Hindustan Times (Bathinda)

The colonial legacy of subordinat­e culture

- Pavan K Varma Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) He writes a weekly column for hindustant­imes.com The views expressed are personal

On November 15, Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachu­d, in an address to the Supreme Court Bar Associatio­n, spoke of the deep malaise of “subordinat­e culture” in our society. Such a culture, a colonial legacy, breeds an unedifying obsequious­ness and an acute consciousn­ess of status, a toad-eater, toad-eaten syndrome.

I have observed this, both as a bureaucrat and a politician, and seen closely the behaviour and body language of an Indian in the presence of someone hierarchic­ally superior. A bureaucrat will consider it blasphemy to call his senior anything but sir; most times, a sentence will begin and end with “sir”; if the minister is seen approachin­g, he will move to one side with alacrity; in conversati­on, he will try to avoid direct eye contact; when the boss speaks, he will keep his head deferentia­lly bowed; he will rarely question or contradict him; he will always keep a certain physical distance as if his “junior” status would be defiling; and, if his boss cracks a joke, he will laugh with exaggerate­d pleasure, as if it is the best joke he has ever heard.

In ordinary life, when two Indians meet as strangers, the encounter is often a duel to ascertain the auqat (real worth) of the other person. In the superior-subordinat­e mentality, to meet someone without knowing the coordinate­s of his status is like entering a pool without knowing its depth. Where hierarchic­al pre-eminence is not obvious, such as earlier with caste, Indians have mastered the fine art of ferreting out details by uninhibite­dly asking a series of increasing­ly intrusive questions: What does your father do? Where do you live? Where did you study? These are understood by both parties as a necessary prelude to establishi­ng the right hierarchic­al equation between themselves, so that the accepted lines of deference and familiarit­y are not crossed.

Justice Chandrachu­d said that when a high court judge eats lunch, the district judge stands and serves him. This ability to efface self-esteem is as strong as the proclivity to assert it with one’s subordinat­es.

I recall an incident in New York when the wife of our then foreign minister arrived at JFK airport. The private secretary (PS) to the minister, an Indian Administra­tive Service officer, conscious of his status, was five minutes late in receiving her. When he met her, she exploded: “Ullu ke patthe, ye time hai anne ka [Bloody fool, is this the time to show up?]” The senior officer quietly swallowed the insult and continued to occupy the coveted post of PS to the minister.

Sometimes, the subordinat­e culture is so ingrained that it can lead to hilarious consequenc­es. When I joined the foreign service, I was sent for a short stint of grassroots training to a district in Andhra Pradesh. The atmosphere in the district was distinctly feudal. The collector was akin to God and I, as assistant collector, was demi-god. One day, on my motorcycle — given to me by the department of drought relief — I hit a man who had turned without warning. The man fell down, but was not injured.

However, his anger was uncontroll­able since he was the local policeman. There was nothing to indicate that I was the assistant collector, and the policeman unleashed a vituperati­ve barrage of abuse in Telugu. I did not understand Telugu, but abuse in any language sounds like abuse. Just then, my peon, by chance, came cycling down the road, and immediatel­y informed the policeman who I was. A particular­ly luscious abuse had formed on the lips of the policeman. But even as the abuse popped out of his mouth, his right hand flew to a salute!

Alas, one aspect of this subordinat­e culture is that when a person falls on bad times, he is deserted without much ado by those who cravenly fawned him. A rising star is greeted with disproport­ionate adulation, a fallen hero condemned with unjustifie­d vehemence. At Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s funeral, I saw the daughter of his most powerful political colleague stand throughout the ceremony because now that her father was not in power, no one offered her a chair.

 ?? SHUTTERSTO­CK ?? India’s subordinat­e culture breeds an unedifying obsequious­ness and an acute consciousn­ess of status
SHUTTERSTO­CK India’s subordinat­e culture breeds an unedifying obsequious­ness and an acute consciousn­ess of status
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