Reflections on Respect
|Trust, belief, credibility and trustworthiness are under threat. We must value them the more for their being in trouble. |
Respect is either there or not there. You cannot have gradations of it, like Respect Vibhushan, Respect Bhushan, Respect Shri. Respect is Respect.
Respect does not come from reasoning. Respect comes instinctively from the thought. “Here is one I respect.”
Recipients of public respect have been broadly of three kinds: First, those whose status or authority commands respect, as for example kings, judges, popes, bishops, mathadhipatis, generals, ‘captains’ of industry. Second, those who get entitled to respect by ties of family or of social assemblage. Third, and most significant, those whose lives and deeds, not their nativity, not their office or seniority, have generated wide and deep respect for them.
Today, respect for those in high office, that is to say, respect for men and women with status, is in some difficulty.
The public is no fool. It judges. From tea-stall owners, vegetable vendors, autorickshaw and taxi drivers to fellow-commuters on a train, metro-coach, or bus, all evaluate high-office holders.
Many holders of high office are elected to them. The process of election is now used skilfully by the electorate as a political exercise that may or may not be connected with a moral evaluation. Several enter the fray because they command resources, not because they command respect. They command loyalty, they command obedience, they command admiration, they command fear. And because after commanding all these, they still want to command respect, they get their followers to try to commandeer it. But people, simple people, are able to perceive the intrinsic quiddity or thingness of a person almost by instinct, just as they are able to tell a good potato from one that has gone fungoid.
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C. Rajagopalachari never contested or won an election in independent India, but public respect for him was strong, whether he was in office or out of it (which was most of the time).
The same was true of his exact contemporary, ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramaswamy, whose ‘office’ was none other than affectionate esteem. Stalwarts of our freedom struggle such as Nehru, Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Azad, and towering personalities like Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Babasaheb Ambedkar apart, post-Independence Chief Ministers such as Gopinath Bordoloi of Assam, Nabakrushna Chaudhuri of Orissa, T. Prakasam, K. Kamaraj, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Gobind Ballabh Pant, C.N. Annadurai, and Jyoti Basu are among those whose incumbencies in elective office had little to do with the intrinsic respect they commanded across political divides and across the country. It is immaterial that Jayaprakash Narayan did not hold elective office. He held a respect which the spontaneous title — Loknayak — symbolised.
The commanding of respect by those in high station who are not elected but selected by processes of appointment and elevation to such office, especially those offices which are entered upon with oaths sworn or affirmed, is not an unmixed affair either. Take the judiciary in this context. The public has no direct role in its composition or in its periodical re-composition. And yet, distant though it is from the judiciary’s genesis or cyclical morphosis, the public has reserved a healthy respect for it.
The respect enjoyed by an institution like the legislature or the judiciary suffers if the incumbents of those bodies and those working in and with them do not treat those very bodies with respect. Respect begets respect. This would mean that even as the obstructing of the business of the House by legislators shakes public confidence in them as responsible legislators, the boycott of courts by lawyers hurts the institution’s reputation. Not any less so, does the rare individual trespass by a sitting judge. The trespass does not have to be gross. Even a red-light signal being cut by a red-light bearing car in which a judge is travelling can shake the public’s respect in the erring dignitary’s instructions to his chauffeur, and in the dignitary’s work-ethic and life-ethic.
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Nothing in creation is flawless, except perhaps forgiveness by the person entitled to forgive. (Forgiveness is different, we should note, from pardon).
But the judiciary’s mandate is not to distribute forgiveness, it is about determining culpability and where required, convicting and sentencing the culpable.
Nothing in creation is infallible, not even forgiveness. In the dispensing of justice in accordance with a differentiated code of defining and evaluating liability, this institution too can err.
Nothing in creation is constant or uniform, either. So the judiciary and constitutional bodies and commissions are a terraced palate, where fallibility is a fact as is dis-uniformity.
There can therefore be doubts, natural and normal doubts, about the flawlessness, infallibility and constancy of their functioning. But the institutions concerned are too vital, too valuable, to be held in any ambiguity as regards respect. I believe that this will be best ensured if the concern within our courts shifts from questions pertaining to the prestige it enjoins to questions pertaining to the respect it enjoys.
What might happen if respect for the judiciary, even for judicial commissions of enquiry, gets substantially eroded, is too disturbing a prospect to contemplate. I have the confidence that the custodians of the respect of our judiciary and of judicial or constitutional commissions will never permit that to happen.
If respect for status is a mixed affair, respect for seniority or chronological respect, is now becoming routine. I do lament the not-so-gradual disappearance of certain rites of respect for seniors and for elders, like the touching of grand-parental if not parental feet on departure or return home, or on anniversaries. This becomes particularly so when one finds that the reverential touching of feet as such has not gone out of vogue, but has only undergone metastatis, the recipients of prostrations being unembarrassed political gurus and unabashed godmen and godwomen.
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This reflects something more than the generational shedding and replacing of cultural mores, or just the growing self-centredness of the younger generation. It reflects a false streak of self-assurance that goes beyond aplomb to a kind of don’t care nerve. In the quotidian world status does sway, rank rules, and credentials count. But there is that margent of life in our midst where mundane needs of self-protection and self-advancement take pause and where we, the people of India, feel and say, “That person there, we respect him for we can trust him.”
Respect is often linked to admiration for skill. There is respect for a great musician, a dancer or sculptor, an actor or a sportsman because that person has honed a great skill to near-perfection. There is one unfortunate accompaniment to skill-based stature, however, that can rob it of its appeal. And that is the price tag that goes with high-calibre skill. Be it in sports — cricket in particular — or in music, or in the visual arts, the interplay of money with standards threatens respect for those persons endowed with skills and, in fact, with the place of skills in society.
Acknowledging the Law of Opposites, I must say a word about disrespect. How this is growing, is quite simply unbelievable. The level of public discourse has sunk to an unprecedented low, with vilification flowing seamlessly. Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi recently reminded us of the mutual respect that Rajaji and Periyar had for each other, as did he himself for Kamaraj, despite irreconcilable political differences.
At the heart of such respect lies trust. The trust that says this person, be he a governor or a grocer, a judge or a jockey, a councillor or a carpenter, an atomic scientist or an auto-driver, is trustworthy.
The only thing flawless in the world, I said, is forgiveness. The only thing priceless, I believe, is nambikkai. And nambikkai is at the core of respect. It is, as I said, either there, or not there. It cannot be insinuated into anyone or anything.
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Nambikkai, belief, credibility, trust and trustworthiness are under threat. We must value them the more for their being under threat, for not to do so would be to lose the challenge of receiving and the fulfilment of giving respect.
(This is an abridged version of a talk titled ‘Respect’ delivered at the Madras High Court, on August 5, 2010, under the aegis of Juris/Legal Exl ’83, created by the alumni of the Madras Law College 1980-1983 batch.)