It would have been comical if it wasn’t so sadly disempowering, the telephone conversation that I witnessed between a senior government officer and his boss.
“Sir…sir….yes sir….but….no…OK sir…..sir…sir…,” eyes rolling as the words came out with practised obedience as the incantations continued, “Sir…no problem sir…will do sir.” That single word ricochets off all the hallways of government, wrapping the entire edifice; take it away, and the whole structure would likely fall apart.
Most Indians have grown up with the chorus of “Present Sir (or Saar)!” drummed into our subconscious right from our school-days. Unfortunately, these are not just words—they are the DNA of our value system. The sycophantic “sir” is a wormhole into the deep-seated cultural attitudes of our society.
In India, demands for obedience and respect for authority present themselves in every facet of our society—in our offices and factories, in conversations among communities, between employer and household help, and in the interactions between citizens and government. It’s a rare Indian gathering where I have heard the joyous cacophony of dissent.
I should know. I was the textbook well-disciplined boy, growing up in a middle-class South Indian family with what the elders called a “healthy respect” for authority.
But there was always a bubbling uneasiness underneath, a pent-up energy. These emotions grew over the years until they exploded one day. That happened many years ago. I have never been the same since, and choose now to have a “healthy irreverence” for authority, rather than bottle it up inside me.
With globalization, Indian companies are being forced to revisit their hierarchical systems. Bosses have realized over the past decade that not only do they not know best, but that it is okay to admit this in public. But even the superficial symbolism of an egalitarian workplace is difficult to come by, because it clashes against our deeply ingrained cultural conditioning—it’s not easy taking the “sir” out of the Indian. Expat CEOs to the country find this a real struggle. Jurgen Schubert of Siemens once said: “The Indian system is a barrier to openness and straightforwardness. Indians are too polite, they don’t speak out.”
Not everyone is a votary of change. There are many who are unhappy at the attrition of authority. Claiming that our children are getting corrupted by new ideas, they suggest that Indian identity and heritage are under threat. In truth, there is a big difference between obedience and respect: challenging authority doesn’t necessarily mean disrespect.
This opposition to questioning the status quo is ironic, given that we owe our freedom to one of the greatest non-conformists of all time—a man who said: “Unthinking respect of authority is the greatest enemy of the truth.”
Jean Harvey, a professor of philosophy, coined the term “civilized oppression” to characterize the everyday processes of oppression in normal life, and how this “is embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols.”
The good news is that there couldn’t be a better time to move ahead. The messages of the 21st century are about wisdom of the crowds, co-creating value and open source. At the heart of these ideas is individual freedom. The writing is on the wall: even if we don’t give power away, it will get taken away anyway.
Making this come alive for an entire society demands a fundamental rewiring of how we think about all our relationships. We need a radical transformation of our attitudes towards authority, and revisit power in all our institutions: families, schools and colleges, sportsmasters and their teams, courts and hospitals, temples and churches and mosques. And governments. We need to unleash a quiet revolution in a billion minds.
It isn’t easy, because the eddy current of power is a cloying trap—every time someone uses the term “sir” or “madam”, the chest puffs out just that little bit, the self-esteem barometer inches up. Hear it a hundred times a day, and you can feel like you’re master of the universe.
Gandhi once again gives us an answer, to “be the change you wish to see”. Those who want to break the sir culture don’t have to wring their hands, they can do this in their own circle of influence—office, factory, college or school. Fight the virus. Banish the use of “sir” with immediate effect. It will be uncomfortable at first, and create many awkward moments. But it will be worth the trouble—at least you can hear everyone’s thoughts for a change.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org