop there. Since superior persons are special, and since special persons feels entitled, and since entitled persons have to have what they want, by definition, a sense of entitlement can only have one consequence, a total disregard for satkar — abrogation of another’s rights. Other people become mere means to an end, toys to gratify one’s own oversized ego. If they come through, good. If not, they have to be dealt with — which is polite lingo for they have to be taught a lesson, usually an abusive, violent lesson.

“I want a drink… what… the bar is closed… open it… didn’t you hear me… I want a drink….” How can she, Jessica Lal, deny Manu Sharma — this superior, special, entitled person — a drink? I am going to teach her a lesson. And he does, he shoots her.

“I feel like having sex… with you… doesn’t matter if you don’t want to have sex with me… I want to….” How can she, this slut, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, who is obviously sleeping with other guys (she is with another man, they are holding hands, seems happy, must be sleeping with him) say no to me. I will teach her a lesson. And he does, he rapes her.

Entitled people are abusive people; it’s as simple as that. They are a menace because they treat others like property, to be consumed and disposed as they please, especially the ones they consider inferior. For these frustrated, angry, insecure toll collectors, it’s only a small stretch from the world owes me to you owe me, and beware, because all hell will break loose if you say no to “superior me.”

We are all guilty.

What then should we do, all of us?

Social crimes of all types, especially against women, children, minorities, and other vulnerable sections of society, must be deterred, fought, and severely punished. Rape is rotten, and the rotten apples must be thrown out of the basket.

No question. If we feel that the death penalty will act as a deterrent, let us impose it. But while we are building gallows let’s also ask, “Will it be sufficient?”

My personal feeling is it will not. It may scare a few, retard the occurrence of these heinous crimes, but will the threat of death, long-term incarceration, even lynching by every day vigilantes, will that give rise to new and more enlightened standard of personal conduct, which in the long run is the only sure foundation for safeguarding the rights of all, and creating a civil society. If the latter is to happen we should also make an investment, starting right now, in building better cradles of citizenship, cultivating hearts that chose love over hate, and eliminating gods-of-things that compel us to divide the world into superior and inferior; giving the superiors free license to kick around the inferiors for their wanton pleasure. For this we don’t need the government. Let us hold the government’s feet to the fire—they need to build better laws, flawlessly, consistently, and impartially implement them, and punish swiftly and severely on the occasions when crimes are committed. But building better people is not the government’s job. That’s our job.

And if we don’t, we are all guilty.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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