Respect: A talk by Gopalkrishna Gandhi at the Madras HC

The text of a talk titled ‘Respect,’ delivered at the Madras High Court on August 5, 2010, under the aegis of Juris/Legal Exl '83, formed by the alumni of the Madras Law College 1980-1983 batch.

It is not usual for the title or theme of a lecture to be made up of just one word. But then one word can say more than a whole sentence or even a paragraph. Vanakkam, for instance.

And one word, like one look of disdain, can contain a whole Niagara of abuse. I respect this gathering far too much to give an example of such a word.

So ‘respect’ it is, plain ‘respect’.

It is plain, this thing called ‘respect’. Evident, manifest, unmistakable, it is either there or not there. You cannot have gradations of it. You cannot have Respect Category I, Respect Category II, or Respect Vibhushan, Respect Bhushan, Respect Shri. Respect is Respect.

Respect does not come from reasoning or analysis. One does not take a measure of a person’s honesty in metres, one does not weigh probity in grams. The cup of observation that holds respect has to be filled to the brim, not less. If less, the cup may be said to hold acknowledgment, appreciation, recognition, and even regard. But not respect.

Respect comes instinctively, not from judging or evaluating. It comes from feeling. The feeling, wordless, image-less, comes first followed, on reflection, by the thought, ‘Here is one I respect.’ Very often, at that moment, the moment of naming, of conscious codification, respect can weaken for then other conditioned thoughts come in such as ‘Could I be making a mistake? What if the person does something that makes me re-consider…’ and so on.

That risk apart, respect is a feeling, pure and uncontaminated, unadulterated by thoughts of a utilitarian or mundane kind.

How and why did I come to think of this word or this one-word theme over a host of other more likely and serious-sounding subjects for this lecture?

For no reason other than that while contemplating a credible and a relevant subject for the lecture, I asked myself: What do I feel for the auspices and the aegis of the evening, for those who have invited me, those who are to hear me, for those who comprise the legal profession in India, and the great edifice of the Indian judiciary? And I heard, clear as a bell, in my cranium, the answer to my self-posed question ‘what do I feel?...’ in that one word: ‘Respect’.

The human mind is home to an imp. In fact, a cheeky little imp. For it is ever judging, harshly, searingly, and often unprintably, persons and things that cross its path, especially those as are lofty of appearance or exalted of manner. And so, no sooner had I settled on the subject (and even mailed Shri Jayesh Dolia about it) that the imp, a creature of conditioned thinking and habitual carping, got to work.

“‘Respect?’,” the imp said to me. “Do you not know that lawyers are not exactly society’s favourite community, that they are known for a cleverness that is artful at its best and wily at its worst – beguiling, bombastic, canny, calculating, crafty, devious, digressive, deceptive, and duplicitous?”

“Enough,” I retorted, “enough of your adjectives, two in the alphabet ‘b’, three in ‘c’ , four in ‘d’; I will not let you proceed further.”

But would it listen? Imps, like all pre-positioned thought, are difficult to control.

“Lawyers,” it continued, “use the scissors of cleverness rather than the lance of intelligence, the spanner of device rather than the wheel of argument; dodgings, subterfuges and tricks of the trade are their staple; they do not just make money, they rake it in, and you are going to speak to them about ‘respect’?”

The imp then prayed, “With due respect, please speak at a gathering of lawyers on something other than ‘respect’.”

I do not like listening to imps.

I therefore told ‘my’ imp that, like others of its kind, it has sprung from that gnome called mischief, and is a hobgoblin; in fact, a goblin. And that I take my instructions from other inhabitants of the thinking mind, those that have not sprung from mischief.

I then reminded myself of my own personal respect for lawyers, now no more, like H.M. Seervai, M.C. Chagla (later Justice Chagla), N.A. Palkhivala, Govind Swaminadhan and several contemporary lawyers as well, all of who stand for that rare attribute, veracity. And I reminded myself, too, that Abraham Lincoln and Mohandas Gandhi belonged to that very profession and what is more, were influenced by it in their transactions beyond and outside of court rooms. This is because they commanded respect not despite having been lawyers but, to a not inconsiderable extent, because they knew the value, the uses and the abuses of the legal method.

My choice of theme, therefore, has arisen from an interest in the subject of respect per se, its origins, status and its likely future.

To my mind, the recipients of public respect have been broadly of three kinds: First, those whose status or authority commands respect. The examples of this first category would be kings, judges, popes, bishops, mathadhipatis, generals, ‘captains’ of industry. Second, those who get entitled to respect by ties of family or of social assemblage, helped by considerations of age and wisdom, such as elders in the family or community. Third, and most significant, those whose lives and deeds, not their nativity, not their office or seniority, have generated a wide and deep respect for them. I do not need to give any examples, right? They are known to each of us.

Respect for the first category of the status-endowed is a matter of social hierarchy, respect for the second category, a matter of social convention, and respect for the last, a matter of social consensus.

Today, respect for those in high office, that is to say, respect for men and women with status, is in some difficulty. There was a time not all that long ago when disrespect for those in positions of status was unusual. Today respect for that category has strong competition from its opposite number.

The public is no fool. It judges. Like the imp in my mind it excoriates. From tea-stall owners, vegetable vendors, auto and taxi drivers to fellow-commuters on a train, metro, or bus, all evaluate high-office holders. They can rip a man’s hide off with no more than a phrase, a half-phrase, or sometimes, by one single gesture.

In Kerala, this can be done with a movement of fingers in a Kathakali-like dismissive contempt. In Tamil Nadu a person can be consigned to obloquy by a single despairing invocation: Sivane! In Gujarat it can be a forehead tap signifying ‘what to do, it is our fate to endure him’. In West Bengal it can be a withering torrent of dialectical decimation.

But those wanting to find those deserving and worthy of respect ought not to lose heart. If the public can demolish, it is because it knows when and how to respect. Many holders of high office are elected to them. The process of election is now used skilfully by the electorate as a political exercise, that may or may not be connected with a moral evaluation. Persons can be elected because they are smart, because they ‘deliver’, or simply because they are better than the available alternative, not necessarily because they command respect. But mostly, electoral dynamics are independent of respect. Several, not all, and not even many, but yet several among those contesting elections, whether winning or losing them, enter the fray because they command resources, not because they command respect. They command loyalty, they command obedience, they command admiration, they command fear. And because after commanding all these, they still want to command respect, they get their followers to commandeer it. People, simple people, are able to perceive the intrinsic quiddity or thingness of a person almost by instinct, just as they are able to tell a good potato from one that has gone fungoid. And so, at the end of the day, all candidates, successful or not, finish up with respect for voters, those who voted for them and those who did not.

Of course persons are often elected because it is not they but their party that is being voted for. And one has to say that in almost all our political parties, for historical or ideological reasons, there is something that in some if not all, generates respect. And it has to be said here with pride and in fact with joy that elections and candidates apart, the public continues to hold the institution of Parliament and our legislatures in respect, a respect that was outraged when Parliament House was attacked by terrorists and also each time legislators break codes of behaviour inside the House and let their tempers get the better of their judgment.

It is not as if status-holders of the elected kind cannot command respect. Several persons are elected because they command respect, of course. And many are so elected. I know of several such, across the political spectrum. But one cannot say their numbers are growing. Not unoften respect for such persons in high office is unconnected to electoral endorsement. C. Rajagopalachari never contested or won an election in independent India, but public respect for him was strong, whether he was in office or out of it (which was most of the time). The same was true of his exact contemporary, ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramaswamy, whose ‘office’ was none other than affectionate esteem. Stalwarts of our freedom struggle like Nehru, Patel and Azad and towering personalities like Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Babasaheb Ambedkar apart, post-Independence Chief Ministers like Gopinath Bordoloi of Assam, T. Prakasam, K. Kamaraj, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Gobind Ballabh Pant, C.N. Annadurai, and Jyoti Basu are among those whose incumbencies in elective office had little to do with the intrinsic respect they commanded across political divides and across the country. It is immaterial that Jayaprakash Narayan did not hold elective office. He held a respect which the spontaneous title – Loknayak – symbolised.

The commanding of respect by those in high station who are not elected but selected by processes of appointment and elevation to such office, especially those offices which are entered upon with oaths sworn or affirmed, is not an unmixed affair either. Take the judiciary in this context. The public has no direct role in its composition or in its periodical re-composition. Nor does it seem particularly interested in acquiring such a role either. All it would want is a general satisfaction that this process is fair. And yet, distant though it is from the judiciary’s genesis or cyclical morphosis, the public has reserved a healthy respect for it. This is not to say that among affected litigants variegated views on individual judges are not to be found; there are those. This is also not to say that the public has indemnified the judiciary from the prisms of evaluation either; it has not. Lawyers, magistrates and judges arise from the same stock of humanity as any other person. They cannot but have their due share of the same human characteristics as the rest. But just as in certain offices or roles that a person performs in the course of daily living he or she acts with greater circumspection than in others, the body social in its judicial offices and roles rises above the usual and the normal and becomes all that it is meant and expected to be. This also means of course, that quite apart from the intrinsicality of the judiciary’s work and the contents of a lawyer’s activity, there is an expectation of them in their engagements with what may be called ‘ordinary’ life.

The respect enjoyed by an institution like the legislature or the judiciary suffers if the incumbents of those bodies do not treat those very bodies with respect. Respect begets respect. This would mean that even as the obstructing of the business of the House by legislators shakes public confidence in them as responsible legislators, the boycott of courts by lawyers hurts the institution’s reputation. Not any less so, does the rare individual trespass by a sitting judge. The trespass does not have to be gross. Even a red-light signal being cut by a red-light bearing car in which a judge is travelling can shake the public’s respect in the erring dignitary’s instructions to his chauffeur, and in the dignitary’s work-ethic and life-ethic.

Having said this, it cannot be denied that as a collective entity and as an institution, the Indian judiciary, rather more than other limbs of the republic, has retained the respect of the people of India. Constitutional bodies like the Election Commission of India and the Comptroller and Auditor General are also held in similar esteem, though once again, the people play no direct role in their appointments. This says something about those institutions and also about ‘respect’.

Respect is retractable. It is extended on trust, and maintained in verification. When it comes to elective offices, the system of periodic elections serves as an instrument of respect-revalidation or respect-retraction, faith-reiteration or faith-reversal, trust-reaffirmation or trust-revocation.

But when it comes to institutions like the judiciary, respect for it as an institution or for individual incumbents in judicial office is unaccompanied by the dynamics of periodic re-affirmation or of retraction except when, eroded by palpable misconduct, respect for the institution is sought to be vouchsafed by off-loading the errant individual through the constitutionally-devised processes of impeachment.

The effect of this cocooning or cloistering is that respect for the judiciary (and for judicial and other commissions) becomes dependent on what may be termed as the willing reposing of trust. This comes (or goes) like this: Nothing in creation is flawless, except perhaps forgiveness by the person entitled to forgive. (Forgiveness is different, we should note, from pardon). But the judiciary’s mandate is not to distribute forgiveness, it is about determining culpability and where required, convicting and sentencing the culpable. Nothing in creation is infallible, not even forgiveness. In the dispensing of justice in accordance with a differentiated code of defining and evaluating liability, this institution too can err. But natural fallibility in our courts and commissions is regulated through systems of appeal and revision. So there are safeguards. Nothing in creation is constant or uniform either, except the speed of light in vacuo or the speed of sound at sea-level. So the judiciary and constitutional bodies and commissions are a terraced palate, where fallibility is a fact as is dis-uniformity.

There can therefore be doubts, natural and normal doubts, about the flawlessness, infallibility and constancy of their functioning. But the institutions concerned are too vital, too valuable, to be held in any ambiguity as regards respect. Respect for them needs to have and be seen to have something more than the willing reposing of trust by the people of India. It needs buttressing in the unceasing vigilance of its inner monitors. I believe that this will be best done if the concern within our courts shifts from questions pertaining to the prestige it enjoins to questions pertaining to the respect it enjoys. Prestige follows respect, not the other way around. Status follows stature, not the other way around. What might happen if respect for the judiciary, even for judicial commissions of enquiry, gets substantially eroded, is too disturbing a prospect to contemplate. I have the confidence that the custodians of the respect of our judiciary and of judicial or constitutional commissions will never permit that to happen.

If respect for status is a mixed affair, respect for seniority or chronological respect, is now becoming routinised. I am not an atavistic believer in ancestor-worship. But I do lament the not-so-gradual disappearance of certain rites of respect for seniors and for elders, like the touching of grand-parental if not parental feet on departure or return home, or on anniversaries. This becomes particularly so when one finds that the reverential touching of feet as such has not gone out of vogue, but has only undergone metastatis, the recipients of prostrations being unembarrassed political gurus and unabashed godmen and godwomen. And when one finds that the extended namaskaram or pranam of old has got fancy modern equivalents, quite abject or even servile in themselves. I refer to the new young genuflecting before an uncertain future in terms of liberal life-styles and work-styles that they have unquestioningly adopted.

This reflects something more than the generational shedding and replacing of cultural mores, or just the growing self-centredness of the younger generation. It reflects a false streak of self-assurance that goes beyond aplomb to a kind of don’t care nerve, which thinks of itself as the human equivalent of Bt Cotton or Bt Brinjal which India has to take to, but must, alas, co-exist in a period of transition with insufficient, inefficient and, generally, passé traditions. It would not be wrong to fix the responsibility for this on the nucleation of the Indian joint family. But that would give us only a part of the explanation. The erosion of respect for social or community institutions and leaders comes, I think, from the social coefficients of economic liberalisation and globalization. Today ‘management’ has its gurus, the board room its gods.

The last category of respect-receivers in India, men and women of stature of different status in a great many disciplines and fields, continues to be large and growing. I would in fact go to the extent of saying that true worth and the repute flowing from it, are increasingly looked out for and when discerned, are greatly and immediately respected. Yes, comparisons with a bygone age are invariably made and a personage whose oil portrait may hang high on a public wall towers over and all but dwarfs his or her successor-in-office. But stature as opposed to status, reputation as distinct from rank, credibility as something that is different from credentials are to be encountered everywhere in our country and, what is more to the point in this talk, are shown the highest respect by regular, ordinary people. It is a different matter that in the quotidian world status sways, rank rules, and credentials count. But there is that margent of life in our midst where mundane needs of self-protection and self-advancement take pause and where we, the people of India, feel and say, “That person there, we respect him for we can trust him.”

Respect is often linked to admiration for skill. There is respect for a great musician, a dancer or sculptor, an actor or a sportsman because that person has honed a great skill to near-perfection. And thank God, we have such skilled persons among us in great numbers. There is one unfortunate accompaniment to skill-based stature, however, that can rob it of its appeal. And that is the price tag that goes with high-calibre skill. Be it in sports – cricket in particular – or in music, or in the visual arts, the interplay of money with standards threatens respect for those persons endowed with skills and, in fact, with the place of skills in society. Today, the young may know how much an IPL cricketer is paid than how many runs he has scored or wickets he has put under his belt. The admiration for them remains, there is no dip in the applause, no grudging of praise. But respect gets dismayed when confronted with the ring of money.

The obtaining or retaining of respect cannot be one’s aim or goal. If it becomes that there is no chance of it ever coming one’s way. It is not respect but that which occasions respect that should concern sensitive souls. And then again not because one might then come to enjoy respect, but because things that occasion respect such as veracity, trustworthiness and a clear conscience are what make life worth living.

Which is why respect is not necessarily directed at persons alone. It can be felt for and shown to processes like hand-weaving, the ‘lost wax’ technology of panchaloha casting, scultping on stone, traditions like those of the temple oduvaar, movements like Sarvodaya in its time and prime and Chipko in ours including certain protests and heterodoxies .

Taking a pause in stillness, and reflection, let alone contemplation, has become a rarity. If that were not the case, we would find unexpected aquifers of respect in our parched times such as when one sees a modestly paid woman raking garbage – created by you and me – into bins and from bins onto trucks. Or when one sees a woman washing her tiny vaasal-padi and then on that small surface, despite cares and anxieties, ill-health and a demanding day ahead of her, drawing an amazing kolam. Perhaps the Euclidean balance of dots and loops, lines and curves on that little drawing give her the inner balance life denies her.

As I close, I must acknowledge the Law of Opposites. And must therefore say a word about disrespect. How this is growing, is simply unbelievable. The level of public discourse has sunk to an unprecedented low, with vilification flowing seamlessly like a taanam being rendered by Semmangudi Srinivasier. Our Honourable Chief Minister Kalaignar Karunanidhi recently reminded us of the mutual respect that Rajaji and Periyar had for each other, as did he himself for Kamaraj, despite irreconcilable political differences. Even in the professions, the Services, those in commerce as between ‘blood-brothers’, disrespect reigns. This points to more than a rise in discourtesy. It points to an erosion of trust.

At the heart of respect lies trust.

The trust that says this person will be true to his calling or to her genius, will not deceive, will not betray, and will to the best of his or her ability do what is right rather than what is expedient (though those two are not necessarily antithetical), seeking neither applause, nor gain.

The trust that says this person will not play false, because he or she is actual not acting, real, bona fide and because this person, be he a governor or a grocer, a judge or a jockey, a councillor or a carpenter, an atomic scientist or an auto-driver, is trustworthy or, in Thesauran informal equivalents, ‘honest-to-goodness, kosher, pukka, legit’, in simple Tamil a sari aal who can therefore be trusted, ‘nambalaam’.

Respect is above prestige, higher than esteem, beyond regard and ahead of admiration. It is not the subject of politeness, civility or courtesy. In the phrase ‘paying one’s respects’, the concept has got routinised into a form of idle ceremony. But where it is earned and not extended, where it is offered from one’s instinctive appreciation and not from calculation or analysis, where it is given without expectation or conditionalities, it is something sublime. The only thing flawless in the world, I said, is forgiveness. The only thing priceless, I believe, is nambikkai. And nambikkai is at the core of respect. It is, as I said, either there, or not there. It cannot be insinuated into anyone or anything. It has, simply, to be.

A society in which respect has sunk has to be a society with low self-esteem. And that is the worst condition to be in.

Nambikkai, belief, credibility, trust and trustworthiness are under threat. We must value them the more for their being under threat, for not to do so would be to lose the challenge of receiving and the fulfilment of giving respect.

With respect, I thank you.

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