Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Great Indian Dream II - Our Society and Culture

As a child, I had read in my history books about how our primitive society was divided into 4 castes – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras; that children were branded based on their caste right from the moment they were born. I got to know mine, though after 15 years of my birth, while filling out my senior secondary examination forms. And I am thankful to my parents for that. It was only later on that I got know how much important it is in the 21st century India...

This topic is heavily clich├ęd and I am sure that many prolific writers would have already done justice to it, but I touch this issue in my 3 part article, because it is by far the most important aspect to be addressed in the hope of a ‘great India’. In an article for TOI, Chetan Bhagat had rightly pointed out that ‘For any lasting change to happen in a country, its society has to change in terms of its behavior, attitudes and values. We can blame our politicians for every wrong in the nation. However, politicians only reflect what society thinks.’ He may write quirky novels for the masses, with zero literary value, but through his editorials, he manages to make his ideas more clear than he ever could through his stories. If some part of us burns today when we see injustice being meted out to someone because of his or her lack of powerful connections, or say, the repeated broadcast of the video of a poor girl being publicly molested, or public property being vandalized in the name of religion, we ourselves are to blame for some of these problems; and it is time we start taking responsibility for the socials ills that are prevalent around us.

I sometimes wonder that maybe we take our caste, religion and mother tongue more seriously than our forefathers ever did. We have made our social divisiveness official after independence under the garb of development. Divisiveness is not new to us, because we learn it at our homes itself, through our family and relatives. We are told about how to differentiate between people, not based on their values, but based on their religion, caste and language. Our religion, caste and language is often depicted as being superior and celebrated within the family. We accept such divisiveness right from the childhood, leading to a lifetime of bias against people from other communities. And therein lies the root of our problems – our mindsets! However educated we are, most of us still are prejudiced in their decision making, based on such petty considerations like language, religion or caste. It is 2012, but we still vote on the basis of caste, marry on the basis of caste and religion, be friends with people who speak the same language, thinking that by doing so we are continuing our so called ‘traditions’. I wish to ask my countrymen just one question; when you go to choose a car, do you see whether the makers are from high caste or low caste, or do you make your selection based on the quality and value of it? 

Carrying forward our millennia old societal values in the name of ‘culture’, we Indians are a confused set of people with varying set of values. I have never got a concrete answer whenever I asked people to define ‘culture’. Is it our food, arts, personal values like family, religion, etc. or just plain traditions that we have followed blindly from centuries? We need to know exactly how it is defined because today, ‘preserving’ our precious Indian culture has become a politically motivated issue. I have read many books, and always ended up with conflicting ideas. Scholars, unable to explain such conflicts, make romanticized statements like ‘Many India’s within India’ and ‘the beauty of India’. I call it sheer perplexity! Indian society has lived with such muddled set of values for a long time now. And if this continues, our society cannot exist for long, because social harmony can only be achieved when the people think alike and know their roles in the society.

When we speak of people living in developed nations like America, we associate wealth, freedom, competitiveness, religion and fairness as the values with which they live. That is the essence of heir society. When we think of our society, there exists no such consistency. Do we value wealth more or education? Do we value our local communities or value being a part of India? Do we really believe in democracy, because if we do, then why have we left power in the hands of a select few? These are uncomfortable questions that we need to ask ourselves, because it is only after clarification of these questions that we will have a generation who, with their clear set of ‘Indian values’, would know the purpose of their lives and be part of a bound society. We may brand Americans as greedy and materialistic, but we cannot take away the fact from them that they have created a system in which wealth is created with hard work, innovation and enterprise rather than nepotism and corruption. Anyone who tries to rise up the ladder using unfair means is severely punished in America,  where as in India, we do not have good laws to even nail down the blatantly corrupt! We are tuned to be numb to injustice, because somewhere deep down we are also a little bit corrupt, be it copying assignments or giving a bribe to the traffic policeman after breaking the signal, since we have accepted that it is the way of life here.

My parents feel that aiming to get rich fast is a bad thing. So do most other Indians think and many would even blame such ambitions as an ill-effect of the ‘westernization’ of our generation. Our older generation takes the moral high ground to defend their point – slowness in work is termed as being patient, non-stop discussions and taking no or late actions is termed as being cautious and lack of change in their standard of living is countered with the claims to lead a simple life! Are aspirations to become rich and see my country become rich ‘un-Indian’? Do we fear change? Is progress bad? The dream of a developed and rich India can be realized only if we kill this enemy – the old school of thought! It is not a clear enemy, hence the battle becomes difficult. Our regressive ideologies in the name of culture are the greatest roadblocks in the path of development. And to fight this faceless enemy, we need role models, who could show us the way ahead, like Mahatma Gandhi did during our struggle for independence. Our role models or the so called ‘youth icons’ today are usually business tycoons who are or cricketers, who flaunt their wealth publicly whenever given a chance, be it a birthday party or a wedding. In stark contrast, the top 50 billionaires of USA pledged half their wealth in charity (including Zuckerberg)!

I have ranted on and on about the shortcomings of our society in this article. As an engineer, I will try to come out with solutions to counter these problems in my last article of the series. But my intention here was point out the ironies existing in our society presently. We consider aspirations to become rich as a westernized concept, and are content to live our lives as the great Indian middle class. On the other hand, we hero worship rich people and brand them as role models, ignoring all their shortcomings.  They live in multi crore houses, shop abroad and spend crores on trivial issues at the drop of their hat, where as more than 40% of our people don’t have access to proper healthcare and live in poverty. Our corrupt politicians loot us and display their wealth unashamedly, but we don’t find it vulgar. But if a girl wears jeans and chooses her life-partner, we term it as vulgar. We say that we are religious people, yet we exploit people without power, be it raping women, killing unborn girl child or torturing the poor. We are a land of contrasts and contradictions, true, but I would like to believe that it will change gradually…and all it needs is a push!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Great Indian Dream - Part I

This article is a culmination of my procrastination for almost a year. Yet, nothing much has changed since I wrote my last blog entry. In fact, nothing much has changed since I started maintaining this blog, which dates back to 2009. The question that I ask myself and my peers is that- Have we stagnated as individuals, as a society and as a nation? 

As a child, I used to be happy most of the time. At the beginning of this millennium, when social media was not even in the picture, internet phenomenon had just started capturing the imagination of Indians, and most of the people around me seemed to be happy and cheerful.  There were very few news channels and cable TV was considered as a luxury. Hence, most of the free time was spent with friends and family, with a sense of gay abandon. Those were happy times, because I can recall one good feeling that almost everyone felt during those times – hope. India’s software industry was booming, and had already gained a reputation. Indians were winning prestigious awards in the various fields like science, literature and economics. India had a thumping victory over Pakistani terrorist infiltrators in the Kargil war, so even patriotism was running high among civilians. People were getting reasonably paying jobs in the upcoming BPO sector and overall, the public sentiment was positive.  

Cut to present day, and these seem to be news from a very distant past. All we hear and think about today are either of these- corrupt politicians, arrogant ministries, immoral celebrities, economic slowdown and a media that always seems to be on the overdrive.  To cut the cynicism, we can count a few events that surely had a positive impact on the average Indian, like winning the cricket world cup, sending a spacecraft to moon, cell phone revolution, 100 crore+ club bollywood movies (basically Salman Khan), Anna Hazare and his mass movement, and the advent of social networking generation. But when we sum up our achievements in the past decade, they seem a blur when compared to what our ex-president Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had dreamed of as ‘Vision 2020’. And therein lies the root of all our current problems…we don’t have a collective dream for our nation today!

We can rant about corruption and non-functioning administrations for days and months, but the truth is that it is we, the common man, who define the essence of a democratic nation. For us Indians, that is the greatest problem since we never have thought collectively. We are selfish people who are privately smart but publicly stupid. We still continue to divide ourselves on the basis of caste, religion, region and language! Given these differences, it makes us impossible to have a common dream for our nation because after 65 years of freedom, we are still coping up with the idea of a dream called a united ‘India’.

Every Indian who set out for the states in the turmoil times of 1970s & 80s went there to pursue the ‘Great American Dream’. It meant nothing other than to lead life with wealth, health, security and a sense of honour. Americans respect talent, unlike most Indians who vouch for power and connections. Working abroad in a fair state gave them what our nation could never give. Brain drain has been the hot debate topic in pseudo intellectual circles for a long time now. Any number of pay commissions will be ineffective in stopping this process of losing generations after generations of you bright young Indians, because it is not the money but the idea of a great nation that will capture the imagination of today’s youth. We need to have our own ‘Great Indian Dream’, an India where justice prevails, talent is respected above money and power, people are rich and lead a healthy life, and finally these people give back to the society which has made them what they are! 

The mood after our independence was upbeat, because people hoped for a better life under the leadership of their favored son, who gave the people a dream of a prosperous nation that India once used to be. That dream has long faded, and all that remains of it are scars, like the emergency period of 1974. It is time we show ourselves a new dream, the dream of a rejuvenated India, the India that our forefathers dreamt of. We have not fared badly since our independence, but we cannot deny that we could have done much much better. Blaming our leaders won’t do any good because we only selected them and allowed them to rule us with dishonesty, like little arrogant kings and undermined the power of democracy.  

Last year, Anna Hazare and his team members showed the entire nation the power of unity, one single voice against corruption rattled the cages of the highest authorities living in Lutyens. Their movement may have died down gradually, but the good thing that it brought among us was the hope of an India free of corruption. The rustic old man wearing a Gandhi cap and fighting for a selfless cause caught the imagination of the average Indian middle class. He brought an awakening, especially among the college going youth, and in a magnitude that none of his closest supporters would have imagined when they first started it. The reason why they chose to support this diminutive man from an unknown village of Maharashtra was because he gave them a dream of a corruption free nation. And we are going to need many more such dreams, to realize the ultimate goal of India being counted as a developed nation. 

We need to have a dream about India, where we differentiate people not on the basis of their caste, religion or language, but on the basis of their talent and capabilities. We need a dream of India, which will be counted as a land of opportunities rather than a land of biasedness; an India, where everyone is educated and able to earn their livelihoods, breaking the shackles of ignorance and religious superstitions. These are dreams that all of us have thought about at least once, but never did anything to act upon it, because we were devoid of hope for our nation. Such dreams can only be converted to reality when we have charismatic leaders, who can influence the masses like Anna did. And with all our austerity in place, we have to admit that such leaders are present today and maybe a few more will come up in due course of time, to take India from the edge of a possible abyss to heights unreached. And as responsible citizens, it should be our duty to bring forward such leaders keeping aside our prejudices of past about politicians. We, as a nation, should never give up on ourselves because in case no one comes forward to show us that dream, we need to have our own dream and act upon it to give our children a life free from terrorism, corruption, crime and hatred. 

“You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us. And the world will live as one.” - John Lennon