Urban India is in the throes of an obsessive examination of the corrupt nature of the polity and governance of our country. Anna Hazare’s movement against the corrupt has galvanised our cities into examining the state of our nation with missionary zeal. Some zealous followers of Team Anna tell us that our nation’s culture itself is corrupt. After all, don’t we sell our precious votes for bottles of liquor from a person from our “community”?
Isn’t nepotism the norm, rather than the exception? Don’t we even attempt to bribe God with offerings in exchange for blessings? The verdict is apparently clear: we are an inherently corrupt culture with little hope of change without a massive revolution.
These accusations set me thinking. Are we a corrupt nation? Is it in the intrinsic nature of the Indian citizen to be amoral?
India, as is widely acknowledged, is an ancient civilisation but a young nation. For large parts of our civilisational life we have been a largely agrarian conglomeration with a few examples of periodic urban efflorescence. Even the post-Independence reality of India has been predominantly rural. The Western world urbanised a few centuries before us.
The moral order in an agrarian society is different from one that is urban. The former is governed by a code based on kinship, loyalty and honour — the law of the community. Justice is defined by the collective honour and prestige of your clan — it could be your family, your caste, your biradari. You stand by your own. You will compromise the interests of the abstract institution for the sake of your people.
You will perjure yourself in court on behalf of your relatives. This will not happen in a panchayat, where everyone knows everyone else and lying, in any case, is pointless. But falsehood prevails in our lower courts of justice. Not because we are amoral but because those who lie in courts do not feel that they are doing anything wrong. Quite the contrary, they feel they are being true to the higher moral law of loyalty to their clan. Even in the cities, many of us will do all we can, in keeping with our status, contacts and resources, to deceive, pressure, influence and bribe the police and the courts in the interests of our relatives and associates. We would convince ourselves that it is the right thing to do.
All of us know of instances where people have helped their “own” get jobs in organisations though they may not have been the most deserving and therefore not good for the organisation. The ill-paid bureaucrat will accept bribes so he can fulfil the role of a good son, brother or father. The ancient moral law of loyalty to your own far outweighs laws designed by an abstract society that is in the making.
Justice in agrarian societies is restorative. To send the perpetrators of a wrong to jail is the modern, urban way. Clan justice aims at compromise, compensation and negotiation. Usually, it becomes punitive only in extreme circumstances.
It is popular these days to malign our politicians and dismiss their ways as reprehensible. But we have to keep in mind that India is probably the only country in the world that democratised before it urbanised/modernised — in fact we are still a primarily rural country, with many “citizens” even in our cities who have the impulses and moral code of a tribal society.
Our savvy politicians emerge and survive in this eco-system. They are not elected by an abstract agglo-meration of “citizens”. In fact, they are elected by “their own” — and their own legitimately expect to be looked after. I know of a politician who had his entire village turn up on his birthday and collect on his manicured lawn. Ten thousand people expected to be fed and feted. How will the politician drum up the funds to do so? Patronage survives because the masses view it as appropriate. Of course there are politicians who are corrupt for personal gain, for example A Raja. But there are many politicians who are not. The flow of money is usually to win, retain and reward supporters and be of assistance to kinship groups. The problem is exacerbated in the absence of realistic and pragmatic ways in which political parties and politicians can raise funds.
On the other hand, an urban society is based on abstract laws and formal institutions — the law of the state. It is driven by the idea of creating alternative loyalties and ethics that transcend kinship commitments. Not because this is a superior way to be. It is only a different method for society to organise itself when ancient tribal bonds have broken down in urban anonymity. At the base of any human organisation is self-interest. New social structures evolve and sustain when people start viewing them as in their selfish interest. The needs of progress have to be juxtaposed against the needs of social and political stability.
The significance of these structures and mores develop first in communities of migrants. Willy nilly they are torn away from their traditional codes and over a period of time grow to realise the validity of state structures of administration. We are at that stage in our evolution as a democracy. We have one foot firmly planted in the ancient kinship culture — of which we are proud inheritors for there were many great things about that culture as well. The other foot though is up and is extending towards the modern world. We live in times of furious re-definitions — integrity too is being re-defined. So were we genetically corrupt as a nation? No. Are we genetically corrupt today? No. We are simply re-aligning our goal posts in times of change. And true to character, it must happen softly and non-destructively in the Mahatma’s land.
So in this New Year, I will state once again: There are many faults in my land. And we have a long way to go. But I’m still damn proud to be an Indian!
The writer is the author of the bestselling novel The Immortals of Meluha. His second novel, The Secrets of the Nagas, has been recently published.