In front of a vast graveyard of words and values

– Rajagopal P.V

Member, National Council for Land Reforms.

President, Ekta Parishad

(February 2012)

I am more and more concerned about the lack of respect for words. There was a time when people used to say ‘a word is a word and you cannot break it’. This was the basis for marriages in India. Two families would exchange ‘a word’ and they would keep to it. Much of the transactions in society took place on the basis of ‘words’. It is only recently that we have moved from an oral tradition like this to a legal tradition. Unfortunately, in this process we have lost respect for words. Announcement and pronouncement are no more valuable. During the election period, politicians can say anything but they can easily forget it after the elections are over. The concern is that people are getting used to this and they do not feel that anything is really wrong about it. Even in villages oral transactions are no longer respected. Today you can get away with your oral commitments and there is no way you can hold somebody responsible for not keeping their words.

I find that it is only among some adivasis and poor people that words are still meaningful. You will find that often a poor person will give away his/her land just on the basis of a word from a senior government official that they will be given jobs in exchange for giving up their land  to create a new SEZ. They take the ‘word’ of an educated person so seriously that they do not think twice about getting his/her word in writing. I remember my days as a bonded labour inquiry commissioner of the Supreme Court. I was trying to convince a very poor person that he does not have to return the loan taken from a farmer as he is now released from the bondage. He had a strong look on his face and he coolly said “Sir I want to keep my promise and I will return the money”. For him legal provisions were not so important. What was important for him was his oral commitment that he will return the money. His word.

I see a lot of people standing in front of government offices with petitions. They are told that the mem/saheb will only understand written language. They will not entertain any oral discussion. What are the poor people trying to tell the officer ? Their main grievances are lack of drinking water in the village; the PDS dealer selling rice and oil in the black market; or they want the liquor shop to be removed from the village. Is this something that the officer cannot understand if villagers orally state it? Why make things so complicated and waste so much  time and resources to make an application, stand in a queue to meet the officer for such a small thing. In this process, there is a big business that is thriving. There is a person drafting letters who charges Rs 10 per letter, there is a typist who charges them Rs. 10 per page and there is a person who makes a living making more photocopying of the same applications and thus grows not only their business but also the GDP of the country.

We have found new methods to take the resources from the pockets of poor people and put it into the market in the name of legal culture as opposed to oral culture. One person in a village told me that “government officials rarely come to the village and if at all they come, they only come to punish us, not to solve our problems. The policeman comes to take our people to the thana, the forest officials come with a search warrant or other officials are into the village when they need to make some extra money or collect some good vegetables” Why should so many people be kept on payroll to punish innocent people. They were never trained to deal with this system. They were not even told what kind of a system is being created and what services will be provided. I wonder how can we morally accept this exploitation by people from a highly corrupt system and who lacks any sense of self-respect of self-respecting people who are illiterate in the ways of the corrupt system . Every story I am listeningnto gives me a deep feeling that we have created a big mismatch. And this system is in the interest and benefit of powerful.

Democracy was a word that was highly cherished once upon a time but now this has become a joke. People use this word for all kinds of things.  Democratic behaviour is not something very dear to our society. People think democracy only means election. So while we are highly undemocratic and authoritarian in day-to-day life, we still claim that we are part of the biggest democracy of the world. The word democracy is losing its meaning very fast because even in democratic elections, people now use money power and muscle power in order to win and get into power. Those who do not practice democratic values in elections are supposed to promote democratic values in society. This is becoming a deep-rooted problem in India. The idea that the other person also has a view and that view also needs to be respected is more at a drama level than in reality. In the last 10-20 years words like ‘participation’ or ‘inclusion’ are all so loosely used that they are dying a natural death. There was a time when the teacher in the classroom used to speak about a phrase ‘manasa, vacha, karmana’ which means there should be harmony between what you think, what you say and what you do. We were told that this is how civilized people should behave. The lesser the contradiction between thinking, speaking and doing, the more civilized you become but what we see today in our day to day lives is just the opposite. In our ‘democracy’ people are really proud when they can make a big speech and do just the opposite of all that they said. They are even proud when they were able to fool others. More than economic poverty, this poverty of values is becoming frightening. What do you do in a country where words and terminologies are no more important? How can you trust anybody when you know that you are cheated again and again by using similar words and similar promises. What will happen to a society where people finally conclude that whether it is oral or legal, words are not important; what is important is your capacity to undermine those words and bully your way through to ‘success’? What do we achieve by creating a vast graveyard of words and values?

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