Happy New Year or, rather, happy new decade! Writing a column at the onset of a new decade is daunting. One has to summarise the last 10 years and predict the next 10 in a limited space. However, the events that happened and the events that might happen are being covered enough. For me, the onset of the new decade is a good chance to reflect at how Indian culture changed, and should change in times to come.
A decade is a long time in an individual’s life. Whether it is having a child, getting married, finishing your education or changing your job or cities, things must surely be different for you now from what they were in 2000.
However, 10 years isn’t a long time when it comes to nations and societies. Cultures change for sure, but the shift in people’s thinking, outlook and worldview is gradual. Our culture isn’t just our food, arts and traditions. In a broader sense, culture defines us: who we are as people, how we aim to live our lives, what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour and who in society is rewarded and punished. Most important, our culture contains the implicit rules by which we live – our values. Just as an example, one might say the United States values wealth, competition, individualism and religion. These are pretty much core to the essence of American society and culture.
When we think of Indian values, we normally think of personal values – such as family, religion and respect for elders. These things are notably Indian. However, ask someone to articulate Indian community values, and there won’t be a clear answer. Do we value wealth or education? Do we value democracy where people have a greater say in how they are governed, or do we believe in power in the hands of a select few to whom the laws don’t apply? Do we value honesty, or do we value getting a job done anyhow? Do we believe in frugality, or do we want to show off our wealth? Do we value our local communities, or do we value being part of India?
These questions have no easy answer. There are conflicting responses to any of these questions in the Indiawe see around us today. Scholars, unable to account for this, make profound statements like ‘there are many Indias within India’. Some romantic types even call it ‘the beauty of India, where everything is unpredictable’.
I call it confusion. Values cannot be unpredictable, they are consistent, even in volatile times. The past decade was spent by Indian society in a muddled set of values. It is hoped in the next 10 years we do a ‘values clarification’, especially for the new generation. A clear set of values helps tell people what their lives are for and what is worth working for. Values tell people what is good and important. They bind society. Social scientists believe that without values, a society could disintegrate, a risk often present in India. Religious heads believe that without values, human life is meaningless and all the worldly pleasures will not lead to any satisfaction. Yes, a lack of good values is why scams happen, nepotism exists and the government doesn’t care about its people. Core values are vital to any society and human being.
So why are we in such a confused state? Where have we gone wrong? Are Indians less moral, despite being the most religious in the world? No, we are perfectly fine people. The land where Buddha and Gandhi became icons, purely by the strength of their values, means ours is a society that understands goodness. The reason there is no concrete set of Indian values yet is that the concept of India itself is new.
Just over six decades ago, there was no India. We had a collection of princely states, with kings and queens, which the British ruled at gunpoint. When the latter left, we loosely stitched these together, cut off a large chunk with partition and labelled the result India. The only common value all these kingdoms shared was their wanting the British out. After that was achieved, another revised set of values was never fully agreed upon. In 60 years, India mixed, modernised and defined itself somewhat, but there is still a long way to go. Today, different subsets of society have their own set of values, which frankly doesn’t help much at a national level and leads to what we have now: confusion.
As we enter the new decade, there will be prescriptions on how many roads, airports and power plants we need to build. Along with this infrastructure, we must spend time building our values. Leaders, opinion makers and all of us in our dinner table discussions should continue to bring up this single question: What should an average Indian live, work and strive for in his life?
At present, there is no easy answer. There is also deep cynicism. But if we keep looking, and contribute to the quest for the right answer, we will find it. The answer to this fundamental question will determine our Constitution, our laws and where we will go as a society and nation in times to come. India will grow economically in the next 10 years. But if we focus on our collective values too, it will truly be a happy new decade.