Recently a friend and I were traveling by a ‘premium’ train, a new offering that takes you from New Delhi to Bombay (and back I presume). While this train does guarantee you a seat, and gets you to your destination quickly.. there is nothing premium about it.
Anyway, the story I want to relate has nothing much to do with the quality of services on the train. When we got there, we realized that all the other people in that unit of 6+2 seats were men. (And very nice accommodating men, I must say). Nevertheless, given the absence of curtains and other women, I felt I would be more comfortable if we upgraded our seats to the 2nd AC, or changed the seats.
We learnt that upgrading could be really easy as more than half the 2nd AC was going empty. Since it was my idea, I asked my friend to watch the luggage, while I went and spoke to the TT.
The TT of our coach had previously told us that we needed to speak to the TT in charge of up-gradation, and when I asked the train staff they told me he was near the pantry car.
I went and found him and told him that I preferred a lower seat, and was willing to upgrade to 2nd Ac etc etc. Would he please grant my request..
Mr TT told me that this train had no official method of up-gradation of tickets, but if I wanted I could ‘unofficially’ get it done by paying Rs 1500. On seeing the look of confusion on my face he asked whether I was traveling on ‘company money’, and would need to claim the same. I said no, it was my own money. He asked me ‘then what is the problem?’.
I was still trying to process the fact that someone had asked me for a bribe. (Yes, I have had a somewhat sheltered life).
He then continued smugly ‘dekhiye madam.. kuch paane ke liye kuch khona padta hai’. (to gain something, you have to lose something)
He even asked a couple of other colleagues of his, about this arrangement and the colleague agreed. By this time I was just curious more than anything else, about where this was going.
A couple of times I requested him whether he could find us different seats in the 3rd AC coach that were going empty, to which he said, I needed to do that myself by requesting other passengers. (A fair point I think)
I mumbled something about asking for my friend’s advice, and left the pantry car. I then went back to my friend and discussed the situation. We agreed that it was unnecessary to pay the bribe.
We managed to travel comfortably enough on the seats we were given, especially since the other passengers were quite accommodating.
So what was the point of telling you this story, given that it is not very extra-ordinary? Indians are routinely asked for bribes by various functionaries, and pay the same.
The point was, that at the moment the smug man told me ‘kuch pane ke liye kuch khona padta hai’… I felt like it threw the past few years into stark relief for me. So much had happened in the country, and yet so little.
When the Anna Hazare movement started, people in my peer group went mad. A lot of people wore those ‘I am Anna’ caps, and talked of how this movement was as big as ‘Gandh-ism’. There was a genuine people’s involvement in the movement, to be fair.
Demands were made by people about the Lokpal Bill without quite understanding what they were demanding, and members of Anna Hazare’s team described all politicians as thieves. (http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/all-political-parties-are-thieves-says-team-anna-member-manish-sisodia-148065)
I was quite unmoved during these protests, not because I did not think corruption was not an issue, but because I thought the protests were a passing fad. They did not echo any real sentiment against corruption, because they essentially looked outside.
Anyone who understands the way Indian publife life works knows that corruption is not limited to the bastions of power where high profile scams happen. Those high profile scams, while terrible, take out attention away from the moral decay of our society. We have become a society that promotes and revels in corruption, by taking and giving small bribes. But not just that.. often we do not see corruption as corruption.
I was once talking to a rather dim gentleman who was going on about bribes as corruption, when I happened to mention that there can be other forms of corruption where money does not change hands.
What do you mean he said, frowning at a thought that did not quite fit his scheme of things.
Nepotism, I said. Or quid pro quo.
‘Oh that!’ The gentleman replied. ‘I would call that a cultural issue. That is not corruption.’
So there we are. A cultural issue.
But now that we have brought up culture and nepotism, I must tell you the story of Ekalavya. This can be found in the Mahabarata. Ekalavya was a Bhil boy who was keen on learning archery. Given that fighting was what kshatriyas did, Ekalavya did not find a suitable teacher. Drona (the royal teacher) refused to teach him. But Ekalavya was stealthy. He built a statue of Drona and began considering the staute a teacher. He would go and observe Drona teaching the princes, and began learning. Gradually Ekalavya became so good, that his skills surpassed that of Arjun (the teacher’s favourite). When Drona saw this, he asked Ekalavya who his teacher was. On learning that it was Drona himself who had inadvertently ‘taught’ Ekalavya, he asked his student for what is called a ‘Guru-dakshina’ (teaching fee). He demanded that Ekalavya cut-off the thumb of his archery hand. Ekalavya complied.
He did later learn how to shoot from his other hand, but that was that. He was not as skilled as he would have been had his thumb not been cut-off.
So here we see a clear case of corruption don’t we. Drona was not merely favouring his pupil, but he forced a more skilled young man to mutilate himself in order to allow his favourite to get ahead. Is that corruption or is it a cultural issue?
Why did Ekalavya face the disadvantage he did? The most specious answer is, because Drona liked Arjuna.
But why did Drona like Arjuna? Caste was definitely relevant here. A Bhil, i Drona’s eyes, could not beat a warrior prince, and he could simply not allow that to happen. This is similar to why another talented warrior Karna, was never allowed to challenge Arjuna, as Karna belonged a supposedly lower caste of Charioteers.
Some of you will be rolling your eyes now. Am I really ascribing the failure of the Anna Hazare movement to stories in the Mahabharata?
Certainly not. I am just trying to show through these examples that there are several factors that have made our society rigid. The caste system has played some sort of a role in our rigid conception of society and the resultant decay in values. And yes, that has lead to corruption in the form of nepotism and quid pro quo.
Also, on another side note, the Mahabharata does give you a lot of parallels across the ages. When a certain party leader can not look beyond their incompetent son, are you not reminded of Dhritarashtra? (this, my dear non-Indian reader, you will have
With that there is the culture of ‘adjustment’. Taking bribes is not really a big deal for a large amount of service providers, and not all of them work in the Government.
Lift boys in hospitals, university staff, our corporate honchos, or aunties keeping money stuffed in a mattress. Everyone practices a kind of corruption or the other.
Most importantly, being asked to pay a bribe is not a big deal to most people. In fact, in certain cases people prefer paying the small amount of bribe money rather than following the due procedure of law. (Such as during traffic violations).
I have been asked for bribes rarely. On all occasions I have refused to pay, and played dumb. Sitting around till I was given the service I needed. This approach is okay sometimes, but not really when bribes take the form of extortion.
For bribes that take the form of extortion we have legal remedies, and social remedies like shaming (though how well these work is open to debate).
But what about corruption that does not bother people? What about acts of quid pro quo that we practice and condone, or the bribes that we think are okay because it saves us time? These chip away at the core of our moral values, making our society empty.
This article turned out to be more preachy than it intended to be. Many of you will have problems with a lot of things that I say, and correlations I make. Correct me where you feel it is necessary, but I firmly believe no Anna, no movement can save us till we decide to save ourselves.