Are we a nation of cowards?

When I visited my bank yesterday, I found it unusually crowded. I realized this was because of the strike by bank employees the previous day. There were about 20 persons standing in the waiting area. Obviously, all seats were occupied. As I walked to an empty corner, I noticed one seat was occupied by a backpack. I wondered whether the backpack belonged to the young man sitting in the adjacent seat or to somebody who had left it there while (s)he had gone to one of the counters. I walked up to the seat and asked the young man whether the backpack belonged to him. He silently picked it up and placed it on his lap. There was no word or expression of regret from him.

This young man could clearly see many persons, including a couple of elderly persons, standing. Forget offering his seat to one of the elderly persons, he had kept his almost empty backpack on another seat!

While I was disappointed by the young man’s thoughtlessness, I was much more disappointed by the fact that nobody else had bothered to find out why the seat was occupied by a backpack. I’m sure some of the persons had seen him keep his backpack on the seat. The young man may have been insolent, but he did not look threatening in any way.

I’ve seen many similar incidents where people silently tolerate the inconvenience caused by the thoughtless behaviour of their fellow-citizens. I’m sure everybody has seen many such instances.

Most of us Indians do not speak up against such thoughtless, but relatively harmless, behaviour of our fellow-citizens. Why, then, are we surprised, shocked and outraged when we read reports of people being silent onlookers when girls/women are subjected to verbal and/or physical sexual harassment in public places? Can we expect meek persons to suddenly transform into assertive persons?

Why do we refrain from speaking up? Why do we quietly walk away from undesirable situations or, if that is not possible, choose to suffer in silence? I think we are groomed to do so because this is one of the so-called ‘middle-class values’. “We have neither the strength nor the money to deal with them. We are common middle class people.” This is what most ‘middle-class’ parents tell their daughters and sons … yes, sons also. Parents tell children that they should avoid undesirable situations. By chance, if the children get exposed to an undesirable situation, they should quietly walk away. They should not hit back, they should not talk back, they should not ‘lower themselves’. In short, most middle-class parents groom their daughters and sons to be cowards.

We should all remember Mahatma Gandhi‘s words, “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”