Editorial/Three times unlucky
Unethically yours
Letters to the Editor

It is in the sphere of women’s rights that the conflicts between personal laws and civil legislation are exposed most blatantly. No religious law accords women the status demanded by an equitable system. Personal laws which have absorbed reform, mainly through the functioning of reformist movements in the civil arena, do show some change, even though social attitudes take far more time to alter. For example, Hindu women appear to be better off in some things, legally speaking, than their sisters in other communities. This kind of reform is easier when the community in question happens to be the majority community in a multi-religious state. The majority would normally be wary of intervening in the personal laws of minority communities. It is not surprising therefore, that India still does not have a uniform civil code in spite of constitutional direction.

The national commission for women’s report to the government recommending that the practice of triple talaaq be abolished and the provisions of maintenance for divorced women made after the Shah Bano case be reviewed is certain to provoke controversy. Yet the recommendations merely make official, one more time, two areas in which Muslim women are seriously disadvantaged by their personal law and by a civil legislation which avoids violating the principle of the personal law. The government had recently suggested a change in the gender-unequal provisions of divorce in the Christian law. The heads of churches and leaders of the community did not take kindly to this because the government had attached other provisions to the suggested change which were found unacceptable. This was unfortunate. Real change can only come with the will to improve matters, not complicate them.

Inequality is a violation of constitutional principle. Yet non-intervention in personal law by the state forces on women an unequal status in many cases. This anomaly can only be resolved if the reformist thrust from within the communities mingles with concrete and well-intended efforts on the part of the state. More than half a century is sufficient time to have moved much further. Verbal triple talaaq, for example, bestows on men enormous power over their wives. The existence of this unilateral system of divorce is difficult to accept in a democratic republic on the eve of the 21st century. The constitutional anomaly apart, such a practice demeans women and could force them into a state of cowering insecurity in marriage.

It is not as if reform or change is impossible. In Islamic countries, perhaps because the majority community principle works there, many changes have been made. In Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh and Iran, divorce is granted only through an “arbitration council”. The form of talaaq still practised in India has been implicitly or expressly abolished in Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Morocco and Tunisia. Maintenance laws have undergone similar changes, in order to remove or lessen discrimination against women. The NCW’s plea that the government review the law which allows a divorced woman maintenance for three months after divorce should be considered both by the government and community alike. It is not only discrimination, but also an implicit violation of the fundamental right to life. The divorce laws of all communities, Hindu, Muslim, Christian or other, should be brought on par if state and society are serious about removing discrimination. The problem is that they are not. While it may be true that there is occasionally real mistrust, whatever the reasons, in the relationship between the state and some minority communities, it also happens that the mistrust becomes an excuse for conservative elements within the communities to stop change. The issues at stake should compel right-thinking people to overcome the problems of mistrust and vested interests. It is time the democracy grew up.    

The distinction between morals and ethics is made out to be a fine one, but in reality there is a big difference between the two. Morality, strictly speaking, does not involve others: it is largely a concern with the self. It is a one-person show. In fact, the greater the number of immoral people around the more the moral person stands out as a superior being. Nor are these moral people really worried about the efficacy of the moral virtues they espouse. There is a good deal of secondary pleasure that a moralist derives from upholding values that are difficult to observe for most people.

Ethics is quite different. To begin with, ethics is really a concern with “others”. This is why it is impossible to be ethical by oneself. A lone ethical person is not a moralist but a misfit. Ethics demands the setting up of institutional structures that compel people to respect others as fundamentally equal. Ethical injunctions are, therefore, not left to individual discretion but are outcomes of collective pacts. A lone moralist is of little consequence as far as ethical considerations are concerned. This can be illustrated by examining the role of ethics in the Indian corporate sector.

There is a large number of business leaders and bosses of large enterprises in our country who consider themselves to be moral — and probably not without some justification. They are good parents, siblings and children. They put in money regularly for various charities. They are deeply concerned with their poorer cousins as well and do their best to find them jobs. Yet, these same “moral” people are not always ethical.

It is not uncommon to come across an Indian tycoon who donates lakhs of rupees to build a temple but is the ultimate skinflint when it comes to business dealings, either with employees or with customers. Such a person has no compunctions in breaking the law and drawing upon social connections to do the wrong thing. Yet they are otherwise very moral people when it comes to family, home and temple. This highly moral magnate may also exude a lot of personal charisma. In most cases it is this charisma that overawes subordinates and those around at the workplace. Consequently, rules of interaction within the factory gates and at office are not of the kind that charisma cannot overwhelm at will.

Rarely ever is the charismatic tycoon held back by rules and regulations that are supposed to apply to others. In an ethical organization, on the other hand, there is a clear understanding of what is not acceptable to the concern at any cost, no matter who is involved. From the highest to the lowest the same rules apply indefatigably to everybody. Further, when framing rules in an ethical organization there is an awareness that the rule should be fair to all concerned, and not just to the person at the top. This is why Hegel once said that in traditional societies kings and potentates were free to do what they wanted, but the societies they presided over were kept unfree. So freedom for a select few does not make for a credo of freedom at the social level.

In an ethical organization there is the constant compulsion to objectify norms into policies which transparently demonstrate their usefulness and in attaining desired ends. If norms cannot go through this process of translation at the collective level, then they have nothing to do with ethics. A norm is ethical only when it has been operationalized into a policy whose benefits are clearly felt by all. Only then can the norm legitimately be internalized by others and receive popular endorsement. For norms to be ethical, therefore, they cannot be the preserve of a single person or of a few chosen people. An ethical organization is constantly pressured to prove that its espoused norms work, and that they work equally for everybody.

An ethical organization, or an ethical person, does not feel the need to donate money to a temple or to the charity of the day. An ethical organization contributes to society on a more enduring basis by being rule-abiding and showing a concern for others in every aspect of its quotidian functioning. It is not as if you can go to church on Sunday and sin on Monday. Nor does the ethical organization showcase a single individual as the exemplary hero.

In most ethical organizations the leader is a team player adept at bringing out the best in others and yet adhering to stated rules and policies that apply to all. An ethical leader is not a tycoon of the traditional mould, but more the captain of a team. Philanthropy, in the purest sense, has very little then to do with ethics. Philanthropy is a “top down” exercise and is usually very good for the ego.

The flow is always in one direction. There is a large dose of morality in philanthropic activities. Many philanthropists would rather not be seen in a home for lepers, or in a school for handicapped children. They are happy to finance them from afar. More importantly, there are no rules that apply to philanthropists. It is sheer goodness of the heart that makes them give. In such circumstances it is certainly improper to look a gift horse in the mouth. Finally, philanthropy is more about giving than enabling. It tends to perpetuate itself by deepening the ties of dependency between the philanthropist and the beholden.

Even so, India has a poor record of corporate philanthropy. Very few industrial and business houses are seriously involved in philanthropic activities. It is even worse when it comes to being ethical at their workplace. Very few corporate houses — and here I include both the private and the public sector — really show any concern for their employees, environment and customers. As long as the bottomline looks good nothing else matters.

To a large extent the greatest obstacle in developing an ethical attitude in our country is our commitment to family, kin, and lineage. It is this obsession with ties of blood that makes us overly moral and less ethical. All kinds of improper, and even illegal, acts are encouraged if it is for the good of the family. So there is nothing wrong really if a bribe is taken to complete a son’s education, or if an undue favour is granted so that a nephew might get a job, or even if spurious drugs are manufactured so that six generations of a family can be kept in rich, thick gravy.

We often overlook why England was able to achieve the distinction of being the mother of capitalism and of democracy. A major reason was the low significance English people attached to primordial ties beyond the immediate nuclear family. As this trait characterized English society from the medieval period onwards, it is easy to appreciate why England later became the pacesetter of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The law of primogeniture also saw to it that children were regularly eased out of the family home and forced to look out for themselves and seek their own fortune.

As the family was not around to pick up its debris of the relict and the infirm, the impersonal agencies of the state had to step in. This is what persuaded England to frame regulations, such as the poor laws, which made it the job of the state to look after its citizens. In other words, citizens as a whole were made responsible for one another. This is what makes citizenship an ethical construct. It is impossible to realize citizenship without conceding a similar status to “others” as well.

As ethics is underdeveloped in India, it is not surprising that people should think of immolating themselves in moral outrage rather than working towards an ethically acceptable solution. The lack of ethics also disposes us towards claiming the high moral ground and at the same time being completely dismissive of others. So we can be heinous and corrupt at one level and terribly moral at another. Our inability to go beyond legal citizenship and realize it in a substantive sense is yet another demonstration of our weak ethical temper.    


Treatment of sorts

Sir — India is such a gunnybag full of ironies. Ministers can fly out of the country for medical treatment at state expense, politicans can live heartily on state sponsored dialysis, and a tiny child has either to die or forgo his family because his parents are too poor to pay for his life (“Couple in cash death-trap after baby gets kiss of life”, June 7). Do the authorities of the Sanjay Gandhi Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences realize the ridiculousness of their being such a stickler for “rules”? The governor’s illness can be paid for, the same for the employees, but a child’s expenses have to be realized only by selling it. That is probably what the authorities imply by their withholding the child from its parents.

Yours faithfully,
T.K. Sen, Calcutta

Problems brewing

Sir — Of late, tea auctions in Calcutta, Guwahati and Siliguri have been disrupted. At first it was because of a controversy over auctioneers’ credit to buyers. Then, the buyers’ right to free samples was challenged and amounts offered with catalogues sought to be reduced so sellers could control costs. In auctions, samples are the only means for sales promotion or advertising. To this end, buyers expect sellers to be liberal. No doubt, much of the free sample is wasted. But no advertising expense can be wholly useful.

As for credit, it is not the auctioneer who gives it. The tea remains with the seller until it is handed over to the buyer; the auctioneer is only the bailiff. Payment is usually made on the 14th day after the auction. The question is — should the buyer be given the tea before he pays? Such credit is allowed to many buyers in the Northeast, while it is not in the south. There is no reason for auctioneers to try to reduce the credit allowed the buyers.

Yours faithfully,
Prafull Goradia, New Delhi

Sir — The decision of the Darjeeling Planters’ Association to advertise Darjeeling tea on Zee television is welcome news. Internal consumption being low, Darjeeling tea has always depended on the vagaries of foreign markets. The quantity of Darjeeling tea sold in foreign markets far exceeds the actual produce. So, much of what is sold abroad is spurious. The planters’ association as well as the government should look into the unscrupulous racket in the tea trade.

Yours faithfully,
R.D. Rai, Bijanbari

Father figure

Sir — It is sad that Abhishek Bachchan was not given the same adulation as Hrithik Roshan in Calcutta (“Baby AB’s battle with father & son”, May 8). But it must be remembered that all the hysteria over Roshan was after Kaho Na...Pyar Hai was released, before which he was an unknown face. It is no use speculating on Bachchan’s fate before the release of his first film. Besides, Bachchan showed he was sensible by saying that he would have to cope with comparisons and by accepting that Roshan was a very good actor. Bachchan’s film should do well with good technicians like director J.P. Dutta and lyricist Javed Akhtar.

Yours faithfully,
Sunil Khaitan, Calcutta

Sir — Abhishek Bachchan will have to compete with his father’s fame. Even Amitabh was unable to repeat his success in his second innings. The days of a single actor reigning at the box office are gone. Abhishek should carve a niche for himself among the Khans, Devgans and others, rather than worry about his father’s reputation.

Yours faithfully,
Manish Kumar, Calcutta

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