The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- Why important people are so important in India

In India, much is said in public about the value of equality and the need to be steadfast in our commitment to it. This profession of faith in equality is hard to reconcile with what, for want of a better phrase, I shall call 'dignitary culture', which is a distinct and pervasive feature of our public culture. Dignitary culture is replete with the substance and symbolism of hierarchy. Ironically, it is seen in its most ostentatious form among the very people who are tireless in their advocacy of equality.

No doubt dignitaries have a legitimate place in public life in every society, but in India they make their presence felt without any concern for tact or delicacy. An important promoter of dignitary culture is the state, and the colonial state promoted it in a particularly conspicuous way. The British built up an apparatus of power and authority in which dignitaries were carefully graded and insulated from the ordinary people of India.

Today, when we are irked by the misconduct of our own dignitaries, we tend to lay all the blame on the legacy of colonial rule. Leaving aside the conditions under which it emerged, modern Indians have shown a remarkable, almost a natural, aptitude for dignitary culture. Even under British rule, those who were admitted to it took to it like ducks to water. The proof of this aptitude is that dignitary culture did not languish after the British left India but expanded and proliferated, acquiring many new forms and features. During the nationalist movement, Mahatma Gandhi tried to create a different kind of public culture, antithetical to dignitary culture, but his efforts have had little lasting effect on the Indian's fascination for dignitaries.

No doubt ministers, judges and legislators require some amount of special attention and special treatment on public occasions. Democracy does not mean the levelling of all distinctions of rank and status. Members of the public should not grudge the dignitaries of the state the respect and esteem that is due to them for the offices they hold. But there has to be some reciprocity in this. Dignitaries on their part should treat ordinary citizens with some consideration, if not with courtesy. They rarely do so. Their conduct towards the public is often disruptive, sometimes to the point of being anti-social. They disrupt the flow of traffic, come to functions late, keeping the public waiting indefinitely, and leave early, causing commotion and disorder. All of this they do habitually and as a matter of right.

Dignitaries, even minor ones, never go anywhere unattended. The dignitary himself may have a benign face, but the entourage without which he seems unable to move is likely to include persons who are boorish if not thuggish. The insulation of dignitaries and their special treatment ' the pilot cars, the gunmen and the bodyguards ' are sometimes justified by saying that they are required for reasons of security. It is true that the requirements of security have increased, but the nuisance that is caused by the movement of dignitaries cannot always be justified by the argument about security. I once narrowly escaped being knocked down at the India International Centre where I had gone to attend a talk because a dignitary who had come to release a book was leaving and his escort had to clear a way for him. Why should dignitaries be invited to release books when they need so much security'

The bad behaviour of dignitaries is matched by the general craving for their presence on every occasion. What I have called dignitary culture could not have grown, spread and become entrenched without the public craving for the presence of dignitaries everywhere: at sports competitions, relief camps, musical concerts, wedding ceremonies and academic conferences.

The appetite for proximity to dignitaries is not confined to the common man. It is quite widespread in the academic profession. This is paradoxical because Indian academics, particularly in the human sciences, rarely miss an opportunity to speak and write against the establishment with or without good reason. Yet the same persons relish being in the company of dignitaries, in season and out of season. Many years ago, I was returning to the university with a radical friend after having attended a meeting in another part of the city. Because the meeting was over early, we had the use of the official car for some time. As the car approached Shastri Bhavan, my friend suddenly said, 'Lets go and see the minister.' I was appalled and refused to go and insisted on waiting in the car. Fortunately for me, the minister was not available, so I did not have to wait long. I am certain that my friend did not expect any material benefit from his visit to the minister; just being in his company enhanced his sense of well-being.

Conferences, seminars and even special lectures tend to acquire the colour of ceremonial occasions in our country. The organizers have to give much thought to planning and event management. Money is, of course, necessary but it is not sufficient. In addition to the academic part of the occasion, its ceremonial part has to be planned and organized. The inauguration of the conference or seminar requires the participation or at least the presence of prominent persons; there is also the valedictory session, but that is usually on a smaller scale.

For many persons, the inaugural session of a conference, seminar or workshop is its most important part. It is generally well attended and after it the attendance tends to dwindle. Old hands who have been prominent in academic and public life turn up regularly for the inaugural session, irrespective of the theme of the conference or seminar. For the organizers, the occasion is both exciting and challenging. They have to bring in as many important persons as are available and then have to think of assigning functions to them, such as delivering the inaugural address, the presidential address, the keynote address, the chairman's observations, and so on. Great care has to be taken to maintain the right order of precedence, even in the presentation of bouquets and mementos, since academics are extremely sensitive about rank and status. If a high dignitary comes but is not accommodated on the podium, there may be a scandal.

I am, from time to time, asked to participate in or even give a keynote address to a seminar or conference on a theme that is far removed from my own field of study and research. When I point out this obvious fact to the organizers, they remain unperturbed and point out in their turn that they have approached and secured the consent of several dignitaries. The fact that the consenting dignitaries have as little professional competence in the field as I have is another matter.

I am not saying that there is no academic culture in our universities and research institutes or that it has been completely displaced by dignitary culture because that would be a false statement. It is, at the same time, distressing to find that so much of academic work, and other professional work, is subverted by ceremonial and other social considerations that have nothing to do with the requirements of the work.

Email This Page