Updated: Mar 4, 2021
The word corruption conjures up memories of dingy government offices where the peon at the door is the beginning of a chain of graft that extends to the very top. It almost seems like every person in a position of power wants to use it to amass wealth by unscrupulous and unacceptable means. The general citizens though find it unacceptable, or do they?
There are two clear participants in this sort of corruption – the giver and the taker. I have often wondered at the mindset of both.
The giver is almost resigned to his fate. Some of the common narratives in his/her head are:
1. This is a necessary evil
2. Nothing is going to happen till I grease the wheel
3. Everyone does it so how am I different
4. Things will move faster if I pay the bribe
5. I got away lightly; others paid more
And the list is endless.
Similarly, when we look at the taker, another set of narratives are going through his/her head.
1. I am in a position of power and need to make this felt around me
2. My boss does it so why not me
3. I will need this money to influence my boss for my next promotion
4. It is expected of me to take a bribe. I work so hard for it
5. He/she is giving it to me voluntarily; why should I refuse?
The giver/receiver is accepting and justifying his/her action even though in some remote corner of their mind, a tiny voice is repeating that this is wrong. Surprisingly, there seems to be a commonality even though the two acts seem to be different. It is thus important to understand his/her environment and reflect on what the stimuli for the overall behavior are. Here are some general characteristics that influence this sort of behavior:
1. He/She probably doesn’t obey traffic laws when a policeman isn’t watching
2. He/She has low belief in any sort of honor system; he/she will probably find a way to get ahead of any queue
3. He/She has low acceptance of someone else’s right to public spaces; might is right is the more acceptable norm
4. He/She is hesitant to accept mistakes; accepting mistakes is often viewed as a sign of weakness. To be fair, when this vulnerability is displayed, the opposite person tends to exaggerate what is morally right
5. He/She has low civic sense especially when it comes to cleanliness; will discard paper or packaging anywhere and not take the trouble to find a trashcan
Today when this behavior is pointed out, one usually receives a shrug of the shoulders or a half-hearted apology. But chances remain high that the individual is a repeat offender.
Pause for a moment and think if this was the culture of the region forever or did something change down the line?
When examining India’s history, one finds glorious mention of respect for individuals the environment and even animals. Governance was clean and accepted by the populous even when the Mughals, a set of foreign invaders, made India their home. Taking bribes was a crime and severe punishments were meted out to government officials engaged in any sort of bribe taking. This was consistent for most of recorded history.
Cleanliness was practiced consistently across the centuries. While Rome is supposed to have built the first set of waterways, the first real water harvesting, and drainage system was found in the Mohenjodaro/Harrapan civilization that dates back some 3000 BC. Garbage collection was an important duty performed by rural and urban municipal corporations. This is documented for over 3000 years and finds reference even in Vedic texts. It is safe to state that people of the region were not the people we see today.
So, what and when did this change? The real evidence of this change is found in recorded history. It all points to the advent of the British in India. Specifically, the change began when the East India Company began interfering in (Indian) local issues.
While previous invaders or other rulers governed by collaborating with their subjects, the wily group of Britishers resorted to corruption to make gains. The logic of their tactics needs to be understood. The total number of Britishers in India were perhaps a handful when compared to the native population. This small group needed to find unconventional ways to keep their interests at the forefront and the simplest way to do this was to destroy the opponent. They knew they couldn’t do it by fair means such as in a battle; thus they resorted to treachery and corruption.
Here are some of the tactics of the British that established their rule in India.
1. Bribe, or otherwise corrupt every confidant of a king or a ruler of a province.
2. Enter into treaties that bound the Indian but the British flaunted these at will.
3. Create laws and taxes that helped officers amass fantastic wealth.
a. One of the greatest beneficiaries was a clerk called Robert Clive. Most Governor Generals that followed arrived in India penniless or with modest means. But they returned with amassed fortunes; some like Robert were given fancy titles on their return.
b. Different set of rules for the White Master and his Brown Servant – this was especially true for the use of public roads, parks and buildings. The White Master didn’t follow any rules. The Brown Servant was always expected to step aside for his White Master.
4. Create a judicial system that was absolutely corrupt and in favor of the British. Cornwallis perfected this in his regime. The entire judicial machinery supposedly just, fair and impartial was actually the most defunct and biased institution the British created in India. Judges were appointed based on patronage in England. They hardly ever ruled against any Britisher stationed in India regardless of stature. The Brown Servant bore the brunt of this. Even within the judicial system a Brown Servant couldn’t even stake a claim without greasing the wheels. It was the British that introduced and legitimized corruption in the judicial system. It is ironical that western educated legal experts of Indian origin treated British legal system with a level of respect that it never deserved.
5. Discriminate against the natives in as many ways as one can. The Britisher was superior to the native was an oft repeated narrative.
The low self-esteem comes from the domination of the ‘Gora Saheb’ or ‘White Master’. The white master treated his subjects with disdain and contempt. At every opportunity the ‘Brown Servant’ was reminded of his place; next to the dogs or cattle or even pigs being reared for pork. From being traders, the directors (of the East India Company) suddenly became pseudo rulers and thus began the dismantling of Indian culture and practice.
When the totality of British influence in India, up to 1947, is viewed objectively one finds that for at least 100 years, the socio-cultural fabric of India was changed dramatically. The ‘way of life’ was the British dictated way of life. India for all its diversity was united by a corrupt and degenerate system that subjugated its citizens. All native rulers had little or negligible say in governance; they were titular heads appointed by the British. These rulers towed the British line and evidence of this is found all over the left-over ‘kingdoms’.
When India finally got her independence, the ones in-charge were dominated by British educated individuals. The administrative set-up India inherited was British and for reasons best known to leaders, the same system continued. India’s experiment with socialism, combined with post partition related stress, caused the economy to decline to a state of near bankruptcy in the 70s. Institutionalized corruption sank its roots even deeper, and politics began to be ruled more selfishly.
The India of the 21st Century is different. The citizens are more aware and want to do the right thing. But they fight the mindset of their parents and perhaps grandparents. The ‘Gora Saheb’ left but the privileged ‘Brown Saheb’ took his place. We have a new breed of corrupters too. This is the visiting NRI (note: not all NRIs. I have the greatest respect to all that they do in building Brand India). I am not making a generalization but I have with me written confessions of NRIs who claim that when they visit India, they find it easier to grease the wheels than ‘stand in line’.
India’s rich too are equally to blame; they too don’t want to stand in line and would rather ‘pay a consultant’ to get the work done. So, before we tarnish India’s image on corruption, we need to take stock of who we are and how committed are we to doing the right thing. Humans across the globe are subject to corruption. It is the degree that varies. We make generalities of exceptions when the average citizen is affected. Most often than not, powerful corrupt leaders of all types get away with it.
Corruption – a way of life or a disease to be eradicated? You decide.
Bibliography and References
1. How India Lost Her Freedom – Pandit Sunderlal
2. History of British India – Thornton
3. Regulation Act of 1773 – Torrens’ commentary