An excerpt from Sarah Macdonald’s entertaining book “Holy Cow”, about her two years in India:
“I can’t get a word in to tell the Raja of Red Tape that . . . . . As he speaks, four men watch, drinking in the glory of their Goebbels. They prostate before him, vigorously nod and fall over with laughter when he tries to be funny. They’re unpaid crawlers, men with not enough work and too much time who just love to sit at the feet of someone more successful than themselves. Indians adore authority. To these guys, this middle-ranking official is a Buddha of bureaucracy and a priest of paperwork. To me he’s a dickhead of the highest order.”
She’s absolutely right about the reverence for authority here on the sub-continent (remembering that Bangladesh was a part of India until 1947). It doesn’t just translate to meek observance of hierarchy but also to infuriating red tape. And it’s not entirely fair to blame the British for this circumstance either. The curious thing is though, when it comes to road rules the respect of other road users remains but there is no apparent respect for rules.
visa on arrival – apply beforehand
Earlier this year, Linda and I wanted to apply for a visa on arrival to travel to India. (Yes, visa on arrival has to be applied for in advance!!) I dutifully filled out the form (Here they say “fill up the form”) and received a printout of confirmation. Fearing the possibility of travelling to Kolkata and being refused entry, I sought confirmation that the printout was sufficient. No-one – including the embassy – was able or willing to give such an affirmation.
I traipsed all the way across the city to the Indian Visa Application Centre. A sizeable crowd of patient people waiting in line before me was enough to dampen enthusiasm all by itself but after waiting quite a while, I was ushered into an office (where another couple were already seated across the desk from the official). He told me I would have to fill up a form. When I told him I thought I had already done just that, he showed me a form and referred me to another official. After receiving plenty of obfuscation and no clear responses, I decided to take the chance (and we were subsequently rewarded with safe passage at Kolkata airport).
The deep respect for authority seems to manifest itself on the sub-continent (and not just here, either) in a perverse desire for dark-skinned people to somehow lighten their complexions. (This is handy for teaching staff in an international school situation but perplexing in any other context.) Advertisements laud lighter skin and Bollywood stars are routinely more Caucasian than not. There are even advertisements for skin-lightening potions and emoluments.
But the deep respect for authority does not translate to the roads, which are chaotic and designed in a bygone era, ensuring the chaos will worsen in time. Lanes? I don’t think so. Stop at red lights? No chance! Drive on the left hand side of the road? Maybe!
Despite the chaos, there are very few accidents. Linda sometimes admires the spatial awareness of the drivers. When it comes to chaotic roads, it’s a bit difficult to show respect for a police force whose numbers primarily are from a caste you believe to be lower than your own.
This respect for authority helps to maintain social order and peace. Obedient people are easily governed and the society is peaceful. The corollary of course is that the populace is easily duped, too. During the early part of this year, a series of debilitating blockades went on for too long, often seriously inconveniencing the public, not to mention commerce. Many people said they were “fed up” but did they do anything about it? No, they seemed to be resigned to the interruptions rather than mobilised to do something about it.
The British used the existing caste system to their advantage, installing hand-picked zaminders to act as feudal masters (locals still use the word ‘feudal’ as though it has currency). They didn’t invent the caste system but they deepened its hold and benefited from it. The legacy today is that bureaucracy is stultifying and people allow systems to persist many years past their usefulness. Being infuriated by the bureaucracy didn’t invoke the same reaction in me as it did in Sarah Macdonald but it’s easy to sympathise.