Looking Glass | Breaking the law in the name of tradition

Looking Glass | Breaking the law in the name of tradition

As a culture proud of its ancient past, we tend to fall back an awful lot on “tradition" as our story for doing things a certain way. We have arranged marriages between people of the same caste because that is our tradition. We give our daughters dowries when we send them off to their “own" home because that is our tradition. We touch the feet of our elders as a sign of respect because that is our tradition.

Tradition has been pretty much on top of my mind this past week with reports that Jaswant Singh, India’s leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, allegedly served his guests in Rajasthan an opium-laced drink on 31 October in accordance with the tradition of his region, but in contravention of the law of the land.

His son denies the opium charge and the matter is under investigation.

Then came Diwali. Perhaps it’s because I am suffering from festival fatigue (like everybody else who has had to deal with traffic and pollution), but I’ve been thinking about tradition and the role it plays in our globalized, flat-world lives.

Notwithstanding a 9.4% growth rate and the emergence of international brands in India and career women in business suits, we still see signs of tradition everywhere. Step into a shop in the first half of the morning and chances are you will hear bhajans on its music system. Young women with phoney accents and fake names at BPOs will deny themselves even a sip of water as they fast on karva chauth.

And tradition is evident in the Indian fashion industry with the invention of suchgarments as the kurti, a top paired with trousers but long enough to protect the modesty of its wearers.

Because these are issues of personal choice (and who can possibly object to one individual’s decision to turn vegetarian on Tuesdays or fast during Ramzan?), nobody really minds and we accept—and are even proud of—the role tradition plays in our lives. That’s the Indian way of doing things, we say with pride.

Yet, if men in public life have broken, as allegations claim, the law on drugs and narcotics in the name of following tradition, what’s to stop them from justifying other traditional practices—the caste system or dowry, for example?

Much of what we pass off as tradition is not ancient or received wisdom. Take Diwali: How far back does the tradition of gambling or bursting firecrackers go? A 100 years? Less? And am I the only one who believes that gift-giving (including corporate gifts) has spiralled out of control only in the last few years? What happened to the older tradition of Diwali being a family-only celebration? And is the blatant commercialization of the festival now part of the new landscape of Diwali tradition?

All too often we use tradition as a tool to coerce people into behaving in a certain way. So, according to our tradition, good Indian women do not run off and marry the men they love (think Kolkata’s Priyanka Todi or Telugu actor Chiranjeevi’s daughter Srija). Dowry, too, continues to be a tradition although it is illegal. And the belief that only a male heir can ensure his parents’ passage into afterlife has contributed in no small measure to our skewed sex ratio.

There are those who argue that many Indian traditions—the tradition of family, for instance—make us a superior society. This is largely undeniable. And yet, if ourfamily system was so strong, why did we need to bring in a law that makes it mandatory for children to look after their aged parents?

If the joint family system was all that wonderful, why do we have so many top-rated TV soaps with their scheming matriarchs and autocratic patriarchs? If brotherly love was so ingrained in our culture, why are thousands of cases filed by brother against brother pending in the Indian courts? And if the milk of human kindness was so much a part of our tradition, how do you explain the fact that people in posh colonies have died of starvation, unseen and unheard by their neighbours, families and friends?

I’m not saying that modern society has no room for tradition. Far from it. Tradition offers continuity and, very often, sense and meaning to our lives. Unfortunately, what we confuse as tradition is little better than ceremony or ritual or even superstition.

When I think about tradition, I am often reminded of the story (perhaps apocryphal) about an Indian minister who in the late 1980s loftily declared that HIV/AIDS could never be an Indian problem because the sexual behaviour that caused it was inimical to our tradition.

The fact is that change, whether social or economic, rarely comes about by blindly following tradition. It’s the iconoclasts, who question everything and shake up accepted knowledge, who make a difference.

Namita Bhandare will write every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to lookingglass@livemint.com