India: From Obedience to Individual Responsibility

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 27 April 2019

After the second world war, Germans had to stand trial and explain their roles in the war crimes against the Jews and others. That they were just obeying orders was not seen as a justification, they had an individual responsibility. In South Africa, after the end of the Apartheid, the emphasis was on sharing the truth about experiences of exploitation, torture and violence, and searching for reconciliation between the oppressors and the oppressed.

In India, a large number of Indians had been a part of the British colonial system, but here they were never called to give an account of their actions against other Indians – rather, they continued to be a part of the country’s governing system.

This post is a reflection on the Indian ideas about obedience and individual responsibility.

Azad Memorial in Prayag

Last month, we were in Prayag (Allahabad) for the Kumbh mela. One evening, we visited the Alfred Park, where the freedom fighter Chandra Shekhar Azad was killed. I had been to this park some forty years ago, and at that time, there was a simple plaque near the tree where Azad had died. Now a memorial has been built in that place with a big statue of Azad and the park’s name has been changed to Azad park.

Play on life of Chandrashekhar Azad - Image by Sunil Deepak

While we were visiting, nearby a group was rehearsing a play about the life of Azad. A white-haired man was standing there, watching the rehearsal. When he saw me clicking pictures of the play, he told me that there were two Indian informers who had told the British police about Azad hiding in that park and that before killing himself, Azad had killed three sepoys.

According to researchers who have looked at secret services’ (CID) records from the colonial period, the well-known Hindi writer Yashpal was a British informer and had played a role in the police attack on Azad.

So, should we point fingers at Yashpal as a betrayer of Indians? I think that it will be hypocritical. Thousands of well-known Indians had become rich and received honorary titles from the British because they were active collaborators of the colonial rule, and no one has ever asked them about their roles. Instead they continued to prosper and benefit from the Indian system after the independence. So why point fingers only at Yashpal?

Indian collaboration with the British

Indians had been an active part of British empire, not only in India but around the world. For example, in the book “From the Ruins of the Empire”, Pankaj Mishra has written about the role played by Indians in the British aggression in China:

For many Chinese in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, India was the prototypical ‘lost’ country, one whose internal weakness, exploited by foreign invaders, had forced it in a state of subjugation that was morally and psychologically shameful, as well as politically and economically catastrophic. For ordinary Chinese, there were visible symbols of this Indian self-subjection in their own midst: Parsi businessmen from Bombay who acted as middlemen in the British opium trade with China; Indian soldiers who helped British quell the Boxer rising; and Sikh policemen in treaty ports like Shanghai, whom their British masters periodically unleashed on Chinese crowds.

It was an Indian hangman who had hanged Bhagat Singh. They were Indian soldiers who had fired on the helpless people in Jalianwala Bagh on General Dyer’s orders. In the recently released Bollywood film “Kesari”, they were Indian soldiers, working for the British colonialists, who had defended (valiantly) Saragarhi from the Afghani freedom fighters. They were only following the orders of their masters, the British colonial government.

Obedience as a feudal value

To understand why in India, we have rarely raised the issue of individual responsibility, I think that we need to understand the Indian psychology. It was and still is, a deeply feudal society. Even today, probably for most of us, our values continue to be feudal.

I wonder if the idealisation of Ramayana, where Aagya-palan (obedience) is a fundamental value, has played any role in the perpetuation of the feudal mindset? At family and society level, respecting the hierarchies and following orders plays an important role in our lives, from the choice of profession to the choice of life-partners. At the same time, the liberty offered by Hinduism in choosing which gods to follow or to be even an atheist, and in not having one standard sacred book as a guidance, does not get translated into individual liberties.

Moving from Obedience to Individual Responsibility

As we go into 21st century, and become a modern nation, are we moving away from the feudal value of obedience towards individual choice & responsibility? In terms of politics, after decades of seeing Nehru-Gandhi dynasty as the natural heirs to the “throne” of India, over the last 2-3 decades, people have experimented with different Governments. However, there is still an exaggerated role of families and relationships among the politicians across the right and the left of the political spectrum, which point to continuing feudal undercurrents.

Indian politicians, powerbrokers and their relatives expect obsequious obedience from policemen, custom officials and bureaucrats - if these  do not behave with deference in acknowledging their power, they can become violent and abusive, and threaten to transfer them or suspend them. In this sense, I feel that the roots of the feudal mindset are still very deep in the Indian society. The politicians may say all kinds of noble things in public, and praise freedom fighters, soldiers dying in wars and honest hard-working officers, but in reality it is only a sham. Freedom fighters and widows of dead soldiers live anonymous neglected lives and hard-working honest officers get transferred all the time.

It is a system, which says, obey me or I will crush you. Don't try to act independently, no one in this system will come to your help. Perhaps, one day India will change, but that day is still far.


Thinking about the feudal mentality in India, made me remember an event from Guwahati, a few years ago, which was emblematic. A cultural programme was organised at Kalakshetra, the premier cultural institution of Assam. During this function, about 4-5 officers were sitting on the stage. Facing them were the different folk dancers. Behind those folk dancers, around 200 persons were sitting, who had come to see the cultural programme. That day, for about 2 hours, all those 200 persons had watched the backs of the dancers, who had danced for the whole time facing the officials sitting on the stage.

Play on life of Chandrashekhar Azad - Image by Sunil Deepak

In the feudal mentality, ordinary persons do not have have human dignity, they are there to serve the masters. They do not think with their heads, they just obey. So how can we expect individual responsibility from them?


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Dr Sunil Deepak
Schio (VI), Italy

Email: sunil.deepak(at)