Status Symbols in India


Red Beacons et al

Posted on 29-April-2017

     In May 1978, the Independent Commission on International Development Issues, popularly known as the Brandt Commission was meeting in Bamako. It was a body of eminent persons from across the globe meant to function independently of governments, the obvious implication being that its members were there in their individual capacities. The Indian member was Lakshmi Kant Jha who happened at that time to be Governor of Jammu and Kashmir. He was passing through Paris, coming by Air India and taking a connecting Air Afrique flight a few hours later. The Airlines had made arrangements for his stay during that brief stopover at a hotel within five minutes' drive from the terminal building. As a traveller in First Class, the airlines and the hotel would have fussed over him as airlines were wont to do those days. The Embassy in Paris had received a message and I was asked to meet him on arrival and departure. I made two round trips from the city to Charles de Gaulle airport, about forty five kilometres away, rather than twiddle my thumbs at the airport for four hours. I dutifully escorted Mr. Jha to his hotel and again escorted him back from the hotel to the airport and hung about in the Air Afrique lounge till he and some others boarded the flight to Bamako. The local Air India manager had also received messages about Mr. Jha's travels and was there to perform exactly the same duties as me. This was a relief in the sense that I had someone to talk to--any conversation between Mr. Jha and junior officials like me or the Air India manager was completely out of the question. As we hung around in the Air Afrique lounge, four other members of the Commission, taking the same flight, also walked in: Willy Brandt, Edward Heath, Olaf Palme and Katherine Graham. They each came unescorted, carrying their brief cases or similar bags. That image has stayed with me.

     Many years later, a group of Indian parliamentarians, with two ranking members of the two houses of parliament in the lead, was transiting New York on their way to Latin America--I do not remember which countries nor the airport of their destination. More out of an anxiety to protect myself against any complaint than out of regard for the parliamentarians, I was at JFK airport on arrival of the group by an Air India flight from India and stayed on till the departure of the flight to Latin America. The senior member from the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, found that for her onward journey she had only an economy class seat while some other ordinary parliamentarians were travelling first class. The super-efficient Air India agent who knew the airport and its set up like the back of his hand explained that since the seat allotment had been done by the computer system, nothing could be done to change the arrangement. Still the lady insisted that she must get a first class seat saying she was otherwise not boarding the connecting flight. Yet the group with Air India man and me in tow moved to entry gate for the connecting flight. All passengers had already three times been requested over the public address system to board that flight. But our parliamentarians standing within five or six metres of the entry gate would not move. The airport man at the gate requested these people to get on to the flight. Yet they would not move. The man at the gate obviously mindful that he should not delay the flight said that unless they moved immediately he was going to close the gate within the next minute. At this the leader of the group announced his rank and position in India at which the man at gate said: "Sir I do not know who you are but if you do not board this instant, I am closing this gate." To my great relief the group decided to move. While this drama played itself out I was wondering what kind of explanations I would have to give if these people did not board that plane. I never had any doubt nor do I have any doubt now that had such an incident happened at an Indian airport, that flight would have been delayed till this matter was sorted out probably by offloading some hapless ordinary passenger. Delaying flights or even trains in India so that the legions of self-important people anxious to announce to all around them their position in life can board planes or trains at leisure is not a rare incident.

     Much more recently, I was travelling by train from a state capital to Delhi. The governor of the state was also travelling by the same train in the next coach. Before the governor's arrival, there was the expected flurry of activity of security men and, I guessed, the governor's staff and people from the railway station staff. What caught my attention was that at a certain moment a red runner carpet and a two step white painted wooden staircase with red velvet topping on the steps was brought out of one of the cars. The red carpet running up to the entrance of the coach was rolled out and the stair case placed on top of it at the entrance to the coach obviously to help the governor make the less than nine-inch climb from the platform to the coach in two steps in ease and comfort. The governor, walking erect and without any support, arrived a few minutes later, mercifully not delaying the departure of the train. The only people who watched all this were curious, not necessarily awe struck or reverent, fellow travellers like me who four hours or so later would all go to sleep on their berths, unaware of the governor's presence on the train in the same supine posture as his fellow passengers. When you drive around in Indian towns, you come across not only cars with blue or red stroboscopic lights on top--most of the time not switched on--but also cars with special plates on top of registration plates with legends such as District Judge, City Magistrate, District Magistrate and so forth. Senior police officials have one, two or three star plates mounted at the front and rear of their cars. There are motor cars with Government of India or Government of (some state) painted on their bodies or on their registration plates. I have seen officials of at least two Indian universities with metal plates with their designations---Vice Chancellor, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Registrar, Controller of Examinations, Dean of Students, Dean of Arts, Dean of Science et cetera-- mounted on their cars in the front and the rear. When I was a student, more than five decades ago such proclamation of rank by university officials all across town was not heard of. Some fifty years ago I spent six months in an Indian district with the purpose of getting to know the conditions on the ground in India. None of the officials of the district had any plates on their cars announcing their designations. The democratic spirit in India has evidently progressed since then.

     In recent years, of all the external marks of rank, one --red or blue stroboscopic lights on top of official motor vehicles--had become widely prevalent across the country. The number of such people carrying such lights had been growing. The Supreme Court of India, no less, had also wrestled on a few occasions with the question of who should have such lights on their vehicles  and caused a list of people entitled to such lights to be drawn up. The Supreme Court's dictats had no visible effect. Why the Supreme Court or preferably some other authority in government could not issue a simple order banning the use of such lights on all cars except ambulances, fire engines and official police cars--not personal cars of police officials--and leave the police to draw up a list of circumstances when someone was to be given an escort of a police car or a police outrider is something I could not understand. But earlier this month the union cabinet--the highest political authority in India--decided that starting from the 1st of May this year no vehicle other than ambulances, fire engines and police cars will be allowed the use of stroboscopic lights. This is a welcome and long overdue decision at least for one reason. When there is car with a stroboscopic light on in the streets everyone knows it is either an ambulance, a fire engine or a police car--and not some minor or major VIP--for which it is obligatory to make way. When announcing this decision spokesmen for the government claimed it was step in the direction of --to use two stock expressions in currency in India--ending VIP culture or Red Light culture. This last is going to very difficult to say the least in a country obsessed with rank and privilege.

     People all over the world seek status, power and money. People also like to show their power and status in society. People with real authority in government or in an organisation do not have to do much to show their power or authority--they manifest themselves. The more self-confident they are the less interest they have in external trappings. But in a highly stratified society like that of India all manner of people are driven by their desire to show that they are a notch above the others. Any twopenny halfpenny man claims to be someone. If such shows of rank were simple shows of special position--like a man announcing to the world that he is someone important by flying the flag of the ruling party on his car, such behaviour could be dismissed as merely comic. But there are times when claims for special treatment because of a person's rank or position can take vicious forms. A minor politician's son shoots dead a young man because his relatively small car overtakes his much more powerful car. Another man shoots down or beats up a man at a highway tollbooth because he has been asked to pay the legitimate toll. A member of parliament beats up an airlines employee because whatever he is asking for cannot legitimately be given. On Indian highways there are lists of people  who are exempt from paying tolls--why there cannot be no exemptions allowing those on official journeys to claim reimbursements for the tolls they pay is something I cannot understand. At Indian airports there are long lists of people who are exempt from frisking by security agencies. The number of people who move around surrounded by a posse of security men is very large as if people thought that the more threatened they were the more important.

     Such widespread attitudes cannot be changed by government orders. In some cases as in the case of the decision about stroboscopic lights things can change to a limited extent. Government can also do other things such as trimming the security details of ministers--not everyone's life is threatened because he becomes a minister. In other cases good old law enforcement can go a long way. Finally social pressure can work wonders. But social pressure against what is called VIP culture is difficult to visualise where everyone with some money and some kind of position fancies himself a VIP. How to change social values and mores is always a difficult question to answer.   

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Also on this site:               Introduction to The Waste Sad Time             The Waste Sad Time






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