Breaking the law


This morning during the peak hours, one of the major traffic signals of this town had failed. Yet, traffic was orderly, with motorists automatically converting the intersection into an all-way stop. That, in essence, is America. A sense of discipline, respect for the law and a code of public behavior is drilled into you from birth. Sure, there are people who break the law, but those are the exceptions, not the general rule.


Imagine the same thing happening in a small town in India, leave alone the big cities like Bombay and Delhi. Imagine the chaos and confusion, with each driver trying to worm his way ahead of the rest, and wantonly blocking the other if he cannot. Ask yourself whether an all-way stop will work there. We can talk about a failed traffic signal later.


A couple of days back, a few colleagues were discussing the problems with Indian Customs, each of them detailing how he had suffered at the hands of the inspectors, the money that was demanded and paid, and the lessons that were learnt. One of them mentioned how he had wised up after a couple of trips from the Gulf and on subsequent trips, how he had managed to slip through with a whole lot of things after paying only nominal bribes, far less than what an uninitiated’ person might have had to pay. Apparently, it takes a special kind of talent to talk to these guys, a special kind of language that needs to be used to indicate that you know your way around, know the ropes and are willing to play their game, but at your terms.


My colleagues held up these experiences as symbols of how the law works, or rather, does not work in India, how rules and regulations are used by corrupt officials to torment the general public. This was one of the reasons why none of them wanted to go bock to India. Otherwise, our country is booming, they said, salaries are huge, our families are there and life is as good as here, if you have the money. And yet, because of the problems with the law, they say, they don’t want to go back. We’ll have to beg for electricity, beg for water connections, for the gas cylinder, beg for everything that every citizen has a right to. Beg and bribe, and sometimes neither will work.


All of which I agree with totally. This is all true and I cannot even attempt to gainsay any of it. But I do have a question to ask.


When you knew that there were specific lows that limit what and how much could be taken into India, why did you take more than that?


I think the answer to that question is the answer to why India has these problems. Why is it so important to take a music system or a television or a digital camcorder when you know that these will be valued at more than the limit? Are these not available in India? Are the ones that are available there not good enough for you and your family members? Why is it that every possession of yours must bear the ‘foreign’ brand?


Note the usual exchange following the above questions:


A: But the government has no right to tell me what and how much I can take.


Q: Certainly, that is true, but what about the law?


A: Yes, what about it? Does it mean that they will pass whatever law they want and I will have to obey it?


Q: Yes, but isn’t that the meaning of the ‘rule of law’? So, if you supported the use of medical marijuana, you would take marijuana to India freely and nobody should be able to stop you? Of course, there are laws that bad, laws that are primitive, but in a normal society, is it up to each individual to obey only the ones that he agrees with or wants to? There are avenues open to you to protest the law. You can file a complaint right there with a superior, you can go to court....


A: And then what? You file a complaint and get victimized. Or you go to court and wait twenty years for a result! Who wants this ‘jhanjhat’ and ‘court-kacheri ka dhakka’? Better to pay quietly and get what you want....


Q: Yes, sure you can, sir, but then, what right do you have to complain that India is corrupt when you are the one who is breaking the law and are willing to pay to get away with if?


At this point, the conversation turns sour with him saying “Haan, I will break the law and I will bribe to get away with it. Kya karne ka hai bolo?”


When a man is willing to take off his clothes in public, what can one do or say?


If India is corrupt, it is because of educated, knowing, aware people like us, who draw high incomes and are able to afford status symbols we don’t need, and not just because of a corrupt customs official who, in all probability, is annually earning a fraction of what we make monthly, living in a government kholi’ with a family he can barely support. How can we blame him for wanting a life less wretched than the one he leads now, if we with our fancy salaries and our air-conditioned apartments in Dubai’s upmarket area and our Toyota Camrys and our Motorola cell phones, are still not satisfied with our own? What prevents us from going to a good shop in India and buying the same television set at a small premium?


I will tell you what prevents us. Our innate dishonesty is what prevents us. We cheat, not because we are forced to cheat, but because we want to cheat. We break the law, not because we are forced to, but because we have become accustomed to breaking the law. We break the law because we have no respect for it. We need strict enforcement and high penalties to obey. We will misuse freedom willingly but we will function perfectly under martial law. My anger is not against people who have been victimized and then see no option but to bribe, but against people who don’t even try.


Observe what happens on Devon Street in Chicago or on any ‘Indian’ street in America or any other country, for that matter. You will hesitate to litter the street in the neighborhood where you live because the law will punish you, but will you hesitate to crumple a piece of paper and throw it on Devon street? You know that it is an Indian street, that ‘nobody is bothered’ there, because ‘the Americans know there is no use. ‘Woh logan ko maloom hai ki yeh log sudharne wala nahin hai! How many times have you and your friends repeated the exact same sentence laughing stupidly at what should be counted as a great insult to our community? But do we feel insulted? Yes, if an American were to say that, we would become all hot under the color (but not in his presence!) and yet, when we Indians speak of it amongst ourselves, we are almost proud of the reputation that we carry!


Some years ago, I was pleasantly surprised when a 10 year old boy living a few doors away told me that he wanted to become a police inspector. My surprise turned to dismay soon enough when he told me why he wanted to join the police force - because the guy living next door to him was an inspector and was in the process of building his own bungalow nearby because ‘he was making a lot of money’. Those are the values that that 10 year old had been taught - that money is an end in itself and it does not matter how you make it.


A friend of mine would accompany her cousin’s wife to the jewelry shop almost every other week. She seemed to be in awe of her cousin’s finances and status in society and the respect that he and his family got in the shop. I guess she felt some of that glitter rubbed off on her too. Her cousin worked in the municipality but it never struck my friend how her cousin’s wife could afford to buy so much jewelry. When I pointed it out to her, all she said was “Why should I care? Uske paas paisa hai, udata hai. Apne ko kya leneka hai, kahan se paisa aata hai.”


When these are our values, how can we be honest? How can we lament corruption? People say money corrupts. But I differ. I think you have to be already corrupt morally before you can be corrupt financially. I think a man who bribes will not be unwilling to be bribed when it is his turn.


Do you remember the joke about how Laallu Prasad Yadav tells a Japanese visitor who tells him that he can convert Bihar into another Japan in three years, “Give me three months and I will convert Japan into another Bihar!”


Do you really think that it is a joke? And do you really think it is about Laallu?


And speaking of customs, do you think an American who knew what the import limits were, would even think of importing more than that, free? If he didn’t know the law, he would find out. If he knew and was charged more, he would protest, he would pay and then go to court and sue the daylights out of customs. And yet, for all the power that the country bestows on citizens like him, he would not even think of defying the law by breaking it.


Let us decide, that on our next visit to India, we are not going to carry stuff more than what is allowed. Let us then see who stops and harasses us. That is all it takes, a little respect for the law and refusal to toy with it.


Let’s face it. The things we take with us are not things that we will die without. These are just our vanities, our false sense of values. I can ‘understand’ bribery if it a matter of life and death or even if it is something like buying your very first house, but to corrupt the system for the sake of a television set?


Let us say no. Let us, in our small lives, for the sake of our country that we all no doubt love dearly, make the beginning. All we need to change is our own mindset, our own values, not the system. India is our country, only we can make it better.