Are we a nation of cowards?

When I visited my bank yesterday, I found it unusually crowded. I realized this was because of the strike by bank employees the previous day. There were about 20 persons standing in the waiting area. Obviously, all seats were occupied. As I walked to an empty corner, I noticed one seat was occupied by a backpack. I wondered whether the backpack belonged to the young man sitting in the adjacent seat or to somebody who had left it there while (s)he had gone to one of the counters. I walked up to the seat and asked the young man whether the backpack belonged to him. He silently picked it up and placed it on his lap. There was no word or expression of regret from him.

This young man could clearly see many persons, including a couple of elderly persons, standing. Forget offering his seat to one of the elderly persons, he had kept his almost empty backpack on another seat!

While I was disappointed by the young man’s thoughtlessness, I was much more disappointed by the fact that nobody else had bothered to find out why the seat was occupied by a backpack. I’m sure some of the persons had seen him keep his backpack on the seat. The young man may have been insolent, but he did not look threatening in any way.

I’ve seen many similar incidents where people silently tolerate the inconvenience caused by the thoughtless behaviour of their fellow-citizens. I’m sure everybody has seen many such instances.

Most of us Indians do not speak up against such thoughtless, but relatively harmless, behaviour of our fellow-citizens. Why, then, are we surprised, shocked and outraged when we read reports of people being silent onlookers when girls/women are subjected to verbal and/or physical sexual harassment in public places? Can we expect meek persons to suddenly transform into assertive persons?

Why do we refrain from speaking up? Why do we quietly walk away from undesirable situations or, if that is not possible, choose to suffer in silence? I think we are groomed to do so because this is one of the so-called ‘middle-class values’. “We have neither the strength nor the money to deal with them. We are common middle class people.” This is what most ‘middle-class’ parents tell their daughters and sons … yes, sons also. Parents tell children that they should avoid undesirable situations. By chance, if the children get exposed to an undesirable situation, they should quietly walk away. They should not hit back, they should not talk back, they should not ‘lower themselves’. In short, most middle-class parents groom their daughters and sons to be cowards.

We should all remember Mahatma Gandhi‘s words, “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”

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A Gandhian in thought and deed!

Today, like October 2 every year, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday will be celebrated in India as Gandhi Jayanti. On this day, we will all remember Mahatma Gandhi and speak and write about the values that he stood for. However, how many of us voluntarily practise these values? Not many, I’m afraid.

I had the privilege of knowing SUB, a person who never claimed to be a Gandhian, but who practised many of the values that Mahatma Gandhi practised and preached. Because he was born on October 2, was bald and bespectacled, and was an extremely principled person, SUB was fondly addressed as ‘our Gandhi’ by some of his family members and close friends!

There are numerous incidents that show one or more of SUB’s many admirable qualities, but one stands out because it sounds completely unbelievable!!

SUB had been living with his wife and 3 children in the state capital, a few hundred kilometres away from their home town. A Chartered Accountant, he worked with a nationalised bank, while his wife was a homemaker. In his late forties, SUB quit his job to become a finance and marketing consultant. He retired from all professional activities in his early sixties and devoted most of his time to social activities.

By the time he was in late sixties, SUB’s children were all well-settled in their respective professions and were living in different cities with their respective families. At this point, since most of their family members and relatives lived in their home town, SUB and his wife decided to sell their house in the city and move to their home town to spend their retired life.

Soon after announcing that his house had been put up for sale, SUB received an offer from a potential buyer. The amount offered met SUB’s expectations, but the potential buyer wanted to pay around 50 % of the payment in unaccounted cash. However, SUB wanted the complete payment to be made officially, that is by Account Payee Cheques. This was not acceptable to the potential buyer. A couple of days later, he offered to make the complete payment officially if the total amount was reduced by 35 %. This was rejected by SUB.

The news spread in the local real estate market that SUB wanted the complete payment to be made officially. As a result, very few potential buyers showed interest in buying SUB’s house. Some agreed to make the complete payment officially, but offered 30 % to 35 % lower than the market rate. Others offered 20 % lower than the market rate if 20 % of the payment could be made in unaccounted cash. SUB rejected all offers.

The house remained unsold for over 2 years. During this time, many people close to SUB advised him to be a bit flexible and accept some unaccounted cash payment, but SUB insisted that cash payment, however small, was not acceptable to him as it was against his principles. He was well aware that his unwillingness to compromise on this matter could mean further delays, but he refused to budge. His wife supported his stand even though she was concerned that the sale be completed soon since both of them were not growing any younger. SUB’s children respected their father’s stand of not accepting cash payment, but thought that he was being too rigid. They hoped he would compromise slightly on the price, but maintained a diplomatic silence, knowing fully well that their father would never compromise on his principles.

Finally, about 3 years after first announcing that his house had been put up for sale, SUB received an offer that was about 15 % below his expected price, but with 100 % payment by Account Payee Cheques. He finalised the deal, much to everybody’s relief.

If he had compromised on his principles and accepted 50% of the payment in unaccounted cash, SUB would have got his expected price 3 years earlier, and he would have had to pay Capital Gains Tax on only 50% of the payment. For sticking to his principles, he got a lower price, he paid more Capital Gains Tax and he lost 3 years’ interest on the amount. In all, SUB lost about 40 % because of his honesty!

Whatever amount SUB lost, he lost it knowingly and with a smile on his face! Just like Mahatma Gandhi, SUB cared much more for his principles than for anything else!

It is equally important to note that SUB’s wife and children have never expressed any regret about this ‘loss’, but have always been proud that SUB stuck to his principles!

SUB was truly a Gandhian in thought and deed!

I’d like to ask you something I’ve asked myself several times:
What would you have done if you had been in SUB’s position? Would you have willingly incurred a 40 % loss for the sake of your principles? Or would you have compromised on your principles and justified it by saying, “Everybody does it”?

Preaching without practising?

The New Indian Express (TNIE) reports that the inaugural of a political party’s 10th State conference at Tiruchy in Tamil Nadu on Saturday, February 15, 2014 was scheduled for 9.00 am, but the party president arrived at the venue well past 10.30 am. He unfurled the party flag on a 90 ft pole 10 minutes later to mark the inauguration of the conference. This was done deliberately because Raahu Kaalam (a period of time that is considered inauspicious) was between 9 am and 10.30 am that day.

This information is surprising, if not shocking, because the political party is the DMK and the party president is Dr. M. Karunanidhi, who, as TNIE reports, “made rationalism the cornerstone of his politics”.

The TNIE report states that this was not a coincidence because the DMK’s local heavyweight K N Nehru had informed the women’s wing on January 20 that, “We will bring Thalaivar (‘leader’ or ‘boss’ in Tamil) to the stage after 10.30 am as we want to avoid Raahu Kaalam.”

The report also states that ‘this is not the first time Karunanidhi has let his rationalist mask slip. During the millennium fete of the Brahadeeswara temple, he chose to enter the temple through a side gate because of the myth that netas visiting the 10th century Big Temple through the main gate would either lose their life or power.’

One wonders whether Karunanidhi has always been only preaching rationalism but practising the opposite, or whether he has become irrationally superstitious only in old age!

It is common to see ‘leaders’, political or otherwise, practising the exact opposite of what they preach. Many regional political parties advocate the boycott of the English language, but the leaders of most of these parties get their children educated in English medium schools.

Leaders of all political parties in India talk of internal democracy, but, without exception, they all practise ‘high command’ culture.

Don’t the followers of such leaders realize that their leaders are taking them for a ride?

In contrast, here is a true story: The Little Boy and Sugar

One day, a mother came to Gandhi with her little boy for help. She asked Gandhi, “Please, Bapu, will you tell my little boy to stop eating sugar. He simply eats too much sugar and will not stop.” Gandhi told the mother to leave and come back with the boy in three days.

Three days later, the mother returned with her son and said to Gandhi, “We have come back as you asked.” Gandhi turned to the boy and said, “Young boy, stop eating sweets. They are not good for you.”

The mother then asked Gandhi, “Bapu, why didn’t you tell my son that when we first came to see you? Why did you ask us to leave and come back in three days? I don’t understand.”

Gandhi said to the woman, “I asked you to return with the boy in three days, because three days ago, I, too, was eating sweets. I could not ask him to stop eating sweets so long as I had not stopped eating sweets.”

Do we only pay lip service?

India’s 66th Army Day was observed on January 15, 2014. As described by Jagran Josh, “the day is celebrated in recognition of the appointment of General K M Cariappa as the first Commander-in-Chief of independent India. He succeeded British Army General Roy Butcher on this day in 1948.”

CNN-IBN reported that, along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, where temperatures go down to minus 20, “the government’s austerity measures have meant a 57 per cent cut in kerosene supply for troops even as the kerosene not just keeps the kitchen fire burning, but also runs the heaters that keep the men from freezing.”

This report, also by CNN-IBN states that, “The soldiers had revealed how the cut has made living difficult in high altitude areas.” It also states that, “The Indian Army has denied reports of austerity measures affecting the soldiers at the Line of Control. The Army has said that enough kerosene ration has been issued to the soldiers.”

While the matter certainly merits further investigation, it brings to the fore the fact that while we, as a nation, pay verbal and floral tributes to our armed forces, we do not show genuine concern for their needs.

To be fair, this does not apply only to the armed forces.

We remember Mahatma Gandhi once a year on October 2. Some of us may remember him on January 30. On all other days of the year, many of us do exactly the opposite of what he preached and practised.

We honour our teachers on September 5 every year. On other days of the year, most of us do not really care about them. It is a shame that teachers (other than, perhaps, those teaching in coaching classes or in fancy schools) are not among the best-paid professionals in India.

The same is true of athletes, sportspersons (other than cricketers) and many other categories of people.

It is not only the central and state governments who have to change this state of affairs. Each one of us can contribute to this change by ensuring that we genuinely care for the people who enhance the quality of our lives. We must do much more than merely paying lip service.