‘Sir’, ‘saheb’, salute: Why India’s culture of excessive reverence must go

The time and resources consumed in displaying reverence to the gods in the vicinity tends to be much higher than focus on institutional mandates. This is how we have ended up with weak institutions and towering authority figures.

opinion Updated: Aug 25, 2017 12:42 IST
Hierarchy,Caste-based society,India
Hierarchical power equations are mirrored across societal interactions, economic insecurities limit the capacity of people to stand up to bullying.(Shutterstock)

Indian philosophy and moral precepts extol treating every human being with dignity and empathy. In reality, we are prone to over-stepping these professed moral boundaries. People in authority enjoying too much reverence and those below struggling to receive simple courtesies cannot be ‘normal’ ways of a democratic society.

The English use words such as ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ fewer times in a year than we do every day. These words originated in a medieval society to establish relationship between master and serfs and have withered away in the West as those relationships no longer exist. But, for us, hierarchy between human beings is an important component of our social imagination.

Under patriarchy, our women are prohibited from taking the name of their husbands and elders. In a caste society, a person from the lower caste is not allowed to address anyone in the higher castes by name. So, our society effortlessly married into ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. Add to them honorifics like ‘saheb’ and ‘honourable’ and you get Ram Guha’s 50-50 democracy.

Our tradition of respect for elders has transmogrified into excessive reverence for people ahead of us in the authority ladder. Louis Dumont used the term ‘homo hierarchicus’ to characterise India’s caste-based hierarchical social system. Thousands of years of living in these systems has created a very natural cultural tendency towards arranging people into layers. Even the smallest organisation quickly becomes a hierarchy determining mode of interaction between people in different layers.

Hierarchical power equations are mirrored across societal interactions, economic insecurities limit the capacity of people to stand up to bullying. People less powerful keep groveling, wait in front of offices for hours and try their best to appease the powerful. Our customs, utterances, rituals and what we perceive as the ‘normal’ need to be deconstructed in the context of the democracy project. If families, societies and interaction between humans cannot be extricated from power equations and hierarchies, organisations will not become truly democratic.

During a visit to the New Scotland Yard, I once asked my hosts how they maintain discipline without the customary salute to seniors. Till almost early 70s the practice of the military salute existed in British police, though was becoming discretionary. The story goes that once a chief constable asked an officer to explain why he decided to salute gesticulating rather than a simple greeting with a “good morning” and this question rapidly brought down the regime of salute.

In India, the very advocacy of abolishing the military salute will make us uncomfortable and I have never dared do it within the police. We love the salute, argue over it and each day discover new ways of asserting the hierarchy through rituals calling them protocol and courtesies.

Offering a chair is a big deal here. People in authority fix meetings and make you wait without any regret. Be prepared mostly to be humiliated if you cannot avoid interface with the powerful, though once in a while you are surprised when someone is not offensive. We suffer from anxiety attack to discover talent in anyone below as that is a threat to the natural pecking order. When we are polite, we fear not being taken seriously by the less powerful. Bluster and crudity escape as smartness, signs of power. We have a lot of informed people within decision-making structures, except that the discourse is not deliberative and domination free, which is the essence of democratic processes. This is not a system that encourages ‘risk taking’ and ‘innovation’, mantras of success in the modern world.

The institution and its goals become secondary and less important as the focus shifts to reverence for people in authority and making them happy. Truth is not significant and merit is the justification cited only by the losers of power games. Good work is not because of institutional imperative, but because people in authority will appreciate. The time and resources consumed in displaying reverence to the gods in the vicinity tends to be much higher than focus on institutional mandates. This is how we have ended up with weak institutions and towering authority figures.

The need is to find a new normal of basic courtesies, much less reverence, institutional growth, codified processes and, of course, empathy in the treatment of others. Besides, discourtesies are repugnant to rights guaranteed under the constitution. We do no one any favour by being courteous.

(The author is a serving IPS officer, views are personal)

First Published: Aug 25, 2017 12:41 IST