I picked up a new word a couple of days back. The word “kornish”, which I read in a historical novel of Moghul times is the practice of showing respect to the emperor by placing the right hand on the head and bending down! Everyone who was in the vicinity of the emperor had to do it. Don’t ask me what happened if they didn’t .. they probably lost their heads!
After reading the book, I spent some time reflecting on these practices thanking myself that we lived in different times and in a different system of governance- of the people, for the people and by the people. But I think I jumped to this conclusion too soon..!! Let me tell you why…
It is actually a long story of which many parts might not be completely relevant to this post. So I will just restrict myself to those details which are essential to help you understand my point.
My mother has a plot of land that is in a district adjoining the city of Chennai. About a year ago we found out that someone had sold the land to someone else forging her signature as having given them the power of attorney to do so. We decided to take up the matter legally and engaged a lawyer. Our lawyer said that we would have to file a complaint in the “land grabbing” cell of the district police. That was last year!
Today , my sister and I visited the police office in the district with our mother and our lawyer ( another woman) to follow up on the filing of the complaint. After an exhausting two hour drive (and a change of vehicles midway as the cab we had originally hired broke down on the highway) we arrived at the office of the police around 1.00 PM. We took our seats at the reception as our lawyer went inside looking for the officer who was to take down the complaint. The reception was right outside the office of the Police Public relations officer.
Suddenly, a lady ( presumably the PRO or her lackey) came out and commanded that we all stand. I was wondering if they were going to play the national anthem or if a national leader had suddenly passed away. Actually, it was neither. So what made her order us to stand up ? The Superintendent of Police ( SP) was leaving the office for lunch. He was passing by the reception and she seemed to be under some mistaken delusion that we should imitate her and her colleagues standing up as he swept past. I wondered if we were also expected to salute or may be perform “kornish” ? And what about the hypoglycemic senior citizen in her seventies? Ofcourse she was also expected to follow suit!! Anyway, all three of us- mother and her two daughters were conspicuous by remaining seated while the rest of the visitors stood up in attention.
Now lets go back to the Moghul times. Remember my question. What happens when you do not perform “kornish” ? While we can only speculate about what happened during Moghul times, I can tell you what happened to us when we refused to stand up. About a couple of minutes later a female constable came up to me and my sister and told us to “sit properly”!! No we were not balanced on part of our gluteus maximus. We were sitting in a perfectly civilized way with our legs crossed!!! And that folks , seemed to be the PROBLEM!! She wanted us to uncross our legs!!! Why? I am still trying to find the answer. Meanwhile another person sitting nearby joined her and told us to do what she wanted as the security cameras were trained on us!! To say we were furious would be an under statement! I was tempted to ask this guy ( who looked like a bad version of me, post gym on a terrible hair day-you get the picture?) if the police security cameras were now training themselves on women’s legs? Mr. Frizzy hair then told us to behave “properly” inside police premises. I wanted to tell him to go get himself a good hairdresser and a few other things!
When I mentioned the incident to our lawyer, she asked us to ignore it. I would like to but I am unable to. The sheer irony of the whole incident infuriates me! The police are government “servants” who get their salaries paid out of our taxes. So who should salute whom? Is this some feudal principality where the SP is the “Jahapanah” ? Apparently…!!
In India, the police enjoy a lot of power. They consider themselves THE LAW – not merely its enforcers! And they obviously do not realize that there is a separate arm of the democracy which makes the laws and another to which one can appeal when they are broken. They are so used to dealing with poor and vulnerable people who are in awe of their power that it makes them uncomfortable to see people who would sit in their reception without feeling afraid of them. And ofcourse, the fact that we were English speaking women was probably another reason that got their goat. Brainwashed as they must be by all the Tamil movies they have seen where “arrogant English speaking women” are tamed into “submission” by the hero ( sometimes playing the role of a police officer) we were too close to that stereotype! For a moment, I was worried that they might take offense to my trouser clad appearance saying that the only females who could wear them in their premises would have to be the ladies in uniform!!!!
What we saw today was only a representative sample of typical police behavior in India. I was imagining if one of us had to go into a police station in that district to file a case of rape or some other form of gender related violence. I am sure they would have told us it was our fault because in their mind we were arrogant women ( had short hair, wore western clothes) speaking English. We were not intimidated by their power and demanded what was our right. And sadly, I must say that the police behavior is just an extension of beliefs that generally prevail in society about confident women like me and my sister. Society is intimidated by our confidence and seeks to break it in different ways. It is the“damsel in distress” image of women that people in authority feel comfortable with – trembling women lacking in confidence which makes them feel good about themselves.
But gender discrimination apart, I think unless government servants realize that they are actually mere instruments through which the will of the people is realized in a democracy ,we might still have to perform “kornish” – emperor or no emperor!