Deeply religious we may be but honest we are not! Why are Indians dishonest?

We Indians wear religion on our sleeves. Why are we then so dishonest?

Deeply religious we may be but honest we are not! Why are Indians dishonest?
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MA Kalam

One of the more disconcerting trends during the current pandemic has been the hoarding of medicines and oxygen cylinders, black-marketing of drugs and sale of spurious “life-saving” drugs, not to speak of overcharging by hospitals.

In Tamil Nadu, the government temporarily delicensed a number of private hospitals for excessively overcharging patients. Maharashtra had to cap charges for the treatment of Covid in private medical facilities following reports of patients being charged exorbitantly while the Delhi Chief Minister had to warn private hospitals against “black marketing” in hospital beds.

Are such displays of senselessness and insensitivity unique to India? It is pertinent to look at the United Nations’ latest World Happiness Report (2021), “What does being a happy country mean during a pandemic?”

The Report says what “make(s) all the difference” during the current trying times is trust in neighbours and public institutions. But sadly, today trust in public institutions is at its lowest. Even if trust in neighbours may be high given our usually high level of neighbourliness, the pandemic and its infectious nature means that neighbours can in any case be of limited help. In fact, it can be argued that faith in the societal groups and the institutions of the State has reached a nadir.

Key variables that the UN Report highlights are: “High GDP per capita, social support in times of need, absence of corruption in government, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity or charity towards others”. Transparency International ranks India at 86 among 180 countries; it has slipped six places in 2020. Does this ranking tell us that there indeed is a correlation between hoarding, black-marketing and the corruption perception index?

In a global experiment conducted across 40 countries, wallets with money were left in 355 cities, eight of them across India (Ahmedabad in Gujarat, Bengaluru in Karnataka, Kolkata in West Bengal, Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, Jaipur in Rajasthan, Mumbai in Maharashtra and the national capital, New Delhi). The findings were reported in July 2019 in the magazine ‘Science’.

The experiment is at the interaction of economics and psychology, and interpreting the numbers is a complex and tricky exercise. The researchers wrote: “In virtually all countries, citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained more money. Neither non-experts nor professional economists were able to predict this result. Additional data suggest that our main findings can be explained by a combination of altruistic concerns and an aversion to viewing oneself as a thief, both of which increase with the material benefits of dishonesty.”


The results from India showed that 56% pocketed the money that was in the wallets, even though more wallets with money were returned rather than those with no money. Does this point to a lack of honesty, seen in this experiment?

We Indians are thought to be quite God-fearing. No other country, arguably, witnesses the kind of public involvement in the realm of religion as is seen in India. The size of congregations of various religious groups that throng temples, mosques, churches, various shrines and sacred rivers unambiguously vouch for this. Interestingly, the famous shrines are visited by people of all faiths.

One would expect that the devout would have compassion and empathy in abundance. Can people who are such ardent followers of religious pursuits be so insensitive, callous, cold-hearted, and apathetic to the suffering and deaths of fellow-citizens, and indulge in the kind of misconduct that they were engaged in? One can of course argue that a few bad examples should not invite a general taint; yet a higher level of religiosity has not led to lesser corruption in general, pandemic or otherwise. There have also been illustrious cases, notably of Sikhs arranging “oxygen” organizing ‘langars’ and in one case even opening a hospital for Covid-19 patients in double quick time.

There might be some merit in the argument that blind ritualism does not lead to an understanding of what the religion teaches, and the deeper messages are often lost in the din of the sounds that ring out loud, day after day.

The fear is that the larger messages on a life well lived may be falling on many a deaf ear.

(Dr. M.A. Kalam is former Dean and Professor of Anthropology, Krea University. Views are personal) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)

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