We live in a robust culture of deceit. We routinely lie, cheat, deceive, steal, rob and act in bad faith, in the public domain. When lied to, we don’t even raise an eyebrow.
Last week, I went to register for the National Population Register
). The booth, impressively flashing assorted gadgets to collect biometric data, appeared — even more impressively — to be multi-tasking. To some it offered NPR, to others it promised the UID (Unique Identity number) or Aadhaar
card. This pleased many, who had no clue about NPR but were convinced that Aadhaar was a compulsory magic wand. “They won’t let us stay in Delhi
without it,” said my maid, a migrant from another state. “This is our work permit for Delhi,” explained another kindly. “We won’t be given gas cylinders without this,” said someone else. “They will give us money if we show this”, beamed yet another. The confusion over Aadhaar was astounding. But some of us had reservations about Aadhaar and did not want it, which we told the officers. This was not Aadhaar, they assured us. The form asks whether you want to share this data, and you can tick “no,” Relieved, we did just that. And we were immediately issued an Aadhaar receipt with the NPR registration. Seeing our shock at this discovery one kind officer said, “Never mind, you have done your duty. The rest is not in your hands.” So true. Clearly, the Bhagavad Gita
was written with 21st-century babudom in mind.
The government never lets truth come in the way of a good proclamation. So we were first told that enrolling for the UID or Aadhaar was entirely voluntary, not mandatory. Then they linked it to several government schemes and made it impossible for citizens to access their rights and benefits without it. It was not mandatory, like it is not mandatory to wear a parachute. But you “opt” for the parachute if you are to be pushed out of an airplane.
We have, through generations, perfected the art of public deception. We don’t even flinch when we see enormous lies being paraded as the truth in public. Recently, Afzal Guru
was secretly executed in jail. The state knew fully well that the prisoner had a constitutional right to meet his family one last time. That he had a constitutional right to judicial review of the President’s rejection of his mercy petition. The state knew that it would be wrong to kill the man before the due process of law had been completed. It knew that it would be wrong to kill the man without allowing his mother, his wife and his little son to meet him one last time. The state knew but did not care. And once it was over, the state lied to us all.
Home minister Sushilkumar Shinde brazenly declared: “I have information that the family has been intimated.” The letter informing Afzal’s wife Tabassum that the President had rejected her mercy petition reached her on February 11, two days after her husband was hanged. Dated February 6, it was sent by Speed-post from New Delhi to remote Sopore in Kashmir on February 8, the day before Afzal’s execution. Shinde found nothing wrong in that: “The letter was sent by jail officials as per rules.” It informed her that the mercy petition had been rejected and that at 8 am on February 9, Afzal would be executed. It ended with: “This is for your information and further action.” The authorities knew that Tabassum would not get it in time for any “further action.” It was a meaningless sentence. It was “just a formality.”
You know that phrase, right? “Sign here, please, no need to read it. It’s just a formality.” This is the marginalisation of rules, where rules that were supposed to ground us in truth and make justice more accessible are made irrelevant by clever disrespect. Slowly, the demands of truth and justice, the ideas of fairness, equality and freedom are all reduced to “just a formality.”
For centuries, we have known that statements in bad faith, even if technically true, are untruths. In the battlefield of Mahabharata, Yudhisthira, who never lied, was asked by Drona whether his son Ashwathama had indeed been killed. “Ashwathama hata (Ashwathama is dead),” declared Yudhisthira as planned, and muttered “iti gaja (the elephant, that is)”. (Also known as “naro va kunjaro va,” that is “either the man or the elephant.”) This was Yudhisthira’s lie. The Mahabharata makes it absolutely clear that Yudhisthira had cheated, that this was deception even though his statement was technically true. So why do we allow our ministers to cheat us?
Deception is a pillar of Indian politics. Election promises are an elaborate exercise in deceit. We proudly flaunt lies. Like Mamata Banerjee
, then railway minister, taking out newspaper advertisements posing as a Muslim woman. In a make-believe namaaz shot, wearing the hijab, she announced a new railway line and a nursing college as Id gifts. She used the public exchequer to promote herself by misrepresenting facts — portraying herself as a Muslim and parading development projects as her gifts to Muslims. As a reward, we made her the queen of Bengal.
What was once unthinkable is acceptable today. Like the idea that Narendra Modi, widely believed to be the architect of the 2002 Gujarat massacre
of Muslims, can be elected PM in our liberal democracy. But why not? We take the mockery of justice in our stride. Bal Thackeray, believed to have orchestrated the Bombay riots of 1992-93, lived like a king and got a state funeral. Leaders and ministers responsible for the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi were grandly rewarded. L.K. Advani, as Union home minister
, supervised the probe on his own role in the Babri Masjid demolition.
A culture of deceit breeds a culture of impunity that has enormous costs. It changes us irrevocably. Truth becomes irrelevant as we float between several manufactured realities. Our idea of public reasoning is to create an echo chamber for our more powerful voices. Dissenters are welcome to bark from the fringes, of course, since we are a democracy that promises free speech. But for how long?
Like in everyday life, in public life, too, truth and justice have been replaced by the hollow PR mannerisms. We are grateful to leaders who, having failed to deliver on all fronts, announce: “We understand your concern. Have a nice day.” We do not expect the truth. But unlike banks and mutual funds that also make trick promises, our politicians do not offer legal warnings in fine print. While nurturing this deep-seated culture of deceit, can we really tell our children not to lie?