Monday, July 20, 2009

Morality and the State

Two men were murdered recently; nothing unusual in a country of India’s size you might say, except for a curious detail. They both worked for the Railways and were killed by members of their own family. The Railways have a convention that if one of their employees dies in harness, they offer a job to one of the family members on compassionate grounds. So to get that job, the two men were killed. In one case, the murder was plotted by the man’s wife so that their son could get the job; in another instance, the killing was plotted by the son himself. Both instances took place in Bihar.

Another disturbing piece of news last week was the revelation that drug dealers have now become more creative than ever in plying their trade. They now use terminally ill people to act as carriers of illicit drugs from one point to another. People who are terminally ill are more amenable to taking risks as they have little to lose and are more open to taking risks to provide for their families while they still can in whatever way possible.

Both stories tell of the moral degradation and the loss of human sensitivity that we are increasingly experiencing. While world institutions and governments are hard at work, trying to revive the economy and providing stimulus packages, there is today nobody working to provide a moral stimulus package which is just as badly needed.

Of course, it would be incorrect to say that these sorts of issues are not being addressed at all; perhaps they are being addressed, but being addressed rather inadequately. They will be addressed and dealt with as issues of crime, which of course they are, but obviously they are much more than that. When a son murders his own mother, or a wife murders her own husband, it is foolish to simply dismiss such incidents as simply a “crime”, any more than long standing forms of protest against the state which occasionally turn violent can be simply termed as “law and order problems” and dealt with by a lathi charge or police firing.

Given that morality cannot be enforced by law by the State ; but is yet necessary for the preservation of the larger social order, there is a dilemma here for the secular state which has no place for moral arbiters. Theocracies have no such problem, they own up to a particular moral code and they enforce it, fairly ruthlessly one may say, though one could argue from examples drawn from within India as well as outside, moral policing in a society is as ineffectual as the lack of morality.

What is needed but often lacking is moral persuasion and the people who have the ability to don the garb and have the stature to do so. People who hold no formal position, but are able to influence ethics, morality and conduct within their domain of influence by sheer persuasion. Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps the most notable example of this in spite of his one spectacular failure – his inability to dissuade Jawaharlal Nehru and his team in the Congress from accepting the partition of the country. Meanwhile, even as the state enforces law and order . we need a way to reinforce morality and dharma in society ; not through the route of crude regimentation ; but through more and more people ; who can help tug at our heart strings and persuade us to listen to our steadily diminishing inner voice.

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