Challenging a culture of obedience

Indians are too obsequious, but some sea change in questioning authority seems to be taking place

It’s always difficult to speak out, to stand up and question any system or structure of which you are a part. We in India are taught the mantra of obedience since childhood. This happens across caste, class, religion and ethnicity. The first cultural hardwiring that’s stitched onto you is an awareness of the group (or set of groups) that you belong to, overlaid by a circuit of total compliance to the perceived needs of that group. Growing older you form your own groups, but these are usually balanced on top of the initial set into which you were born. Even here, a certain unquestioning tribal loyalty is demanded and received from each member. So, for instance, by birth you could be of gender M or F, caste B, ethnicity G, economic strata X, in school H, class 1-12, section A or B and then, within that, in a gang of boys or girls led by sundry strong personality types; between school and themuhalla, you could also be in discreet groups. In each gondi you are trained to abide by a set of rules and hierarchies. The trouble starts when you let a question slip out of your mouth. Or it starts when, through some act, you signal a desire to disobey or go your own way.

The cost of rebellion

The first thing you are made to feel is that you are wrong, out of tune and stupid. If you are foolish enough to continue on your course, you feel the brunt of the group’s anger, usually choreographed by the boss of the group: parent, older sibling, teacher, class monitor, gang leader. What happens next is that people you thought were your friends and allies suddenly melt away, leaving you standing alone. Depending on the magnitude and length of your rebellion, you then face sanctions. In extreme cases, this leads to your expulsion. Again, depending on the situation, that expulsion could be temporary or permanent, the punishment mentally painful or physically so, or sometimes both.

As a desi growing up in this subcontinent of ours, you navigate adolescence, coming of age, and young adulthood with a clear memory — of having faced this group anger, or having witnessed it and participated in visiting it upon somebody else, or all of the above. The one lesson our society teaches us, harpooning it into the growing person from different angles, is that it’s safest to be one of the herd, it’s best to go along with the majority, that it doesn’t pay to be too individualistic, or question, or challenge the various powers that be.

On their part, those in power also come to depend on this complicit silence. In their calculations, they too count on most people being too afraid to question authority. If too many people begin to ask questions, the impunity with which one can exercise power goes out of the window. It’s useful to remember that most people who are in positions of authority today — the policeman, the IAS officer, the army commander, the company CEO, the this-minister or that-minister, the magistrate or the judge — have all, themselves, climbed the ladder of obedience, grasping greater and greater power as it has been handed to them by the equally obedient person above them.

An obedient nation

In other societies things are a bit different. In some places, both political and philosophical questioning are encouraged from an early age; in others, the individual is lauded above the group, leading to some negative but also some positive tendencies; in many countries, the system of ruling and administration has been set up long enough that it kicks in almost automatically to provide checks and balances. In India, our models of questioning are still being formed. We are too obsequious. We have too much feudal programming that we need to delete. For instance, there is no need to add ‘respected’ or ‘ adarniya ’ or ‘honourable’ before an official position, just as there is no need to add a ‘ji’ after it, but we do. In countries which are more interested in getting things done, the Prime Minister is simply called ‘Prime Minister’, the Chief Justice is just that, and in court you address the person on the Bench simply as ‘Madam’ or ‘Sir’, the honorable-ness being implied and contained within the title itself.

What we have had in India is a simulacra of rebellion and challenge — for instance, in popular cinema — but when you look at the hero of movies such as Deewar , Zanjeer and Sholay today, you see an avuncular establishment figure who sits on the most conservative side. In reality, questioning authority is not fun, it doesn’t yield immediate results and there are nasty costs attached. However, some sea change does seem to be taking place. Perhaps one can be cautiously optimistic when a new generation takes to the streets, asking hard questions without fear, and perhaps one can add to that when — at the other end of the power spectrum — people steeped in the culture of obeying themselves feel obliged to step out of line and join in the questioning.

Recommended for you