[This essay concerns the woes of dealing with the pressures of being a civil servant in India.]
Has it ever occurred to you what it feels like—or even means—to live freely? Despite all our personal privileges, are we truly free? Is anyone really free?
These are the kinds of questions I thought through today as I traversed through the wide alleys of Central Delhi, getting drenched in the rain, escaping getting hit by ever-speeding cars, and slowing down to think if my friction-less chappals would slip and the white pant would get muddy. Upon reaching the metro station, I was in a long queue of passengers huddling through the security maze.
After all this, I am left wondering, are we truly free? Perhaps this is a question of privilege—a privilege I may have struggled to ask all my life. But, a privilege nonetheless…
When I was young, my parents told me to study well, or else there was no option except to graze the buffaloes like my village peers. Boy, study I did. I joined the schooling where I could grab a full scholarship to study. Since my parents could not educate themselves enough, they wanted me to study hard. That is all the desires they had. Ah, a little more than that!
They wanted me to become a civil servant. An IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer, so to say, or as they colloquially termed it, a district collector. However, I dreamt of being one until I really did not. I did not know what it meant to start with when I wanted to be that. And I very well knew what it meant when I didn’t want to be that.
Every once in a while, my father eloquently puts it, despite all his failed persuasions to get me to prepare for the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) Exam, “We gave you all this education so that you travel in a government car, with laal batti (loosely translated as read beacon)”. (Trust me, I have often told him that these vehicles no longer carry a red beacon).
Beneath all these desires lie a certain notion of power, prestige, and respect. Why, I often ask myself! Is this desire something society created for us? Is it a failure of our society that perpetually wants to maintain a system of hierarchy (where bureaucracy is the state, the state is the god-like, and citizenry is just subjects)?
Or are we all just so enamoured by the state that our sense of citizenship arises from our own escape from thinking like a subject? Are we merely trying to escape subjecthood through our becoming a state—through IAS?
Is it an aspirational element of trying to escape poverty, the life we are living, and practising a sense of belief that IAS alone is a respectable job? Or is it just an amalgamation of all this?
As I grew through my bachelor’s and entered my master’s at Delhi University, I sensed a quiet discomfort in the thought that I could study for UPSC. Part of the blame must go to the kinds of things I read in the University. I sensed the kinds of structures that existed and realised that I would not want to get entangled in the maze of the desire machine that is IAS.
Reading Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, and Foucault, I sensed that the world could be different. And the world we live in is our own making. If we could create a world like this, can we make it differently by asking different questions? This is something I began grappling with.
Thanks to the environment I was brought up in, with barely anyone asking questions, it always put an onus upon me to read more. But my environment is also not very conducive to everything I am discussing.
I doubt if my parents fully understand—and appreciate (for I thoroughly appreciate their concerns that they cannot afford their 26-year-old son to speak philosophically about transcending worldly mimetic desires)—what it means to do a PhD. But somehow, I have made my peace with it.
Even if I were to win a Nobel prize, my father would be dismayed that his well-educated son (who studied God-knows-what) did not even bother to write this UPSC exam once.
Why is there a constant urge to do UPSC in our societies? What does it say about our societies, in general? Since our independence, bureaucracy has remained a system that is aloof from social realities in a manner of living through social realities. What do I mean by it?
Even as the civil servants administer societies, they have often looked at society as consisting of subjects—of beings that need to be controlled. One part of the problem is thanks to colonial subjecthood (a kind of Foucauldian governmentality). And another is our inability to ask questions. Our inability as a society to encourage a thriving environment in doing so. How do I justify this?
Go to a local police station and see how the villagers perceive it. In many Indian households, going to a police station or a court meeting would be seen as succumbing to their honour. This discomfort about state machinery is replete.
The stick-carrying police (as often portrayed in Indian movies) or a recurring innuendo of a bureaucratic clerk swamped with paperwork are all products of the state machinery. State power hangs on its postcolonial subjects.
While there is a discomfort about the state power, there is also a great deal of desire to get hold of that power. State, through the mechanism of UPSC—and bureaucracy—has created a machinery of desires. Since there is an overlaying structure of ruler and subject, the social classes (both rich and poor) attach bureaucracy to a supreme value.
The Neta-Babu (politician-bureaucrat) nexus of the elitism of class hierarchy has created mimetic desires among Indian social classes. It is a mechanism for the people living in poverty and the middle classes to escape their subjecthood and establish their citizenry. It is a mechanism through which they attain importance–and their lives are worthy of living. Therefore, becoming an IAS officer becomes a mimetic desire.
As French philosopher Rene Girard puts it, one desires something because somebody else desires it. But I go a little further and argue that one desires something because society desires that thing. Elsewhere, Girard writes:
I would also invoke Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze to make a case that desire itself is a product of capitalism. But that would drag me to write another essay like this one. Also, I have forgotten what they had to say about desire anyway. So, let’s stick to Rene Girard!
There is another twist to this tale. Perhaps, we are also always driven by what others think of our decisions. What would I tell others that my son/daughter is doing? Humanities? At 26? That shit isn’t going to get them a job! Ah, they are working? Nah, that isn’t good enough. That isn’t a government job, right? You aren’t too sure till when your fortunes run through.
More importantly, doing a Humanities—and not doing an IAS. That is quite a bummer! What would other people think? That they are not simply good enough? Maybe they are not particularly smart to crack the exam! Oh, maybe they are too lazy! That is what society would think!
What others (in society at large) expect us to want to do—and our ability to achieve them—determines our self-worth. Becoming an IAS brings social prestige and surplus to an Indian community. A community desires that someone in their community becomes an IAS. It brings with it a sense of self-worth. But why?
Was the sense of self-worth ever lost in the first place? I don’t know. It may just be that we are fed to be worthy members of society by our social circles. Being an IAS, I suggest here, is the highest level of one’s ascribed worthiness in the Indian society as we live it.
If our worth is attained through what becomes of you, are you really free? We are always chasing what others want us to do. We often want to do something because others have done so. And we may also often do something because we must do something.
Doing something is a part of the puzzle. It is a mechanism that holds societies in a fix. Doing something also intuitively controls us—in manners, we don’t yet know and fully appreciate. What we do define us. What we do allows us to feel free. But are we really truly free? I don’t know!
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