No one likes a guest who criticizes her hosts, even if she has been around for over 30 years. So I begin not with criticism but with praise and gratitude.
Our three children were brought up here in India by two fairly relaxed parents who believed fervently in the “it takes a village” concept. The fact that they all turned out so well is largely due not to us but to the vigilance of our extended family, our neighbors, their teachers and the general ethos of their environment. This is a culture that takes the moral upbringing of children seriously and believes that it is up to everyone to do their part.
And watching most parents at work in the long hard job of raising future citizens, I have to say that India does a brilliant job of providing children with the foundations for civic responsibility:
respect for elders
reverence for duty
a sense of oneself as part of a group rather than an individual
So I’m a bit confused. While we are bringing up these perfect little citizens, preparing them to take over as the next generation of adults, why are we so intent on sabotaging the whole enterprise?
Cardinal rule of parenting: Never threaten if you don’t intend to follow through. If you tell a child categorically that stealing is forbidden and then pretend not to notice when he nicks a candy bar from the local shop, you look like an ineffectual fool. Even worse, the child loses respect for you.
A child who steals has done wrong, no doubt. But the greater wrong is done by the parent, the person who is responsible for making it easier for that child to be good and do right.
I think the problem with civic responsibility in India is that we don’t make it easy to be good.
None of us are born righteous. Good manners, respect for the law, considering the greater good – these are all things that need to be trained into us and then constantly reinforced.
Left to ourselves in a system which demands respect for rules, most of us probably do the right thing most of the time. That’s because we are habituated to do so. Look at children in school assembly. There they stand in perfect straight rows, pin-drop silence, nails neatly trimmed, eyes ahead. There are rules in effect and they have been trained to follow the rules. And unless we are rebellious, anti-social or trying to make a point, we are all like that.
Except when it doesn’t suit us.
If I’m running late for work and stuck at a traffic light, holding a sticky candy wrapper and can’t find a dust-bin, or in line at the train station and fed up with waiting, I might just be tempted to run the light, drop the trash on the street or cut the queue.
That’s where the law comes in again. If we know we’ll get a ticket for running the light or a fine for littering or universal disdain for trying to cut the line, chances are we won’t do it.
Not because we are good citizens. Only because the law makes it easier for us to be good.
So the law has two functions: it reinforces the training we get as children and the good impulses most of us would like to believe we have and it stands as a warning for those awkward moments when – in spite of all our training – we are tempted to do the wrong thing.
The law helps us to be good. It reminds us what we should be doing as a constant and habitual presence and it frightens us into doing it whenever we are tempted to stray.
In India, we are missing out on the wonderful support the law can provide. We are forced by circumstance to play the survival of the fittest game because we simply cannot rely on the system to stand up for us. The law isn’t there for us. It doesn’t exist.
In every single instance – in line at a bank, or the post office, or the hospital or at a level crossing – if you play fair and stay in your spot to wait your turn, you will be cut in front of and pushed further and further to the back. To survive you have to play the game and we all know it. We have all broken the law or sat silently while somebody else did it to benefit us.
Civic responsibility only flourishes when it is supported by the law. We need to stop seeing the law as a tyrant holding a stick and start seeing it as a positive force meant to help us live better lives. The corollary, of course, is that the law itself must exist. We can only respect it if we believe in its power.
Like the parent who insists that children should not steal, then turns a blind eye when they do, or worse, helps them to hide the goods they steal, lawmakers in India have lost all integrity. Lalloo Prasad Yadav bellowing in Parliament about the temerity of the unelected who dare to instruct him and his colleagues is a caricature and a fool. Are we to forget the scams he was responsible for? The fact that he foisted a completely incompetent Rabri Devi on the public and guaranteed more years of poverty and misery for the people of Bihar?
And those who say that it was the public who put him in office in the first place should listen to what the public is saying now: a pox on all your houses. The law must work for everyone, starting with Parliament. The Jan Lok Pal bill is necessary for the same reason that red lights only work if we believe we will be punished for jumping them. Children respect their parents only when they know they will force them to behave. Our lawmakers are the children here and we have been sadly remiss in enforcing the discipline they so desperately require. Anna Hazare is showing us the tough love. The road ahead will be hard and full of contention but this is a shake down and a reckoning. We can only pray that it hasn’t come too late.