Few people would have heard of Dinesh Thakur till a couple of weeks ago. He had returned to India from the US in 2003 to take up a senior position with drug company Ranbaxy Laboratories, where he came across evidence of systematic fraud. The company was manipulating research data as well as producing substandard drugs. Thakur could not get the company management to set things right, so he left his lucrative job. He then complained to the US food and drug administration (FDA), since Ranbaxy sold off-patent medicines in that country. Ranbaxy eventually settled the case in May by paying a fine of $500 million (around Rs.2,800 crore).
The conscientious objector often has to walk down a lonely road, because he breaks an unwritten code of silence that binds most organizations.
Whistleblowers such as Thakur are a useful example, and many of his ilk have been hounded out of organizations across the world. It is never easy to speak truth to power.
The problem is an old one. The great epics—the Ramayan and the Mahabharat—offer three compelling narratives on the loneliness of the conscientious objector. These three characters chose to do what is right at a time when blind clan loyalties were the overarching principle of social behaviour. Their choices can tell us a lot about contemporary moral dilemmas.
The first example is perhaps the best known. Vibhishana was the younger brother of Ravana, who had great respect for the king of Lanka till the abduction of Sita. He chose to leave Lanka and join the army that Ram had put together to get his wife back, for which he was branded a traitor by his family.
The second example is that of Vikarna, the only Kaurava to protest the disrobing of Draupadi in the royal court, even as the elders remained mute spectators. Vikarna argued that Yudhisthira had no right to stake his wife in the game of dice because he had already lost his freedom earlier. But Vikarna eventually chose to fight—in a tragic act of misguided loyalty—on the side of his brothers in the Great War at Kurukshetra. The Pandavas wept when he was killed, even though they showed no such sympathy when the other 98 Kaurava brothers met their bloody end.
The third example is perhaps most interesting. Yuyutsu is a relatively unknown character in the Mahabharat. He was the second son of the blind Dhritarashtra, but not a Kaurava. His mother was Sauvali, not Gandhari. Yuyutsu clashed with Duryodhana; he loved him but was put off by the arrogance of the eldest Kaurava. Yuyutsu went over to the Pandava side just before the war began, in most dramatic circumstances, when the two armies were facing each other on the first day, impatiently waiting for the fighting to begin. He was one of the few warriors who survived the carnage.
What were the consequences of their moral choices? Vibhishana eventually became king of Lanka, after Ram defeated Ravana. Vikarna was killed in battle. Yuyutsu became regent to Parikshit at Hastinapur after the Pandavas left for the Himalayas and was later granted the kingship of Indraprastha by Yudhisthira. It could be argued that these rare men, who chose to do what was right, eventually benefited materially from their action.
But there is a more disturbing possibility charted out in Andha Yug, the great Hindi play by Dharamvir Bharati set on the last day of the Kurukshetra war. Flocks of vultures preying on the corpses strewn across the battlefield have blackened the sky. Ashwathama is blinded with rage, and is preparing to use the ultimate weapon to annihilate the world. The Pandavas are strangely unhappy in victory. Everyone is looking to Krishna to provide a moral compass to a confused world.
Yuyutsu comes across as a tragic figure in the play, rejected by Gandhari and taunted by Bhima. Yudhisthira tells Kripacharya about the second son of Dhritarashtra:
“He has suffered much.
He alone dared to stand up
against his family
and risk his life.
But in the end
his faith was betrayed.
he cannot even retaliate
like that brute Ashwathama.”
(from a translation of Andha Yug by Alok Bhalla)
Vibhishana, Vikarna and Yuyutsu made their choices in an age when tribal loyalty mattered above everything. The individual voice has greater freedom in our times, thanks partly to changing social norms, partly to constitutions that protect fundamental rights and partly to market economies that offer freedom of choice. Yet the organizational odds are often stacked against dissenting individuals. One can see the code of silence in political parties that are controlled by imperial high commands, in corporate meetings where genuine debate is not encouraged, in cricket boards where the wagons are circled even during the most scandalous episodes, in academic institutions that perpetuate group-think, and even in civil society organizations with their little Führers.
It is never easy to be Yuyutsu.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.
Also Read | Niranjan’s previous Lounge columns