The nation faces a dangerous social crisis. For nearly 1,200 years, our society has been subjected to pressures and compulsions by alien rulers. The radical change in the polity and economy was matched by a freezing of the social order as a defence against the chaos that alien rule created.
In the last three decades, a vast majority of Indians have done better than their parents in material terms such as food, housing, education, transport, medical services and travel etc. The standard of living of the present generation is far higher than that of the previous one. All citizens are eager to enhance their wealth.
Inequalities in income and wealth between individuals and households have increased. While the older differentials were based on family ownership of land and financial assets, the recent ones are largely due to individual differences based on education, competence, skills, employment and hard work. More dramatic differences are due to graft and other illegal activities.
This materialistic desire of individuals affects the relationships between families and households, parents and children, brothers and sisters, employers and employees, management and shareholders, consumers and producers etc.
To pay for expensive products, professional education, foreign travel, elaborate ceremonies and costly health care, individuals violate sacrosanct relationships for illegitimate gain at the expense of their family members. Greed and envy have destroyed trust and cooperation within families. The government and state institutions cannot regulate—let alone suppress—these widespread negative tendencies.
This breakdown in morality is the flip side of the achievements of the market economy. Traditional practices are being abandoned. Even polite language and respectful behaviour toward parents, elders, women and teachers seem rare.
Traditional social structures such as caste panchayats, which had regulated individual behaviour, were attacked by post-Independence governments. A propaganda campaign was aimed at delegitimising the existing social order and a legislation was introduced to “reform” or suppress social, cultural and religious practices and preferences. This was supported by continuous intervention from
The most powerful component of government-directed social engineering has been the realignment of the caste system from its vertical and hierarchical nature to one of a horizontal system in which each caste is deemed “equal” to every other caste. However, new tensions have developed due to competition between castes for educational opportunities, government jobs and political power. The individual uses his caste identity to achieve his ambitions. Caste mobilisation helps in asserting individual and group demands.
In the old order, whatever tension or conflict existed between the castes was largely confined to small areas. This localised conflict was easy to manage by the local authorities. The highlighting of caste identity has united each caste across vast areas. Caste groups now agitate against any perceived violation of their caste, social and ethical rules. Individuals acting in groups gain anonymity and immunity for their misbehaviour and violence. This not only fails to be punished but receives support and accolades from their group.
One of the socially destabilising factors has been co-education in schools, colleges and universities. This also applies to the interaction of the sexes in both workplace and leisure activity. Traditional borders and prohibitions between the two sexes have been relaxed, erased or submerged. Behavioural attitudes have been influenced by movies and media propagating romantic associations between the sexes outside marriage. Even pornography is freely available on the internet and it obviously affects and alters sexual behaviour. All this leads to the notion that sexual preference and activity are a matter solely of the individuals concerned.
Easy, unsupervised communication between young and immature adults, released from traditional inhibitions and restraints towards sexual activity, has led to a number of incidents being reported daily. Religion, caste, class and language come in the way of a peaceful and productive resolution of conflicts in relationships that do not conform to traditional preferences and prejudices. Many such marital and non-marital relationships result in brutality, violence, murder or divorce.
The liberation of sexuality and lust from the prison of traditional rules has resulted in the current situation. The brunt is borne by the gender whose capacity to contain and avoid exploitation by the opposite gender is limited by its sheltered upbringing, inexperience and vulnerability.
Cases of rape and molestation have increased. The issue is not just of couples in the same age group but of older men imposing their desires on young girls. The horror is that the ages of some of these unfortunate girls are in the single figures. A new barbarism is descending in the country, both in urban and rural areas. We may become a wealthy and politically strong nation but without a social order that makes life livable for everyone, present and future achievements are pointless. What is to be done?
The restoration of polite speech, reasoned dialogue, sympathetic understanding, toleration of diversity between individuals and groups, individual and group responsibility for their actions, discipline in all activity and honest and fair treatment of each other are some of the things individuals and groups should do. The government can make a new set of laws that ensure compliance even before enforcement. Is this too much to ask?
Former Dean of Research and Consultancy, Administrative Staff College of India