The Uma Khurana case and its twisting, ugly strands make you wonder, what price, honesty? Several colleagues in HT had it tough outside this week because the paper refused to take sides until more was discovered. Now that the so-called sting is proving false, it raises deep issues of ethics and action. It’s all the more ironic in a country that prates incessantly and piously of its great cultural values, many of which spring from religion.
Take our highest name for God. In Sanatana Dharma, in Sikhism, in Buddhism, it is Sat, 'that which is', the Truth. The Semitic faiths say so, too. Indeed, one of the 99 Names of Allah is 'al Haq' or Satyam.
Now look at whom we celebrate as our greatest heroes. I don’t mean the deities but mere mortals. For some reason, the hero at the top of our heap is Raja Harishchandra. His is the sad, horrible story of a king who is tormented to the utmost, like Job in the Bible, by jealous, game-playing deities. But Harishchandra is staunchness personified and refuses to back down from his moral stand, thus gripping our collective imagination since millennia with painful intensity. He’s spawned the epithets ‘Satyavadi’ (Truthsayer) and ‘Satyakaam’ (Truthlover), as terrible a crown as the name ‘Bhishma’, for it conjures a vision of a puny human being standing firm with all his soul force by the hard but honourable choices of life. The ones with dreadful consequences, that must be stoically, patiently, heroically borne.
Is that why Raja Harishchandra was Dadasaheb Phalke’s choice of subject for India’s first ever film, back in 1912? Is that why the theme was repeated as the first movie in a whole bunch of mother tongues? Culturally, it’s a story that hard to beat for its sheer terror, for its stark notion of what it takes to account for oneself as a human being.While most would agree that truth is indispensable as a code of honour, its shades are many, aren’t they? For instance the polite practice of the ‘white lie’. In these cases, which is the greater truth? That people must not be unnecessarily hurt? Or one’s own self-image as a literal truthsayer? Small white lies are surely allowed to oil the wheels of civilisation with if you need to skip a party or an event, or simply forgot something but don’t like to hurt the letdown person by this admission of carelessness?
Next, the statements handed out in scripture. As human activity adds more inventions and discoveries, obviously ‘truth’ becomes more complex. So it seems incorrect to restrict oneself to a narrow, rigid interpretation of scripture as ‘truth’. Like with caste and gender discrimination; the Catholic male priestly opposition to women’s right to own their bodies; the dress codes imposed by Arabic religious laws, or yesterday’s news of the latest fatwa against photography. Because the truth is that these were norms that worked in ancient or medieval society under certain political and social conditions. They could not have guessed then that in a modern world, you need to be identified. They could not have guessed at possibilities like general education, technology and communication, greater human rights. But the very nature of Sat, of ‘that which is’ has changed dramatically now. An ‘exotic’ example: the British thought that if they left India, the country would soon be over-run by tigers. But instead, tigers seem to be dying out.
Here’s where we separate eternal truths from truths of the age. It cannot, to the meanest intelligence, be fair or just or honest to disadvantage one lot of people, be they women, black or Dalit. Nor is it ever true that all people of a community are like this or that. It is not true, as ‘Cho’ Ramaswamy said in a ghastly encounter I had with him this May in Chennai that “Rama banished Sita because he upheld Truth!” For which was the ‘truth’ here? That Sita had stayed faithful to Rama? Or Rama’s need for kingly expediency? Whose truth was Truth? This weekend, as we wait for more facts to be proved or not about Khurana, the question strikes: who will pay for the truth of having spoilt another person’s life?