Privacy and secrecy

There will not be any civilization worth the name if it does not grant certain amount of privacy to its members. But different civilizations put different premium on it.  Privacy does not fascinate Indians much. Most of us will see it with indifference. I am not aware of a large amount of work done on ‘privacy’ by our sociologists. We lack a sound theory on it. Our understanding and appreciation of privacy is very low. However, some changes can be seen occurring in favor of privacy. Most of these changes are an outcome of ‘globalization’ and industrialization which are rather new phenomenon. Globalization and industrialization are forcing Indians to deal with other cultures where people put a high premium on privacy. Recently, a comparative study was done by CMU on how Americans and Indians perceive privacy [2].

Even in the most enlightened circles of Indian scholarship, privacy was given scant attention. Indian constitution does not guarantee the right to privacy as a fundamental right. It seems that the architects of our constitution did not get curious about privacy, and implications it might have on our society. However, the Supreme Court in two recent rulings has included the right to privacy within the ambit of the fundamental right to ‘personal liberty’ as embodied in Article 21. It would be interesting to watch how the apex court enlarges the scope of this right for the cases it will decide in the future’ [3]. But these are somewhat technical points  and their effects will be limited to a certain section of society which is very vocal about right and it is this section which usually defines what is forward-looking and socially acceptable.

Privacy is often confused with ‘ekant’ (loneliness). Although loneliness guarantees privacy but it is rather a harsher restriction. If I am among many people, I can ask for privacy but not for loneliness. Privacy does not require loneliness as such. I can expect others, even friends, not to look into my mobile Inbox, not to inquiry about the girl I am often seen with, and worst of all, not to disturb me when I am thinking or working in my room. When people around you fail to honour this request then there is a great need for ‘loneliness’. I wonder whether loneliness is the only escape from this transgression on privacy in my country? This is perhaps why rishi-munis who did most of the intellectual work in ancient India preferred to live in Jungles and mountains.

Indians put a very little value of privacy, at the same time, they delight in secrecy. If one think about it, it is the lack of privacy which manifest itself in the love for secrecy. One can safely say that it depends on individual dispositions, but ‘dispositions towards privacy is encouraged in some societies and discouraged in others’. So the disregard of privacy among Indians is also a question of how the Indian society is organized and culture constituted.

It may be argued that Indians have a cold or negative attitude towards privacy because they are too many and have been living in joint families and closely knitted communities. They have evolved in a cultural environment which is incompatible if not hostile towards individual privacy. Their household size is large compared to many other societies. But one can ask whether the large household size or a big joint family is the outcome of negative attitude towards privacy? Also, one can also ask whether in old times, the design of houses were friendly to individual privacy?

There are few personal experiences I had from childhood which shows this coldness towards personal privacy. I used to stay alone, sit in the corner and watch people in my house which was a joint family. Some old ladies would come to our home and tell my mom that I might be a mentally retarded kid since I didn’t play with other children. In fact,  in villages there is hardly any privacy at homes. The houses are not designed to protect privacy of its member, not even from outsider. Anyone from neighborhood can come and go freely. Though their are social norms one has to follow e.g. if a house has young girls and newly wedded brides then males are not allowed inside house without informing the lady-of-the-house or without making some noises at the door (using artificial coughing) but old women can come and go any-time and any-place without any restriction.

In our colleges, the urbane places, attitudes towards privacy are hardly different. Most of the colleges will not give single room to a single person, perhaps due to resource constraint. In my hostel a room is given to one student. There might be some other institutes in country where a room is alloted to an individual rather than to a group of students. Even in such hostels, at any given time, you will find that the hostel room is either empty or occupied by more than one; usually chating, watching movies, cracking jokes and laughing etc. This is an usual and very much expected behavior. Once a person knocked at my room and asked about some student’s room number. When I told him that I do not know about any of the students living here, he could not digest it. He asked with a amusing surprise on his face, “You do not know your neighbors?

For some it could a boon. A Japanese anthropologist, Chie Nakane, was delighted by this lack of privacy among a West Bengal Village. Japanese do not have extensive kinship like Chinese and Indians do. They place a certain value on privacy within the domestic domain. No such value is placed here. Nakane was with a lady who could go to any house, moved freely and easily, and could show her their possessions at she was in her house. As a Japanese she was shell-shocked, but was delighted as an anthropologist.

The point here is that the ‘desire of privacy which may be more than the desire to be alone at certain place at certain time is best viewed with suspicion in India’ [2]. If you put a lot of premium on your privacy and are of seclusive nature; then you will be seen as an oddity at best, or some arrogant or a mentally retarded person. Outcome of such neglect of privacy could be anything but helpful for intellectual growth of an individual. Indian, who grows up in the company of others, tends to be emotionally depended on their peer group to an unusual degree. He would prefer to do anything but to remain alone even though he is aware that he is not getting any time for himself. Here is an example.

It is paradoxical that our students are so vocal about the problem what they call ‘peer pressure’. But the same student who can elaborate the problem so nicely (as our economists and politicians do with problems of farmers and tribal) find herself helpless when the day to make a choice which is different than traditionally made choices. It is possible that so called ‘peer pressure’ which can be seen as another fallout of lack of privacy.  This predisposition towards ‘you think therefore I am‘ [1] is so deeply rooted that it forces them to sacrifice their individualism for some praise and approval they could extract from their peer group. The career they tends to pick does not seem to be choice taken by an individual free will but it looks like that their options are rather dictated by the classmates or peer groups.

One also hear about the lack of original ideas in research done in India at most of the places of higher learning. This has much to do with their disregard of privacy. The inability of Indians to produce any new theory or something original is not solely due to lack of abilities or limitations of systems. Though they put blame on systems that it is not conducive for research. System is only the collective reflection of individuals in it.  Ideas cross the path of an individuals when he is alone. Max Weber used to say that ‘ideas come to you when they please and not when it pleases you‘. They surely do not come to those who are always in others company. True, that even one has some idea, he must posses some backbone to defend it. Indian society and system are often accused for not being very sympathetic in supporting unorthodox ideas and self-criticism. But if an Individual in not able to even think for himself then is there any point fighting and cursing shadows?

A reason of such disregard of one’s authentic-self lies in the way we are raised as a kid. In our families, an individual is promoted differently as a person. It has been said that an Individual is open and connected in India, while in West he is bounded and discreet. Western people build an individual wall around themselves. It is not to say that they do not make relationships but the limits of these relationships are well defined and carefully kept in mind. One often sees in their movies that parents knock at their children room and usually request for entrance. In India, Individual is the property of the family, kin-group or the community. The boundaries of individuals are kept open and their lives flow into each other. However, these contrast should not be overdrawn but their existence can not be denied.

In society like ours, where individuals are supposed to be open and connected all the time, has its own strain. The group or family exerts pressure on its individual that they should be open and connected. But no one can be open and connected at all the times. Young girls studying outside their home often suffers the worst of it. Not only their mothers ask them where they were if they fail to return home in specified time, hostel wardens as well as neighbors also show a keen interest in their personal life. Secrecy becomes the natural defense against these excessive demand for gregariousness. People who are forced to live in each other pockets develop this special urge to be secretive. Those Indians who were able to maintain a certain amount of privacy during the ordinary course of their life become less secretive. It is no surprise that seclusive Indians (such as Gandhi and Godse) were also the least secretive.

Secrets have a luxuriant subterranean life and their flow is guided by well marked channels. The gossips network which is a fundamental part of any Indian friendship network is an outcome of this deep urge to know others personal affairs. That two women friends can not sit silently may be a truism, it is also no less true about two male friends. The rigor of gossiping may vary but both gender seem to be equally interested in others people lives. People who are sensitive about such pattern of gossiping naturally feels uncomfortable when they imagine themselves becoming a part of it behind their back. The fascination for secrecy can become an end in itself which is mostly visible in mature and middle-aged person. They tend to make secrets out of trivial matters, most of which are common knowledge.

It is not hard to see why such lack of privacy can not help improving the quality of intellectual fabric of our society. It is all well known that Indian sages hated living close to town and villages and admired jungles and mountains. Some of our best intellectuals were the product of seclusion and they often praised it as ‘ekant’. Prince Siddhartha can be cited as one example. Nehru’s best work was done when he was locked up in the jail. Lack of privacy might have helped in keeping the family glued together by making individual dependent on each other. They can fight with each other and burn each other hearts, yet they would not break away form their people on whom they emotionally dependent to an unusual degree. It is often said that India is a ‘nation of communities and groups’ rather than of individuals and citizens. There is a deep urge to have a collective identity : Jats, Branmins, IITians etc.

It would be naive to give prescription for this problem if any. Societies do not change overnight. They change rather slowly and changes are often incremental. First of all, they would not seek a solution simply because they would not see it as a problem according to their value system. As an Indian grows in status, so does the number of his visitors. And he cherish every moment of it. He might complain, after a fashion, that he has to spend so much time in meetings and committees. But this complain need not be taken seriously. An Indian enjoys few things more than being able to surrounded by people among whom he can hold forth. What he can not afford is to be himself. It would be naive to expect that changes would come from inside. It can only be changed by some outside influence. Industrialization and westernization have been changing our society and one gets this strong feeling that it will adapt itself accordingly. Just like in many other ways, Indian society has been adapting to modernity.


[1] You think therefore I am, Vinay Nagaswamy, The Hindu magazine, March 15, 2009
[2] ‘Privacy perception in India and U.S.‘ CMU – A study.
[3] Right to Privacy, A. G. Noorani, EPW – 2008
[4] Privacy and Secrecy, Andre Beteille, Essay collection, ‘Ideology and Social Science’.


Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

6 thoughts on “Privacy and secrecy”

  1. This is one of your best posts!!I have often found it amusing to notice how the word "individualism" is viewed with disdain by many Indians. They confuse it with "selfishness", as if "individualism" means one should not care about other people. In contrast, "individualism" has a positive connotation in the west.As you pointed out in the article, I often wonder if lack of concern for privacy has something to do with poverty. Perhaps it is something that only a privileged few can enjoy. If you are living in abject poverty and many people has to live under the same roof, then it is impossible to have any privacy in your life.On the other hand, that does not explain why the extremely pampered Indian middle class does not view the right to privacy in high esteem.

  2. May be but I have some doubts about it. First, in old villages, people do not use their homes in the way they are used in cities. They often sleep in open places, spend most of time working alone or with families in fields and spend night in their cot. In cities, like slums, they are forced to live under the same roof. But lack of concern for privacy is much older than urbanization. I yet to see any shloka or written evidence from the past which praises privacy in anyway. May be it would worth asking Harrappa excavators about the architecture of houses. Did they supported privacy by providing separate room for individuals.

  3. Its a really nice post, and will appreciate even more if someone reading this could refer me something in the 'texts' (lets say, religious) over privacy. I am not doubting the philosophy even a bit and totally admit the importance of privacy in bringing out the best of us. Its just for the sake of general knowledge that I'm asking. Please don't take it offensively. :)

  4. I would like to thank to bring the 'privacy' dimension to the Indian culture. I want to bring some different thoughts about this case. At first, as India is a populated country, it quite difficult for an individual to show his/her privacy concerns as at any point of time you will be surrounded by some people. As you are from rural background as same as I, you are quite vexed with society. You are known and get involved with any topic made by the discussions around in your surroundings. But gradually situation changes in the cities and are giving much importance to privacy. I observed some people from the cities with that improvement in the privacy issues and also they were disappointed by peeking into their internal matters. As you said, ideas come from lone thinking. Conversely, some ideas also will come when you discussed with (right) group as you are aware of other people behavior and lifestyle. This was entirely useful in product development as you must aware of all possibilities by customers. For building the society, both introverts and extroverts are needed.When compared to western community, ours is diverse in nature. So usually, everyone interested to know the culture of other communities as this is one of the reasons people were curious to know whereabouts of each individual. Literacy rate of western countries are quite higher than India and this might be another reason as people were not aware of privacy and individuality.Please dont bash me by giving out inputs on different dimensions :P

  5. Thats what I wanted to emphasis that even if you are surrounded by people, one should be able to expect that his privacy will not be transgressed. There are houses where one can get privacy one needs, if he so desires. I agree millions do not have access to decent housing, but those who have it, does not seem to be concerned about it.Ideas definitely appears when one is talking with people or reading books. And one should do such things. But if one has to digest what one has listened, observed or read, one need to be by himself to ponder over it. I hold nothing against extrovert as long as they don't poke their nose into my personal matters. And I do not think being an extrovert is a required or even a desired quality in the life of someone who claims to be a scholar. I am not sure if literacy has something to do with disregard of privacy. Old culture is independent of current level of literacy. Unlettered people mostly learn by observing their surroundings which has been shaped by the past. True that with literacy many new elements seeps into a society but we are concerned here with a very old value.

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