Does India keep people in an endless state of childhood?

Our central bank has traditionally worked under the assumption that we are gullible. Photo: Mint
Our central bank has traditionally worked under the assumption that we are gullible. Photo: Mint


It’s not such an absurd question when one thinks of the ways our authorities try to protect us from ourselves

A few months ago, a French writer asked me if I would speak to him as a part of his research for his next book, which was about “why India looks like a country of kids." His message further said, “Indians often behave like kids (for good and bad reasons) and the politicians do everything to maintain the population in a state of childhood and ignorance in order to control it." I told him that I would love to meet, even though I didn’t “fully agree" with the premise.

Our meeting did not take place on the appointed date, though I would think of the subject. I have never thought so much about a theory that I had, at first glance, dismissed as too esoteric. My intuitive reaction was that modern Indians are not so naive, and that they only pretended to be child-like. But then, had I misunderstood the premise? I reached out to him to find out why he felt so and what examples he had. I wanted to have an argument over a series of emails that I could write about. But I got the feeling that he did not want to discuss the matter with me anymore. But I did not stop thinking about it.

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Do Indian adults behave like children? And does India keep Indians in a state of childhood? If you do not try to connect these two questions, that is search for an answer that connects these two questions, then the idea becomes more persuasive.

It is possible that all governments, to an extent, infantilize their own, but there are some circumstances that are unique to India.

One of the triggers that made me take the subject seriously was when the Reserve Bank of India decided to protect Indian credit card users from auto-debits. As a result, a few weeks ago, most digital recurring payments to merchants failed and a segment of our digital economy collapsed. There was chaos for a few days. To reset such payments, Indians had to perform of a set of tasks that seemed complicated and tedious. The only happy people were a few Indians who were once fans of The New York Times and now wished to cancel their subscription, which is very difficult because you can’t just click a button for it; instead, you have to call or chat online. But RBI, through a rule to guard Indians who did not ask to be guarded, liberated thousands of NYT subscribers.

Our central bank has traditionally worked under the assumption that we are gullible. A digital transaction in India is full of friction, requiring multi-factor okays. It is as though RBI thinks Indians are not mature enough.

Many wings of the Indian government treat Indians in this manner. They bully us in many ways, and there is a presumption visible in every public policy—that we are not smart or mature. For instance, the legal drinking age in two Indian states is 25, and in most it is 21. It is ridiculous not because there is widespread drinking among adolescents and people in their early twenties, but because it reveals how governments see Indians in their early twenties as kids.

Is the Indian government right, though? Are Indians juvenile?

But then, if you don’t stretch the argument to absurdity, it is wrong to infantilize even children. One of the big mistakes mainstream education and entertainment industries do is in presuming, with vapid euphemisms, that children are less intelligent version of adults. As a result they are presumed to be frivolous, and addicts of entertainment. Also, there is a presumption that they are “innocent" and should be protected from sexual ideas and images of drugs and violence. All of this India does to Indian adults, too.

There is a whole clutch of Western films that are rated “adult" for theatrical release in India, but are still censored to protect adults from the menace of sex. It is as though India believes that it has created a vast nation of sexually starved people who will behave like adolescents if they see sex.

It was only a few months ago that India finally acknowledged the 16+ category as people who are on the spectrum of adulthood, mature enough to watch a bit of nudity. If you look at the age ratings of many global films and series, you will notice that Indian authorities and parents assume that their children are the least mature, who need to be protected from “corrupting influences".

Indian spiritual gurus not only treat their followers as children, but also clearly say they are. Not surprising then that some spiritual heads are known as ‘mothers’. We can argue that all religions have that condescending tone—that deems all ordinary people the children of a sacred being. But in India, it is a degree more. Take, for instance, this part of Rabindranath Tagore’s acceptance speech after he was awarded the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature: “Is not the East the mother of spiritual humanity and does not the West... do not the children of the West amidst their games and plays, when they get hurt, when they get famished and hungry, turn their faces to that serene mother, the East?"

On their part, Indian adults do behave like children. For example, consider how Indians behave on flights, especially international. A few days ago, a German flight attendant told me how overworked she feels when most passengers are Indian. Indians seem to have many demands. More water, more food, more drinks. And they mess up the toilets, I am told. And, some passengers go off to sleep on the floor and pretend to be in a coma when flight attendants try to wake them.

There are, of course, aspects of life where the Indian government does not treat its own as precious children. India does not protect us from lethal dangers like road accidents, or ensure there are automatic doors in all trains, or insist on fire safety in factories. India only protects Indians from themselves.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist and the creator of the Netflix series ‘Decoupled’ .

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