“… we have strong social values…”?

I was recently going through some newspaper articles and I noticed one about a court petition filed to allow euthanasia of Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, a person who has been in a Persistent Vegetative State(PVS) for 37 years now.

In that article it was mentioned that Attorney-General G. E. Vahanvati had said/stated ..

What was applicable to the western world would not be relevant to “our country where emotions and culture played a major part and we have strong social values.”

It kind of stuck. Later, I was wondering why and realized that I was just confused by the subtle hypocrisy hiding in those words. Questions pertaining to euthanasia are certainly very serious and require intense debate and consideration. But, in the process when you bring into picture our “strong social values” things start to get kind of fuzzy.

As I was digging into the topic, I thought it would be a good idea to first understand what "social values" are. They are indeed what they sound like. They are a set of principles by which one engages with one’s society. Notice that it is different from family values which pertain to one’s family.

After that I made sure that I and Vahanvati live in the same country. Then I started noting down some things which most bothered me about India.

  • We for long insisted on women committing suicide after their husbands’ death. We treat our women badly. At least implicitly encourage them to be within the four walls of our home and to take care of all the old people in the family without giving a consideration to what their real inclinations might be. We as a society have committed infanticide and foeticide on shameless and gigantic scales which has resulted in 32 million “missing”(read murdered) women and a heavily skewed sex ratio. Potential inability to pay a dowry in the future and the social stigma that might result from it is enough to scare ordinary people into murdering their babies.
  • Entire communities are forced to make a living out of removing other people’s faeces manually. Apparently, this does not in any way clash with our “values”.
  • We brazenly kill our own family members for the sake of our “honour”.
  • Stories of lower caste people being humiliated, raped and butchered by upper castes are routine news items. People who commit these gross crimes are let go with laughable sentences after long, meandering and frustrating judicial processes.
  • We let the Anti-Sikh riots happen. We allowed the destruction of the Babri Masjid. We allowed the Godhra riots that killed and maimed thousands and that too right under the glare of the media with the state complicit in the violation of every standard of human ethics and morality. The people responsible for it are still holding the highest positions in our government. Narendra Modi is winning election after election.

What does it say about the morality and social values of the common man? We accuse The West of being materialistic. Yet, for the sake of development, we are willing to ignore the screams for justice of our own people.

Our police use intelligence as a last resort when it comes to solving crimes. I know of a person who was so badly tortured as a boy when he was about my age, that even after decades he is almost fully blind and permanently handicapped. The police mercilessly beat him and tortured him in the locker after he was falsely accused of stealing a gold chain that belonged to my aunty!! It was later found lying somewhere. My grandfather later regretted having communicated his suspicions to the police. But, no one dared raise their voice against them. The onus of compensating them and lifelong guilt fell on him. Where are the social values of those who are supposed to “Protect and serve”!?

India has a great and ancient culture. But, like everything else it has its flaws. Some of them unconscionably serious. They won’t go away if we keep harping on our relative social superiority vis-a-vis The West! If I were asked to choose between being born as a low-caste person in India and as a poor person in say… Denmark, I am sorry to say, I would have to choose the latter. This might have something to do with my shaky belief in our “strong social values".

More about the case

Vahanvati said western parameters seldom applied to Indian conditions and culture.

“We do not lead our terminally ill parents or kids to death. Who decides if one should live or die? Who knows tomorrow there might be a cure to a medical state perceived as incurable today. And won’t leading the terminally ill impede pro-life medical research?”

The above words, dripping with moral condescension sound more like rhetoric than the cold, hard considered opinion of a man of the Law. “We do not lead….”!!?? We daily DON’T save thousands of lives than can be saved with simple steps like clean water and cheap drugs. “We….” ha!! What right does he have to sound so supercilious!? “Who decides ….?”. Yes, while you are wondering about such profundities we are unknowingly deciding to prolong someone’s unnecessary suffering.

If pro-life research is going to receive a shot-in-the-arm by prolonging this for a few more years, that would be great. But, a way to restore dead brain tissue hasn’t yet been even conceptualized. It will certainly be not ready in time to help this person. And from what I could gather from the article, there is currently no research that is being helped by this suffering. If I am wrong correct me.

A contradiction….

After stating that western ideas and the recommendation of our own Law Commission would not work given our "Strong Social Values" and the importance of emotion(have no idea what that means, will come to that later), the AG goes on to say,

Mercy killing would result in a dangerous situation as it would be easy to eliminate others if such a thing was allowed in the country, …

Hey, I thought someone just said something about Strong Social Values(TM). That should prevent something like that from happening, right? Well, no! There will always be people who are bent on misusing the law and there simply is no way that the state, atleast for now can prevent that from happening. THAT, is in fact a good argument as opposed to Strong Social Values(TM).

Then there is an observation by Justice Markandey Katju

“> We are also concerned that once this is allowed, there will be too many such requests from relatives. There is a possibility that relatives in collusion with some doctors may bump off the patient claiming he/she is in a PVS though he/she may not be really so.”

I found it difficult to find any evidence for Strong Social Values(TM) in the above remark as well.


I don’t believe in God or the Bible. But, I think this verse sums up what I am feeling right now pretty well. I have frequently come across people who try to put down other people’s culture and social systems. They say that they are sexually promiscuous, immoral, unhygienic, lack love for their family, are selfish and other such things. But, we never pause to think of our own faults. Every society has a system that works for itself. It wouldn’t be nice if we were to consider one to be stronger or better than the other.

In the west independence and initiative are valued more than filial attachment and subordination. I won’t pit one against the other because there are merits to both approaches. After a lioness raises its cubs it drives them away when they reach a certain age. That doesn’t mean that the lioness doesn’t love its cubs. Just because westerners don’t allow their kids to stay with them until they finish college or expect their sons and daughters to take care of them in their old age doesn’t mean that their love is weaker or that they have weak values. I think they just have a more realistic grasp of human nature. But, again, that’s just a personal opinion.

Emotional Justice?

I don’t know a whole lot of stuff about justice. But, Amartya Sen in his book The Idea of Justice seemed to make out a strong case for justice rooted in reason. Emotions, at least in my opinion need to be allowed to impact decisions only when it doesn’t clash totally with reason.

Here, the AG says it’s cruel, inhuman and intolerable to withdraw life support to the nearly dead woman. Why? Why should a person be forced to put up with the pain of sores, brittle bones, decaying teeth, a lifeless body and a compromised mind incapable of communication for 37 years? To satisfy the emotional needs of the society? To not “undermine” the 37 years of blissful experience that she has already had the luck to endure? The hospital has certainly done a commendable job of taking caring of her. Maybe, they feel that they are responsible, in an indirect manner for what happened. Maybe, they are doing it out of pure love in which case it would be interesting to see why they don’t provide free care to all who need it and not just focus obsessively on this one case. But, should the consideration given to “not undermining” their efforts over the last 37 years be given greater priority than the everyday suffering and indignity that the woman is going through?

Should we really consider the case as a test of our Strong Social Values or as a question posed to our collective morality and decide based on considerations like minimizing pain and indignity? I was just wondering how “emotions” and petty rhetoric can help us decide these questions…

Sabu Paul is an electrical engineer working at TI, Bangalore. His interests include books, free-thought, visiting new places and blogging. You reach him at tosabupaul AT gmail DOT com