Just Like That | In Pune crash, a mirror to our class hypocrisies - Hindustan Times
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Just Like That | In Pune crash, a mirror to our class hypocrisies

Jun 02, 2024 08:00 AM IST

What happened in Pune deserves stringent legal action. But it also provides us a mirror to examine our own value systems and introspect.

On May 19, 2024, a 17-year-old juvenile in Pune, allegedly drunk, rammed his father’s Porsche at breakneck speed into two young techies, killing them instantly. He was arrested, but the entire system, including two doctors at Sassoon government hospital and allegedly the local MLA, did its best to protect him at the behest of his influential family.

The condemnable incident rightly created national outrage PREMIUM
The condemnable incident rightly created national outrage

The condemnable incident rightly created national outrage. But I wonder if public indignation would have been more muted if the car was not a Porsche but a Maruti Alto, and the accused’s father was not rich and powerful but just a middle-class pensioner with some contacts in the system?

I ask this question, not to even remotely condone the criminality of the Pune incident, but to question our attitudes towards the wealthy and influential, and our own standard of ethics. Are the self-avowed messiahs of the poor any different in their behaviour? Are furious critics scrupulously honest where their own interests are concerned? Do we resent the wealthy, especially in a highly unequal society? Or do most people, especially in the middle class, simultaneously both envy and aspire to be like them, irrespective of the means?

When Mayawati, the Dalit chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, celebrated her 47th birthday in January 2003, a huge pandal was made in fine glass to resemble the sets of the film, Mughul-e-Azam, and the venue was decorated with 60 quintals of flowers. The cake was the size of a room. Over one lakh laddoos were ordered, and all the thousands who attended went back with a return gift. None of this led her enthusiastic supporters to ask where Behenji got the money from. The display of pomp was seen as an inevitable extension of power, and she was neither the first nor the last politician to follow this conflation.

In early March, the lavish pre-wedding celebrations of Mukesh and Nita Ambani’s son, Anant, in Jamnagar, Gujarat, held the media entranced. While some thought such a display of wealth was vulgar in a poor country, the reaction of most was that if the Ambanis have the money, why shouldn’t they spend it?

Indians are not against wealth. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is one of the most ubiquitous deities in Hindu homes. The aarti or invocation to her has these ethically neutral lines: “Jis ghar mein tum rahti, tahen sab sadguna aata; sab sambhav ho jaata, man nahin ghabrata” (In the home you inhabit, all virtues come automatically; all becomes feasible, the mind is free of worry). Artha, or the pursuit of material well-being, is sanctioned as one of the four highest purusharthas or goals of the Hindu worldview, along with dharma, kama and moksha.

Where honesty is involved, Indians are harmonious schizophrenics: Highly outraged when the high and mighty are guilty, and effortlessly expedient when their own morals are involved. How many of us, if faced with a driving fine of 2,000, will not, if we can, slip a 500 note to the policeman to avoid it?

Moreover, which parents in our country, rich or poor, will not try and save their child from penal action? Our otherwise philosophically sophisticated moral relativism is noteworthy for the exemptions it grants to “correct” behaviour. A man can do no wrong if he acts to protect his svadharma, conduct that is right for one’s jati or status; he cannot be held guilty for transgressions in the interests of kuladharma, conduct that is right for one’s family; and anything he does is justified in a state of emergency, apaddharma.

I am aware there are honourable exceptions to such antiquated thinking. But essentially, let us admit we are different. When Prime Minister Tony Blair’s 16-year-old son, Euan, was arrested in 2000 for being drunk, the police did not hush up the case; Blair cut short his holiday in Portugal to publicly say that his son should not be treated any differently from any other young offender; and both he and his wife, Cherie, were at the police station when Euan was reprimanded.

What happened in Pune deserves stringent legal action. But it also provides us a mirror to examine our own value systems and introspect on what we would do in similar circumstances.

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences. The views expressed are personal

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