Friday, January 28, 2011

"but, what can I do?"

"But, what can I do?" I hear that exclamation (or should I say "helplessness") quite often whenever people discuss democracy, civil liberty, corruption type issues in the context of India. I also used to belong to that category just few years ago and used to wonder "but, what can I do"! We used to feel so helpless. Immenseness of the problem make it more confusing. Where to start? It is truly overwhelming.

Now I am changing the gear a bit. Today I attended a very informative "public hearing" organized by "We the people" forum of the "Ohio Center for Law Related Education" (OCLRE). It was a state level competition among high school students to make them aware of their "right and responsibilities" under American constitution. Those students need to understand different laws and more importantly its interpretation. They get few months time to prepare for that, with the help of school teacher(s). Then they appear before a panel of jury, generally formed by different people from different walks of life- teachers, administrators, lawyers, judges and law makers (senators and congressmen; i.e MP, MLA equivalent in India). It is about 20 mins hearing time for each school. The students get 10 mins time for inaugural speech. Then the juries ask questions to determine how well they have understood the issue and and not jut parroting some data or prepared statement. Most of the time there is no "right" or "wrong" answer. Whatever the students say need to be clarified with logic and examples. One example- "do you support civil disobedience in a democracy and why". Students also get chance to freely interact with elected public representatives, lawyers, judges and so on. I like the idea. I wish we had something like that in our schools to know more about our country and, most importantly, its constitutional foundation. 

Now changing the gear again. I have a friend who recently went through a messy divorce. He got married to a lady from a rich family. The marriage did not click. They were not compatible to each other. It is not the fault of the man or the woman but their upbringing, core values as a human being were totally different. They spent seven days together after marriage. My friend went back to US to join his job while his wife remained in India. Despite of my friend's best efforts his newly married wife did not come to US. Finally he went back to India to attend his father for his deteriorating health. During his stay there my friend and his sister were arrested by police on charges of "demanding dowry, physical abuse and mental torture". It was very sudden development for him. Police arrested them during 10.30 at night. We need to keep in mind that his wife did not stay with her in-laws but lived with her own family for the whole time my friend was in US. My friend was a well-aware (at least he used to think so), "educated" person. He described his first feelings during arrrest was "helpless, scared to the death" in the police station. His passport was confiscated. The next day of his arrest, his father died but he could not go to see his dead father for the last time. They had no idea, whatsoever, about how the police work, how to handle them, what are his/his sister's legal rights, so on and so forth. They learned many things later; e.g legally police cannot arrest any women after 6.30 pm, both the police officer and the person need to sign (or thumb impression) the arrest warrant when police is arresting a person and many such laws, norms, legal ways to fight back against police atrocities and general corruption. 

During the whole divorce battle, they learned how our laws are twisted, sold and misused by almost everyone, starting from police, lawyers, judges, media and so on. Everyone was asking for bribe from them. Even court judges were no exception. The dowry related law is very clear to mention that both parties, who give and who receive dowry should be prosecuted. But there is not a single instance that any parent who claim to have given dowry had ever been prosecuted in Indian legal history. If the marriage is successful the money or items given to the groom becomes "gift" while the same becomes "dowry" if the marriage goes bad! My friend learned that despite of giving ample evidences that police were not following laws and harassing them was not sufficient for our judiciary to protect the victims. they learned that police can arrest anyone without showing arrest warrant, police can drag any woman to the police station at night 10.30 pm (the whole drama in police station went on till 2.30 am), police can file a FIR against my friend and his family claiming him (and his family members) to beat the bride when the lady was not even in their house and my friend was in US. In short, my friend came to realize, for the first time in his life, that it is totally different to write laws in a book (called constitution) and practicing that in real life.

The only good thing my friend did was to refuse to bribe anyone. The family members of the bride asked 25 lakhs rupees for an out-of-court settlement. My friend had no clue why he need to pay anyone when he did not take any dowry, never even shouted at his wife. He continued to tell his in-laws to punish him if they can prove a single crime alleged against him. After all, "they should seek justice to protect the dignity and the rights of their own daughter, and that should be more important than 25 lakhs rupees"! 

He was also worried that if he can manage that huge sum of money (which he never had) and give that to the lady's family (and police, judges etc.), he practically accepting all their false allegations. That's the main reason he refused to bribe anyone or indulge in any monetary transaction to settle it out-of-court. To cut the long story short, he ultimately won the legal battle after a long fight.

Now my friend knows India better. His sister left her PhD from New York University. Went back to India and started her own fight as a social activist. They became aware how helpless few remaining honest government and other police officials are, who tried their best to get justice for them. They merely could save my friend form more legal and other harassments; but still could not punish any of those corrupt government officials or punish the family members of the lady who brought false allegations against my friend and his family. 

I told this story not to highlight the fight of my friend but to show how ineffective our education system is, to groom our future citizens. Mugging up some numeric table or laws of motion is not that important than to know the reality, to know our system, to know what options we might have if we face same situation, if we want to remain honest and deal the system to deliver justice. We accept corruption in the name of reality. We make our ways through it- bribing different people and bullying weaker ones. We naively wonder why so much black money around, why we can never minimize corruption in public lives that is ruing our country from its core. And then wonder, "but what can I do?"

Would it not be a useful idea to take our primary and high school students to local police stations, court houses and let them witness a trial? Or have a guided tour to our state and national parliament houses, meet law makers whose actions practically control our daily lives? Our future citizens need to know how police work, how government officials deal with fellow citizens, or even to those who has committed a crime or alleged to have committed a crime. They need to know how to make laws, what social and ethical issues they need to deal with as a politician or a judge or even a common citizen. I think, they need to know the constrains our police, judiciary and political system. We owe it to them to prepare themselves for the eminent and upcoming future they have to handle and take responsibility of. 

I know many parents will be shocked to know that the school is planning to visit the local police station or a court house with their beloved children. We, the adults, try our best to stay clear from such places, for reasons we all know. Probably police personnel will not like that idea either to expose themselves in front of some kids, which may have their own children. But just think a little deeper. It will not only expose our future citizens to know the reality and get enough time to prepare themselves to handle it, whatever it is- good or bad. If some of them are not satisfied, they may try to come up with a solution to change it in future. Police and law makers will (eventually) find it little embarrassing to tell lies to these little kids who may confront them, if caught. Older, more "practical" people might find it hard and/or even risky to ask the same questions they should have asked to our mighty policy makers, police and civil administration.

Here in western societies people say, "if you do not like any politician, then try to become one". In India, we never groom ourselves, our kids to become a true leader, a true politician. Not a single political party in India have any democracy in electing their own leaders, about deciding any policy within the party. That is one of the reasons why we get that type of politicians and policies we have now. There is almost no chance to get our own Barak Obama, from any party in India. We rightly get what we deserve. We wrongly think that by insulating our kids from reality we are protecting them. In reality, we are making them incompetent to have a functional democracy, to take responsibility of their own lives and country and more importantly we force majority of them to stand in the already long que in front of many foreign embassies. 

Forcing the kids to go to private tuition or judo or cricket or tennis or computer class probably is important. But I will ask teachers and parents to think about what they can really do, in real life, to make a positive and sustainable change in attitude as a personal attempt to make a brighter future for themselves, for their own children and the country. 

This is one of the things that you can do, I can do, we all can do as individuals. Worth a try, I think.

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  1. A wonderful article based on experience. It reflects my opinion entirely. India is in a stage where change has to come from bottom and not from the top. The recent elections in TN where 80% voter turnout was recorded is an evidence to this. I have a personal experience that I wish to share. I was returning to India from israel after completing my Ph.D. I wanted to know my rights w.r.t. duty allowance etc. I checked at teh customs website and printed out the rules and teh allowance details based on my status. In accordance to that I brought stuff with me to India (mumbai). I was the last passenger to leave the baggage terminal as I had to report a missing item to the airline official. The custom's guy stopped me and asked me to put my baggage on teh scanner. I did as he said and he told me that I have electronic items and that he would have to charge a duty for them and I could avoid it if I greased him with $50. I told him I don't mind being charged with the duty and requested him to evaluate. He said it would take two or more hours. I said I am not in a hurry and he can conduct the evaluation. It occurred to me then that I had the rules and the receipts in my back pack. I removed them and presented them to him and told him that I have followed the rules to the point and since I was returning to the home country with a one way ticket, I am eligible to bring these used items free of duty. He went to talk to his colleague and returned mentioning that he was doing me a "favor" and letting me go without any duty this time.
    This is INDIA. As citizens we have no ready access to the rules. The officials don't have the rules printed or pasted at teh airport to educate the travelers. They keep us confused and ignorant in that aspect to exploit us and keep the beast of corruption alive and healthy. Let us work to change that and we need to take an extra effort to educate ourselves about out legal rights, government procedures and be a little brave.

  2. Jayanta, I'm responding to our discussion on the BBC site (postings by Freespirit on Soutik Biswas' article).
    I completely concur with your observation. Like many, in my limited way, I try and explain to people (adults, kids, educated/uneducated...), that we owe it to ourselves to seek what our rights are but also to respect and follow up with our responsibilities.
    My comment on the Soutik's column was more in line with Pres. Kalam suggests. We the so-called 'educated' need to go down to the schools, (starting with rural schools, since India is supposedly largely rural) and create the movement that we so desperately need. Question is - who will bell the cat? Are we prepared to give up our lovely life, and go into rural areas and slog it out - essentially living and experiencing what ails the poor, before we can "re-educate" them? Most likely the answer is 'no' (For most of us, and I'm not saying it's right or wrong to not being able to do so - we all have legitimate reasons and I respect that). The problem is then we are also hypocrites and we must admit that. We're not a Gandhi. So we'll only make very limited dents. The politicians know that and that's why they are at an upper hand. Just see what Team Hazare has to go through? That's why there're very few leaders, and more followers, followers who get caught up in the rhetoric of some leaders who really want to make changes and others who are crooks. Most people end up with the latter!

    One thing we can do is to keep trying and so we must do what's right. I concede that.

  3. • I cannot agree more with you in your observation that our Indian education system is so inefficiant in making individuals who can make matured decisions in real life situations. I am fascinated by the example given from real life to come to the conclusion logically. The problem is more on the scoring system than on the syllabus. The mug-up technic works really well there. Though it also works in US but here at least the ones who cannot mug-up can also score well because of the multiple choice questions. Beside here since kindergarten emphasis is given on analysis having a section dedicated to it in the qs-ans section after each chapter. In India we never come across the concept of analysis and it is thwarted nicely by the teachers as soon they see any sign of it in any kid.
    Thank you for the nice article which is a must read for teachers in India.


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