The Indian outside India is a person to be proud of: disciplined, hard-working and a role model. Even the Indian tourist outside India behaves well. Yet, the same fellow comes back to India, spits out a stream of dirty red paan, throws his garbage outside his neighbour’s house and breaks every law. If the Indian visiting other countries can follow their rules, why can’t he obey the laws within India? Because he is an indisciplined Indian?
The present Covid crisis was easily avoidable. But people had stopped wearing masks, there was no social distancing, and parties and weddings were in full swing. The icing on the cake was the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar and the election rallies in five states. When the Kumbh devotees went back home they would have spread the virus to the entire country. Why would the Covid numbers not increase exponentially? Now the whole country is suffering, with a shortage of oxygen and vaccines. Earlier, the rate of increase was slow. Now, if one person in a family has Covid, we can be sure of a full familial breakout.
Why is the Indian so indisciplined? The most important reasons are the lack of implementation and enforcement of laws and the very low penalties for breaking the law. Firstly, how often do we see enforcement of the law? Bike riders regularly do not wear a helmet, yet no policeman stops them. People jump red lights with impunity. Have you ever driven down a one-way street with vehicles driving from the opposite direction? There are any number of examples.
Further, it is often cheaper to break the law. For example, the penalty for the most heinous crime towards an animal is `50. The cattle owner breaks the cow’s leg to prove that it is no longer healthy and is only fit to be sold. If his explanation of ‘accident’ is not accepted, he pays a mere `50 fine, whereas he earns `3,000 for selling a healthy cow for slaughter. The penalties are no deterrent. In Singapore, fines could range from $1,000 to a jail term. In India, it costs just a few rupees to break a traffic law.
Corruption and the slow justice delivery system are other major culprits. You can get a driver’s license by bribing rather than by going through the painful process of visiting the RTO several times. If you are smelling of liquor or you have driven over a homeless person sleeping on the road, bribe the policeman and race off into the night. Film stars and VVIP brats do it with impunity. Even if a case is booked, the justice system is so slow and convoluted that it takes several years to reach the courts, by which time witnesses die or become hostile and the case is won by the culprit on technical grounds. When a child sees his elders break the law, he believes it is alright to do the same and this indiscipline is ‘inherited’ by the next generation.
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And what about the filth and garbage on the streets? Municipalities place huge bins everywhere, but people prefer pouring their rubbish on the road. Public urination and defecation are disgusting, yet Indian men have no qualms in unzipping and urinating in public. India must be the dirtiest and smelliest country in the world. Yet, the same destroyers of public cleanliness will have spotless homes.
Unfortunately, during the Independence movement, defying authority was encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi and the leaders of the Indian National Congress. The Civil Disobedience movement was one of the most important campaigns launched by Gandhi. He encouraged students to defy their teachers and boycott schools and colleges—in a country that likens the Guru to Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and even Brahman. In 1936,
The All-India Students’ Federation was established to support the INC and many students took violent action to paralyse the British administration, cutting telephone wires, blocking transport routes, destroying public property and disturbing postal, police, banking and other services, thereby bringing the government machinery to a standstill. This has seeped into our DNA. The students became adults and politicians who encouraged people to defy the law, burn buses and organise rail rokos to attract media attention. Protestors do not care if the hard-working common man is unable to reach his workplace on time: They have a divine right to stay on the street for as long as they want, protesting against what they do not like, even if they are in a minority. Can you imagine this happening in any developed country?
In the Bhagavad Gita (3.21), Krishna says, “Whatever a great man does, common people follow; whatever example he sets, the world follows that.” I doubt our leaders or bureaucrats have read the Gita, for they are the first to break the law. Politicians enjoy the heady adrenaline of roadshows with people shouting their support; they abuse toll gate attendants and slap policemen. All political parties are equally to blame. But today, it is costing us our good health and lives. We cannot berate people for putting human lives at risk when the leaders are equally or more culpable. Yatha raja tatha praja. We must learn to discipline ourselves, rather than take the country to a catastrophic edge with lockdowns and migrations, putting people out of work, closing businesses and bringing the economy to a standstill.
Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai