You know there's desi blood flowing when you've been told to respect someone just because the other person is “older than you”.
Or more wealthy.
Or more educated.
Or more white/light-skinned.
I suppose most of us have internalised this twisted notion of respect to such an extent that it doesn't even dawn upon us when we perpetuate it further. Perhaps just as worse then is when people in power, in positions of authority, are self-righteous in asserting their demand for respect.
“For a lot of teachers in my college, respect is about students standing up in class when they enter, calling them 'ma'am' or 'sir' and asking their permission to go to the washroom,” says Nithila MK. “So, yes, I respect them, but I don't like respecting them the way they think they should be respected, which is basically going through the motions (observing protocol) – that's superficial.” She defines being respectful as being in a position “where I don't belittle someone, or I don't think that I should exercise any power or influence over them, but accord them a basic level of decency – which I would do to anyone, not just to my teachers alone”.
The second-year student has come to fear authoritarian figures ever since she was yelled at in the very first week of college for being tardy and sitting “on the boys' side”. “I was never scared of teachers before (this incident),” says Nithila, who addressed teachers at the alternate school she attended by their first names. “Even my friends who went to mainstream schools are puzzled by the behaviour of some of these teachers. Yet this is one of the main things I've learnt in college – that a lot of teachers are on a power trip. They like to exert power over their students. I don't know why they do it... it's very frustrating.”
The power trip was also at play when the college she goes to “unfairly” expelled a teacher for being too outspoken and questioning authority. And this wasn't a stray event. Nithila recalls another incident that cemented her opinion about such authoritarian figures. The Jesuit college recently had a public talk, which was made mandatory for Catholic students to attend, in which the speaker denounced homosexuality, and called it a mental illness. “We've had similar, regressive public talks earlier as well,” she says, adding that she and a few other students approached the principal with a protest letter. “The principal questioned why we had approached him directly. He said, 'How can you come to me? You've bypassed all the lower authorities and it upsets me very much.' And I remember thinking he is the principal so why shouldn't we be able to go to him directly. He dismissed the talk as a 'very small' issue and when my friend persisted, he simply said, 'I am the principal. I decide what a small issue is.' And with that, he basically shut us up.”
The Bangalore resident is visibly upset that college authorities, who see youngsters day in and day out, feel the need to shout at students. “It' seems silly to me that a 50-year-old person should be worrying about what a teenager is doing, where s/he is sitting and so on. And to think they've been teaching in college for 30-40 years,” she says, disappointed that a lot of teachers are simply uninterested in teaching. “And this definitely affects how students learn.”
Unfair; regressive; autocratic – that's a 20-year-old expressing pessimism about the environment she finds herself in. So how does she cope? “I started getting so scared that I was changing to accommodate all these things... for instance, I try to make myself invisible so that the teachers don't pick on me,” she says. “Also I used to cry earlier, but fortunately, I've found a good peer group now and we talk about these things. And you do what you can in a crappy situation – like when we went to the principal,” she laughs.
I can't help but ask whom she views as authoritarian figures in the public domain. “Maybe Arnab Goswami,” pat comes the reply. “He once kept yelling at a guest, 'How dare you accuse me? How dare you say that to me on my show?' That can't be the basis of any disagreement... It should be, 'You think I'm biased, but I don't think I'm like that, so let me tell you why I am not biased... and so on.”
(Juvenoia is a fortnightly column that sneaks a peep into the minds of 'Indian millennials' – born after the liberalisation in India and before the first iPhone released. Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)