This is a post about three unrelated topics.
1. I visited my grandparents in Bombay two weeks ago. In recent times, Dadaji (my paternal grandfather) has gotten into full story-telling mode. Needless to say given that he made a 3-month voyage from India to the US in 1948 on a cargo ship, he has some amazing stories to tell. This one, which I like to call “The Luddites of Pindi”, is my current favourite:
Dadaji was born in 1927, only 5 years after electricity reached Rawalpindi, a city now part of Pakistan. By the time he started going to school, most of the city was electrified (not sure if this is the right word), but people had yet to embrace this technology. “Don’t put on the light at night”, the dadajis of that generation would say. “That’s enough now…put the lights off”, even when my dadaji was trying to study at night. The reason? “This electricity thing is a ploy by the British. It’s going to make us all go blind”.
Another story I loved was about when M.K. Gandhi visited Rawalpindi. Dadaji’s dad ran a shop and couldn’t leave it unattended, so he told 13 year old Dadaji to go see the Mahatma and donate one rupee to his cause. Dadaji went to the event and thoroughly enjoyed listening to Gandhi speak. As Great Soul and his entourage got on the train, Dadaji remembered that he needed to hand over the one rupee given by his dad for the cause. So he chased after the train and, in a moment reminiscent of the iconic DDLJ climax , a Gandhi posse member held out his hand and Dadaji, at full sprint and full stretch, handed over the one rupee.
2. I was hanging out with ethelnmc a few days ago, discussing some of the problems faced by female workers, when we came up with this thought: what if there was an equal probability that men could get pregnant too? If pregnancies were distributed equally and randomly across men and women, that would probably change a lot of things. For one, it would reduce a major disincentive to hiring females (maternity leave). Might it also reduce rape? Would it lead to more responsible financial decision-making? What are other things that could happen if getting pregnant were not an exclusively female trait?
3. India is in the midst of a big anti-corruption protest. While I applaud the sentiment of this movement (“corruption is bad”), I find the means of protest – a hunger strike in New Delhi by a high-profile activist – irritating and dangerous. Irritating because it is so well-designed to garner media attention, and dangerous for the precedent it could potentially set for unelected people or groups writing legislation. Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and perhaps one of the most underrated “superhero” level political leaders ever, seems to have foreseen all this when he made his speech at the signing of our constitution in 1950. Unfortunately, I have seen only one mention of Dr. Ambedkar’s thoughts in all the media coverage of the protest. The other major source for the text below is Ramachandra Guha’s “India After Gandhi“.
Dr. Ambedkar warned the new republic that there were three things its people must be wary of. First, he advised that since we now have constitutional mechanisms that represent the people, we must not rely on civil disobedience and Gandhian stunts like hunger strikes to affect change. For me, it is hard not to think of the current hunger strike as anything more than an attempt to hold the government hostage to the demands of an unelected group of people. Even though I agree with some of their demands, the overall argument, “discuss my bill in parliament or I will fast to death”, terrifies me. Yes, constitutional systems are slow and often feel unresponsive. But that’s the price we pay for living in a system where we are governed by people we choose.
Dr. Ambedkar’s second warning was about “bhakti“, which basically means devotion. He believed that Indians were especially inclined to hero-worship, and warned that this was a dangerous characteristic that could blind us to the follies of “great men”. It’s perhaps this belief that ensured Ambedkar has never been as worshipped as some other freedom struggle personalities. But this cult of personality is exactly what seems to be driving a lot of the anti-corruption energy. Anna Hazare, the figurehead of the movement, has inspired slogans like “Anna is India, India is Anna”. His movement also consciously and constantly insinuates that Hazare is some sort of ideological descendent of Gandhi, with his stage frequently having large photos of Gandhi as the backdrop. I hope I’m not the only one disturbed by this.
Finally, Dr. Ambedkar warned that even though the constitution guarantees legal equality, we must not forget that the social and economic spheres continue to be plagued by discrimination. Specifically discussing caste, he states that “Indians today are governed by two different ideologies. Their political ideal set in the preamble of the Constitution affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity. Their social ideal embodied in their religion denies them.” Curiously, I think corruption is that rare attribute that cuts across government and private life. It is difficult to find an auto in Delhi that will immediately agree to go by meter. The way people drive shows scant regard for rules (government) or other vehicles/pedestrians (private life). It is hardly considered unethical to fabricate medical bills in order to maximize tax savings.
So let’s not forget Dr. Ambedkar. We definitely need to become less corrupt as a society and the government should set an example, but the way it’s being done now is far from ideal.
This ended up being far ramblier than I meant it to be. Much gratitude for sticking through to the end if you’ve made it here.