The flip side of fighting graft
Apr 18, 2012 12:29 AM , By André Béteille
The attack on corruption should not turn into disregard and contempt for institutions.

The educated middle class in India is naturally exercised over the corruption that is widely prevalent in public life. With growing concern over corruption there is growing indignation. This indignation is expressed on various public occasions, sometimes passionately, but often in a purely routine manner. Every public institution and every public office, civil as well as military, is viewed with mistrust and kept under watch for signs of corruption. The leaders of what are called ‘civil society movements' have allied themselves with private television channels to keep the pressure up against corruption and deepen the mistrust of public institutions. The attack on corruption secures instant sympathy from members of the public because many if not most citizens have had some experience of it either directly or indirectly. Corruption and mistrust feed upon each other and their combined operation puts democratic values and institutions in jeopardy.

Is it greater in India?

Most people I speak with are convinced that corruption has increased enormously in the last decade or two. But a decade or two ago most people were saying much the same thing. I have no desire to minimise the extent of corruption in India. But is it greater in range or depth than corruption in America? Or in China? We all know that there is a great deal of corruption in the production and sale of school text-books in India. But Richard Feynman has told us how, when he started looking into the production and marketing of school text-books of physics in the state of California, he could hardly believe the evidence of corruption he found before him. I am not sure that corruption in the medical profession or the legal profession, shocking though it may appear to be, is demonstrably worse in India than in America. But in India when people point their finger at corruption they point mainly to government and politics.

If I point out that corruption is not unique to India today, this is not in order to encourage complacency regarding corruption here and now. It is hardly reasonable to turn a blind eye to the corruption we see and experience on the ground that corruption has also prevailed in other times and at other places. It is good to be watchful where the rules are ambiguous and flexible and where public misconduct is widespread. But when the concern about corruption turns into an obsession, it makes the running of public institutions more difficult and not easier.

I do not believe that ordinary Indians, including ordinary public servants, are as corrupt as social activists and the media make them out to be. That is not to say that they are all as pure as the driven snow. When they are pressed beyond certain limits they are provoked to act as they are expected to act. People tend to slip into the roles that others assign to them as a matter of habit. A wife who is continually suspected of infidelity by her husband may occasionally feel tempted to prove him right.

I have scarcely met an IAS officer who has failed to tell me how utterly corrupt his service is, taking care to point out that he himself is an exception to the general rule. Much of this is just idle social chatter, but it does serve to inject a little bit of poison into the atmosphere. Yet, I have known many IAS officers who are hardworking and upright and do an honest day's work in an adverse environment. No doubt their official conduct must be kept under public scrutiny. But we must ask whether a civil service which is denigrated and demoralised by continuous suspicion and allegation of misconduct can act in an efficient and responsible manner.

I can speak from personal experience of the demoralisation in our universities due to endemic suspicion of corruption and misconduct. Today, most people, including most academics, believe that university appointments are never fair but always fixed in advance. My personal experience is that this is not always or necessarily the case even though an academic appointment, whether in Delhi or in Cambridge or in Harvard, rarely satisfies all the parties concerned. As Max Weber, the greatest sociologist of his time, had said, “No university teacher likes to be reminded of discussions of appointments for they are seldom agreeable”. This ought not to prevent university teachers from exercising their judgment with a clear conscience; what in fact prevents them from doing so is the fear of being accused of engaging in corrupt practice.

The endemic suspicion of corrupt practice has taken the initiative away from the university in favour of external, impersonal and ostensibly unbiased agencies such as the University Grants Commission or even the government's own department of education. Suspicion and mistrust have become so widespread that it has even been suggested that appointments to the highest offices of the university should be taken out of the hands of the university and entrusted to the Union Public Service Commission. When that happens it will put an end to the university as an autonomous and self-governing institution, and then university professors will have only themselves to blame.

Social movements play an important part in the life of a nation and the right of civil disobedience is or ought to be an indispensable right in every democracy. But it will be a mistake to believe that these bring only benefits and entail no costs. The struggle for freedom from alien rule built up an adversarial attitude towards the established institutions created and maintained by colonial rule. It gave to the movement a higher moral value than it gave to the state and its institutions. The adversarial attitude survived the change from alien rule to self-rule. If we are to understand why people are so easily lured by the emancipationist and antinomian promises of those who speak in the name of civil society we must go back to the time when the nationalist movement pitted itself against the colonial state. The colonial state has gone but the attitudes we developed while it was there have remained with us.

‘Lost the excuse'

In the Constituent Assembly it was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who saw more clearly than any other member what was at stake in the transition from alien rule to self-rule. While welcoming the advent of independence, he said: “But let us not forget that this independence has thrown on us great responsibilities. By independence we have lost the excuse of blaming the British for anything going wrong. If hereafter things go wrong we will have nobody to blame except ourselves.”

What Dr. Ambedkar was asking the people of India to do was to take responsibility for the state and the institutions created by and for them. Taking responsibility for an institution — whether the state, the university or any other institution — does not mean accepting all its practices blindly, mechanically and uncritically. But it does mean protecting it from wilful disregard and contempt and from being treated as a mere convenience to be used or discarded in response to passing social currents. Democracy has entered into troubled waters in India. It will not find its way out of those waters if we continue to treat all its institutions with suspicion and mistrust.

(The writer is Professor Emeritus of sociology, Delhi University, and National Research Professor.)


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