Rule and Person

To a bird’s-eye view, different human societies look similar in some aspects and different in some others. A closer look can reveal some similarities and differences to be more  stronger while others to be more superficial than they appear to be on the surface.

Institutions are of fundamental importance to all societies: a simpler and small scale society has fewer, joint-family, panchayat or some equivalent, temple or a small religious shrine; while a complex one have many, hospital, school, university, court, parliament, temples/mosques/churches etc. To have a closer look at differences and similarities, one can compare how social life is organized around institutions in different societies.

In the extent to which societies are governed by rule or person, in traditional societies based on agriculture, personal factors counts for almost everything. People are able to take finer personal distinctions in their businesses and other day-to-day work. In these societies, personal links can be used (or misused) for practically any purpose; and a certain sense of security is provided by the existence of such links. Now there are whole areas of life in complex industrial societies where such links are in principle irrelevant.

In complex industrial societies, social life is influenced greatly if not mainly by institutions. Here institutions are organized around impersonal rules. The treatment in hospital, admission to schools, services from police and courts are few examples of such arrangement. In these institutions, if someone needs to get something done which he is entitled to, there should not be any need on his part to have any personal links with people in these institutes.

In Indian villages based on agriculture, people are accustomed to getting thing done through persons rather than rule. To say this is not necessarily to pass a moral judgement. When society is small and everyone knows everyone, such arrangement is both proper and expedient. A lot of problems, related to both corruption and efficiency, can appear without any tangible solution when these links are used in places where norms are defined differently.

Those who live in large cities depends on many public utilities and services. And in principle, they are so organized to serve each citizen irrespective of personal consideration. There are rules of procedure according to which any citizen is entitled to make claim on certain service. But in practice, nobody seriously believes in rules alone. In cases when rules do not work for him at all, or do not work quickly enough, he tries to reach out to someone in right quarters through relative or friends, or friends of a relative. Those who have no relative or friends (‘connections’ as they are called) felt left out in cold. But it is just amazing, how just almost everyone in our society is able to activate ‘connection’ of some consequence.

It should be obvious to all of us that we are in a period of transition. Though majority of people still live in small agrarian societies, they are increasingly coming in contact with different sort of institutions they are not accustomed to, where personal connection should or ought to count for little. In such phase of transitions, people often suffer the worst of both systems: he can not be sure if personal ‘connections’ will be sufficient, nor he can trust the appropriate system of rules.

In cities, especially for young people, the moral universe associated with it is both confusing and intractable. This could cause a sort of psychological stress which is rarely seen in villages. When an old person (not only in rural India) pays a bribe or uses his family connections to get something done, he is not burdened by moral questions involved related propriety of following rules and norms. For him, such is the way of life — an ordinary and normal thing to do. He would give you a lecture about “art of living” if you point out the impropriety on his part. Younger people, and perhaps some among old too, do not always pay bribes or use family/friendly connections for their personal gain at the cost of someone else without a sense of moral ambivalence and indignation. The “queue” is one such place where such behaviour can be easily observed: when someone gets a cut from a friend or relative, he takes it, often with an embarrassing smile or a show of arrogance, but the same person turn self-righteous and morally indignant when he sees others taking “cut” at his disadvantage.

More than often, rules are defined vaguely which allows those who enforce them to use their personal discretion rather freely if not arbitrarily. Different rules or different interpretations of them are applied on “case to case” basis. And many times rules are bypassed all together. Many wonder how people in a country where substantial population is still illiterate get things done in a system with a plethora of rules. In the face of confusion, people get accustomed to bypassing or breaking the rules, especially when a person of some consequence is available at their disposal. Those who are responsible for making rules simpler or less confusing rarely loose sleep over it. Perhaps they believe the people are used to such situations and have ways to deal with it.

Problem of corruption or inefficiency can easily grow to alarming proportion in such environment for it is easy for people in position of power to manipulate the system for their own personal gain by colluding with others. One can always find someone in Indian offices who really mastered the art of manipulating rules and finding loopholes in them. Such people are seen with both envy and admiration.

No doubt that a system is bound to be efficient when rules and procedures are followed by most, if not all.  The personal favours which we are so used to receiving and granting can not have the same moral right in modern institutions as in the traditional order. Moreover, a typical Indian overvalues his convenience above most things, and following rules always cost some convenience. He would not mind doing his part in undermining rules as long as it is convenient to him.  A large proportion of our people do not, or perhaps can not, appreciate  what rules are for. But there are many among us who probably know what they are and why we need them. It is doubtful that over the time, as we progress more towards a modern society, even they will develop a moral commitment towards them?


Arithmetic and marriage

Few days ago, I read a newspaper story; on suspecting that bridegrooms is illiterate, the bride put him under a arithmetic test: “how much is 15 + 6?”. And when the answer was 17, she called off the marriage! And few childhood memories cropped up.

When I was a kid, my father asked me once: “how much is left when you subtract 2.75 out of 4.25?”. He was pleased when I answered it correctly, “You’ll get married”, he said, “if you pass high-school, you can get a scooter in dowry as well”.

Well, it is well known that in traditional Indian system of marriage, popularly known as arranged marriage, would-be- bride and groom need not meet each other before marriage. Though this has been changing (at least in my village and neighborhood). My father and mother did not meet each other, but my brothers and their wives surely did. When marriages are arranged, the family of bride usually hunts for groom. They use their social network to figure out the opening (if some family is planning to get their son married). They would visit the potential groom’s house and meet his father, and also would-be groom if he is available.

If both party agree that marriage is possible (between the family, never mind the young would be couple) then what is discussed next is all important “dowry”. Various things are said about dowry. Dowry — in most cases — is an instrument to buy status. The bride family has to pay much larger sum if the status of groom is higher than the bride. If the girl is earning and have a stable job, the dowry may not be needed or demand is relaxed. If the bride family is not able or willing to pay sufficient dowry then they prefer to marry their daughters into a family of same or lower status. The rule of thumb about dowry is: “it is a payment for status”. And who has known an Indian who is not status conscious?

When I was a kid, government jobs were most prestigious; and less you work in your job, better it was, and if you can manage some outside income (taking bribes) along with your salary then you are the man. If you had such a job, you can demand very high amount of dowry (plus a car). Next was land-ownership which has lost much of sheen these days; and followed by small businesses and other petty clerk jobs.

The land-owning farmers need not any formal education, even though there was respect for it. There was no pressure on a farmer’s kid to do well in school. Only thing he needs to know is simple math: how much he spends and how much he earns. This much would enable him to deal in local market. Surely, he is not sending his wife to buy vegetables in markets?

During these family meeting for fixing marriages, lying was (and still is) the norm. The groom family will lie as much it can about land and education of would-be-groom. An illiterate would be classified as high-school and 1 hectare of land will be presented as 5. If they demanded to see the land-holding papers or the mark-sheets, the fake one would be arranged. The bride family is also from the same culture, they know what is going on. They will inquiry about the land on their own and some disgruntled enemy in the village will tell the truth about land-holding; and for education there was math test.

The mathematics test was the most feared one. The would-be-groom was trained by best school students in the night before the bridge family interviewed him. I remember training one. He was promised a scooter if he passed the interview. He cared little about money in dowry, that would go to his dad anyway. But loosing scooter, no sir no! There was little chance of getting a scooter after failure in interview from anyone else. That guy showed remarkable interest in mathematics that night but failed nonetheless. He managed to get scooter anyway, by convincing bride-family that scooter is for her own good. How she will travel to her remote village? In tempo and horse-cart?

The questions asked were mostly about fractions: how much is left if you have Rs. 3.50 and pay Rs. 2.75?  Mind you, this question is trickier than its sounds. People use traditional fractional names for 3.50 and 2.75; they are not easy to remember. But those were old days when people spent money in fractions. These days, government has stopped minting coins less the 0.50, and you can’t get anything in 0.50 anyway. Being a practical woman, this bride asked him much simpler integer arithmetics; yet our elementary education system did not disappointed her. The finance minister should definitely rethink his budget cuts in primary education. If he thinks primary education is not necessary, he should consider raising the budget allocation anyway. Sure none of his or his colleagues children’s children ever going to go to government school. If not for the sake of overall future of country; at least for the sake of dowry — the birth right of every Indian bridegroom who has some status in this society.

Nothing is more simpler than integer arithmetics; and when our would-be bridegrooms start failing even these tests, we must be ashamed of our primary education system in which our track record in nothing less than a scandal.

Attraction of factions

There have been disagreement on what constitutes the basis of Indian society: caste or class. Both caste and class are extremely important in our collective social life. But a large part of our private lives is governed neither by caste or class but faction. Factions are easily noticeable in the domain of politics: they are usually formed around important people in a political party. Factions are not limited to only political domain of our social life, they replicate themselves almost everywhere in similar forms.  They have received some well deserved attentions from political scientists but one fails to find a good amount of empirical or theoretical work done on factions by sociologists.

When little data collected systematically is available about a social process, one turns to one’s common sense and one’s own life to analyze the problem. Rural life is simple as far as its institutional organization is concerned. What count most is personal equations; impersonal rules are rarely cared for in corporate life of a village. Since society is small, this is an efficient arrangement. People are able to take finer personal distinction into accounts while dealing with each other. They turn to their kinsmen for both business and leisure. In return, the kin-group offers a certain kind of security to its members.  I am not suggesting that kinsmen and relatives always seek help or they always help each other. Nonetheless, they feel a strong moral obligation to help their kinsmen and a moral right to seek help.

The life in cities is different in scale and arrangement. It is mediated by different kind of institutions. British introduced many new institutions into our country, and, in our zeal of modernization, we have added some more. Whether we have the experience and ability to manage them or not, we can not imagine our lives without them. Institutions in urbane India are supposed to work via impersonal rules and procedures. It goes without saying that impersonal rules do not count for much in most of our institutions. First, we did not have a tradition or “habit of hearts” which prefers “rules” over “person”, and, second, conditions do not exist  in our institutions where such a tradition can grow and sustain a life of its own.

If we are to analyze factions, we need to discard two widely held beliefs about them. First, that factions are essentially a by-product of peasant mentality and their presence in white-collar professions or in urban middle class is a traditional residue; and they are bound to disappear with more industrialization and modernization.  Second, that factions appeal to our baser nature and has little or no moral legitimacy whatsoever. If anything, I would argue, that appeal of faction is most intense in urban middle classes and they are ubiquitous among them. And they are not without a moral legitimacy whether or not we are willing to admit it in public.  Perhaps the reason behind this is that we notice factions among others easily but fail to recognize them among ourselves.

We can learn a little more by looking at how an Indian in village copes when he is confronted by such an institution. A place where everything is done by unknown people through impersonal rules is a scary place for a villager to be. Whenever he has to deal with such places – banks, police,  hospital, etc. – the first thing he would inquire is whether he can find a person he can find some factional ties. If such a person does not exists then the idiom of kinship needs to be extended. If a bank-manger, doctor, or revenue officer happens to be from a different caste but from the same or nearby village, then the idiom of kinship is extended according to village even though everyone knows that the kinship can not exists between different castes. On the other hand, if he is from  distant village or town, then one inquires about his caste and extend the idiom of kinship accordingly. It is this fluid nature of idiom of kinship which enable villagers to find “connections” to get their work done in modern institutions. For them it is necessary too for they can not be certain if their work will get done through written rules and procedure only. Also factional ties are appealing to them because it relieves them from impersonal world of modern offices and bring them a psychological relief by bringing them closer to their kinsmen — a sort of pseudo family where the Indian feels truly secure.

The attraction of a faction (or a pseudo kinship) is no less strong in our cities. The idiom of kinship is even more fluid among urban Indians. In colleges and universities, it can be extended to hostels, wings, batches, labs and even to departments; not to mention academic lineage, if one gets one worth mentioning. One can easily witness it in IIT Bombay during elections. Voting takes place on factional lines: wing, hostel, department, batch etc. One notices a great deal of similarities here and voting based on “jati” and other communities in villages. In NCBS Bangalore, attendance pattern in journal club meeting depends largely on labs. There are many who attend the club meeting only when their own lab-member are reading a paper. This pattern is often broken by the presence of faculty member, usually perceived to be an authoritative figure on Indian university campus.

The conditions and environment in which our institutions operate are both uncertain and pliable. In the face of uncertainty, people fall back to their faction because there is nothing else to fall back to. The pliable nature of institutions  offers vast opportunities to manipulate personal relations in factional ties. Once a pseudo-kinship is formed and acknowledged, one feels free to demand some patronage or favour. It is remarkable to the length people in position of power in this country are willing to go to fulfil these demands of patronage. There is always some opportunity for material gain in all this, but one does it for sheer satisfaction and social prestige it brings. A man in some position of power in our society who does not offer patronage to his kinsmen is a man of no account.

The distribution of patronage among his kinsmen by a person in power has its own moral legitimacy in traditional order. First generation of Indian anthropologist, Nirmal Kumar Bose wrote about factional ties in the city of Calcutta; how city life was riddled with factions or ‘dal’. How these factions tried to outdo each other at public occasions by a lavish display of wealth. The wealth spent at these occasion was mostly private wealth. These days, the democratic processes in country have made it possible, in fact legitimize to some extent, to squander public wealth for factional display of might and status.

The attraction of factions does not look weaker even in the most efficient section of our society. It is remarkable that a person who appoints someone often feels that he now have a moral claim on the life-long loyalty of the appointed-one. Perhaps the appointed-one also feels that such a claim is morally justified, if somewhat uncalled for in the given institutional settings. What looks like a faction without any moral legitimacy to an outsiders is a humane arrangement of interdependence, loyalty and security for its members.

The inefficiency in our institutions depends largely if not solely on the fact that impersonal rules, by which our institutes are mandated to govern themselves, are discounted or simply ignored. Nothing will be gained if we discard these institutions simply because we now find these foreign plants withering away in our tropical environment. We need to rethink and appreciate the role of impersonal rules in modern institutional settings.  Many of us — with strong factional ties — would artfully agree in public that impersonal rules must count for much in our institutions. But not many of us are willing to give up the convenience it will cost us by abandoning the “cronyism” and “factionalism”.

Many Indians seem to have realized the costs some of our political institutions are made to pay for accommodating families into them. But it does not look like that we are getting even a little concerned about factionalism. In facts, there are many busybodies around trying to paint a humane face onto them [1]. If we are really troubled by the sorry states in which we find our institutions today, we have to understand that factions (or pseudo kinships like IITians, Bengalis, Jats, Delhites, IASs etc.) — whatever advantages they bring to individuals — cannot have the same moral claim as of real kinship. In long run, factions are parasitic in nature and a parasite can not thrive unless it feeds on its host.


[1] Gurucharan Das and S Gurumurthy can be taken as two examples. One of them recently argued that, “Instead of morally judging caste, I seek to understand its impact on competitiveness. I have come to believe that being endowed with commercial castes is a source of advantage in the global economy. Bania traders know how to accumulate and manage capital. They have financial resources and more important, financial acumen.”


Do we really need ‘strong’ leaders?

The media coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela and retirement of Sachin Tendulkar brought back the memory of an old essay written ‘on charisma’ by German sociologist Max Weber. I asked a German colleague how many charismatic personalities he knows in politics in his country. He responded somewhat indirectly, “There are some, but usually in Germany parties are more important than individuals.” When I hinted at Hitler, he said that Hitler played a great part in forming a distaste of ‘charismatic’ people. He added that many if not most Germans feel uneasy about populist leaders; and any attempt to revitalize them is met with strong enough opposition. He found it somewhat amusing to note that approval ratings of Hitler are quite high among Indians.

Continue reading “Do we really need ‘strong’ leaders?”

Judicial activism

One of our national dailies reports that Madras High court has ordered a CBI inquiry into what is a quintessential internal affair of IIT Madras, namely the process of appointing faculty [1]. The process of selecting students and appointing faculty are vital to any university health and must be a prerogative of the university. It may be true that all committees do not always act in good faith given how deeply dependence and patronage is rooted in our society but even if they act in good faith, the decision may not be agreeable to all. Speaking of German universities nearly a hundred years ago, the sociologist, Max Weber, had observed, “No university teacher likes to be reminded of discussions of appointments, for they are rarely agreeable”. We Indians loves to be argumentative; reaching consensus becomes very hard. To make matter worse, suspicions and allegations of caste prejudice and other forms of bias have become endemic.

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Caste and other ‘branded for life’ thingy

One of t-shirt designed by IITians at IIT Bombay. It says 'not of everyone' signifying exclusivity of brand or caste IITian.
One of the t-shirts designed by IITians at IIT Bombay. To some extent, the process of t-shirt design is democratic. Designs can be submitted by anyone and few are chosen (perhaps by voting). Since a lot of IITians are involved in t-shirt designing, these are good candidates for studying the nature of IITians. This t-shirt belongs to Electrical Engineering department and says ‘not for everyone’ signifying either the exclusivity of IITians or the superiority of Electrical Engineering department over other departments. Almost all designs are self-congratulatory. Other explicitly self-congratulatory designs read : ‘branded for life’, ‘it is in our genes’, ‘some say its attitude, we say its superiority’. Notice the uses of superlatives and words signifying sense of hierarchy. Symbols of superiority and inferiority are common to literature of any caste.

Social life in India is marked by subordination of individual to the group. This is not to say that Indian society knows ‘anything of individuals’ but the claims of group often prevail of claim of an individual [1]. Family, being a universal social group, is a good candidate for comparison and contrast. An Indian family makes its claims most vigorously at the time when education and marriage of children are being arranged. Such claims legitimize themselves by a value-system based on customs. Customs justify themselves by asserting their antiquity over anything else. If a group makes its claim on individual and expect from him a moral obligation to be loyal to it, then in return it offers patronage and a sense of security. Majority of Indians who feel safe and secure only in some ‘group’ or extended kinship develop a deep urge to be identified with a group : Jats, Brahmins, Tamils, Gujrati, IITians, IIMians etc. I do not wish to comment on identities based on language or religion for they are universal but I wish to point out those groups which are unique to South Asia namely Caste and its modern avatars.

Continue reading “Caste and other ‘branded for life’ thingy”

In praise of : Secularism

A growing tendency in India is to attack secularism, covertly and indirectly. The attack on secularism is somewhat similar to the attack on equality. They maintain since we can not define secularism (like equality) in a strict sense, it will be good if we stop using the term altogether, at least to avoid the intellectual confusion. More adventurous among them will go on to say that it does not exists at all and everything which is called secular is a form of pseudo-secular. Continue reading “In praise of : Secularism”