A Tale of two Institutions

Governments- you love them or you hate them, but you can’t live without them testing your patience. In many ways an individual’s relationship with the state is preparation for marriage, because you realise that the person on the other side, as annoying as he or she maybe, is also inevitable.

 

In the span of the last two years, I have had the good fortune of lecturing at both private and government institutions and in both instances, the faculties I have met and the students I have interacted with have astounded me and left me feeling inspired by what is possible for the future of this nation. But I can’t help but wonder, if these wonderful students and lecturers in private institutions enjoy certain perks that the ones in government establishments don’t.

 

This question emerged after a little bit of a exchange of some pleasant conversation around a not so pleasant topic- providing a travel allowance bill for expenses that I wasn’t even claiming. It so happens that the Government in its infinite wisdom has mandated that copies of the individual’s boarding pass is to be secured as proof of the journey having been made. However, like always I had destroyed the boarding pass and therefore I offered to provide an undertaking that I had in fact completed the journey for which the boarding pass was sought. The news didn’t inspire appreciation from the faculty at the government institution. She seemed a little flummoxed and while pleading her position as a government employee asked the question, “I don’t know what prompted you to destroy the boarding pass….”. Perhaps she was inquisitive or perhaps she was being rhetorical. The naïve individual I am, I decided to answer her question.

 

The boarding pass contains sensitive personal information in a code. In the right hands or the wrong ones, it could yield rich data that can be misused for all kinds of things. Therefore, out of concern for my own privacy, I always shred the boarding pass many many times as soon as I have completed my journey. In the digital age, one can’t be prudent enough after all. In other words- I was prompted by my awareness and understanding to shred the boarding pass, a necessity our own government which is paranoid of national security is unaware of, from the looks of it.

 

However, I also wanted to ensure that I didn’t put the faculty in a difficult position and looked up government regulations on the subject. Turns out, that my faculty friend didn’t have much to worry about. The Government circular of 2014 actually says that where original boarding pass is not available, the concerned individual can submit the Travel Allowance bill with a written undertaking. Having represented the government of India and government institutions, I would like to believe that our government is not that anal. Governments can’t be anal, only its people can be so. What can I say? once a lawyer, always a lawyer. Couldn’t help but provide some legal advise.

 

My research into the shredding of the boarding pass for an expense of Rs. 5,000/- was driven by empathy for the faculty in question as well as a certain anxiety that I might have unwittingly painted a legitimate transaction as an illegitimate one, by not having a paper to fortify my physical arrival and departure at the institution’s campus. Witnesses to my presence and absence be damned, the boarding pass seemed to be the only credible testimony of my existence on those fateful days at the fateful place. In hindsight, anxiety for what? If folks in the bureaucracy realised I was anxious about a 5000 ruppee transaction, they might have enrolled me into a group support program authored by the Suresh Kalmadis and A Raja’s of the world.

 

Contrast this with a similar journey I had undertaken for a private institution- far from being required to explain the perils of boarding passes in today’s world, I was treated like royalty, hosted well and sent off even better. Make no mistake, the people, the faculties and the students in both places touched my heart and left me with a life time of good memories. But while the good faculties were allowed to be good, friendly and hospitable in the private institution, the good faculties in the government institution were working in an atmosphere of irrational red tape, misplaced sense of accountability and therefore had their hospitality and warmth trumped by the coldness of government’s paranoia…over Rs. 5,000/-. Why curtail them in this manner?

 

Indian’s excel at cons, no doubt about it. I am sure travel allowances have been used for a little unjust enrichment on the side. Even Amazon and Flipkarts fell for refund scams. Yet, the difference is that Amazon and Flipkart are willing to perceive the erring individual as an aberration, government institution’s policy outlook is driven by the assumption that aberrations are worth more focus than the honest common man. The result is that the government’s ability to forge good long partnerships with interested, keen and self respecting individuals is constricted.

 

A fundamental rethink is needed on such trivial issues. The excellent men and women who drive our government institutions must be allowed to work in an enabling atmosphere where they represent the government establishment, as a friendly and an easy partner. Instead today, the government is painted as an ever suspicious spouse doubting the moral and financial fidelity and integrity of its partner, that too over a paltry sum of Rs. 5,000/-. For the good and women in these institutions to truly make an impact which we all know they are capable of, they need to be trusted so that in turn they can make outsiders feel trusted. Perhaps then, our public institutions will truly come of age.

 

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Fighting a Battle Gandhi Style

As a tradition, every October 2 nd , I would always write a little about Gandhi and all
that the man represented to me. I found myself lacking the inspiration this year.
Perhaps it was my work schedule or perhaps it was simply the controversies
emerging around Gandhi, be it his celibacy experiments, endorsement of the caste
system or his view of the original inhabitants of Africa. Heroes tend to disappoint and
therefore make heroes of no one, said a social media commentator on some of
these controversies.

 

In many ways, Gandhi is a testament to the Buddhist saying, “Emptiness is form and
form is emptiness”. His reputation and perception and his very identity has remained
flexible and fluid and I therefore find the defence of Gandhi or the offence against his
actions and words, premised on him being a fixed being. He was anything but that. A
deeply flawed man and yet his perfection lay in his acknowledgement of his
imperfectness. After all and be advised, he did not christen himself a Mahatma, we
did.

 

But I cannot also deny that this imperfect man, through his life, ideas and legacy has
left us with many worthwhile arts of battles and wars. In response to Winston
Churchil referring to him as a half-naked Fakir, Gandhi responded stating that he
was unworthy of being called a fakir, let alone a naked one which is a more difficult
task. In one swift sentence, Gandhi had made caricature of the leader of Britain
which acted as the hallmark of European resistance against Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. In
many such anectdotes from Gandhi’s life- I find useful strategies to combat day to
day situations.

 

While I will not share the specific illustrations of my applications of Gandhi’s
principles successfully to the many small and trivial battles within my family and
profession, both for reasons of privacy and to maintain the pretence of humility, I will
summarise the lesson for my readers.

 

When faced with an insult, a challenge or invitation to a fight, one has two options- a)
operate at the level of the insulter, the challenger or the fighter or b) change the
theatre of war/battle and engage at a level the insulter or the challenger or the fighter
is either unaware of or incapable of becoming aware of. The result often is a victory.
Gandhi’s Dandi march or the little exchange of words with Churchil is a classic
example. A racist bully like Churchill, could not comprehend a man who would not
get angry at his remark and instead responded with satire. Churchill was a bull
fighter. Gandhi refused to be the bull. Thus, no cow slaughter. My understanding of
Gandhian methods for day to day application can be broadly categorised into three
headings, a) Defining the desired result or victory, b) Defining one’s intentions and
motives and c) Defining strategy and approach.

 

But for this the term “victory” itself needs to be redefined in the mind of the Gandhian
fighter. When two people fight for stakes, there are three possibilities around victory
a) Securing of the stakes itself, b) Subduing the opponent even if it means losing the
stakes (a milder version of scorched earth policy) and c) securing the stakes while
subduing the opponent. If victory is understood either as b) or c), then Gandhian
strategy is not for you. But if victory is understood as option a), then Gandhian
strategy is one to consider. In other words, a Gandhian fighter is more a pragmatist
than a romantic at heart. He/She fights for a result and not to indulge the primal
instinct to beat down someone else for the purpose of feeling better.

 

That being said, Gandhian methods also requires careful introspection of motives
and intentions. If one employs passive resistance or peaceful protest, the intention or
motive cannot be that of avoidance. Even avoidance must be strategic. Retreat
today to fight tomorrow. One’s refusal to be the bull cannot be premised on the fear
of being slaughtered. Fear of being slaughtered is akin to fear of the bull fighter and
that fear itself is defeat, even if the slaughter is avoided 1 . Thus, employing a
Gandhian method where the real intention is to avoid confrontation or hardship defeats the purpose of Gandhian strategy. It might aid the cause of self preservation,
but it deals a death blow to the spirit underlining the need to engage in battle.
Gandhian method believes in triumph and not survival alone.

 

Lastly, the strategy and approach employed to pursue victory with courage is equally
important. Today’s protests, be it against Gowri Lankesh’s murder or the numerous
other instances, are spontaneous uprisings, peaceful and well intentioned no doubt,
but lacking in originality and independent thought. Many of them are results of
plagiarism, borrowing without shame, Gandhi’s own means of protest without the
need to improvise or adapt. But while challenges have evolved and character of
injustices has changed, we are still employing methods of Satyagraha employed
approximately half a century ago. Peaceful resistance must evolve to the situation it
confronts. Anything short of it fails.

 

 

When faced with an insult or challenge, always reflect on whether the response you
formulate is instinctive and spontaneous or whether it is rational, well thought and
logical. Delay the response by just a little bit to give yourself the luxury of honing
your response. I often find that the first three or response I initially conceive are
useless, but what follows can be effective. Delaying the response, reflecting on
strategy and evolving the responses fluidly helps. Sometimes, faced with an
unprecedented situation, the best thing to do is to do nothing at all.

 

 

As times change, Gandhian methods must evolve retaining essential values, but
assuming different forms and methods. Emptiness is Form and Form is emptiness
after all. Fasting may not work today, but satire and humour might. Marching through
the streets may not work today, but an onslaught of a hundred thousand letters to
the address of the erring person might just prove to be the wake up call (as the
methods Dr. Ravindranath Shanbhag from Udupi has shown). Gandhian methods,
premised on intellectual laziness and poverty of planning is doomed. The success of
Gandhian method is premised on Intellectual humility. In fact, the word “method” is
wrong, because a method is rigid. Gandhian experiments is more appropriate
because as the assumptions and variables change, the parameters of the
experiment also change. Always remind oneself that one’s approach is a hypothesis
and that hypothesis, by its very nature, is prone to and warrants improvisation.

 

We hear on every 2 nd of October, the cliched question of whether Gandhi and his
values remain relevant in today’s world. As a staunch lover of Gandhian
experiments, I feel lacking integrity when I say that Gandhi and his methods, in their
form and manifestation as documented in history may be irrelevant. Maybe Gandhi,
even as a historical role model has outlived his utility. So call the Gandhian
experiments in battle as something else.

 

But the usefulness of fundamentally altering the theatre of war, acknowledging the
unintelligence inherent in violence, resorting to unconventional strategies to throw
the enemy of their game and to win results without losing the good relations of
people cannot be disputed. To me Gandhi is relevant, but I will not fight to defend his
honour for as a pragmatist and a non romantic, my true allegiance is to his art of
battle and not to him. For through the former, I find myself honouring the latter.

1 The phobias of the world, fear of Muslims, Fear of homosexuals, fear of transgenders, etc., represent the
perpetrator’s fear of who they hate. The refugee haters don’t hate as much as they fear. Its ironical that civilised
nations with armies of might and weaponry find themselves unnerved and rattled by immigrant refugees fleeing
persecution at home.