A young woman I know has conflicts with her mother about whom to marry. The current boyfriend does not find favour for a dozen reasons all included under the phrase uski koi personality nahin hai. She would like a son-in-law who raises her standing. One way, according to her, is to find a lal batti wala -- a guy who announces his importance by arriving in a car crowned with a red beacon.
Although money is power, there is nevertheless an intangible type of status that most people crave. It accrues from privilege, which keeps even the powerful out of some enclaves. Hence, anything that is a sign of this privilege is desirable. It makes you better than others.
If you are a dignitary you are allowed a lal batti. So, obviously if you have a lal batti you are a dignitary, resulting in a proliferation of cars with red beacons -- although the rules are detailed about who is allowed one and who isn’t.
Uttar Pradesh is apparently, and not shockingly, the biggest flouter of this rule. Not only are sundry government officials adding to their importance, but private vehicles are also merrily donning a red light and roaming about. As one report charmingly put it -- “though the state government has maintained it is initiating action against errant persons, the largest numbers of vehicles flouting the rules belong to government employees themselves.” Nothing new there, bhaisaab. I would feel very insecure if government folks did not break the law.
The Supreme Court has questioned the governments on why this is so, following a public interest litigation. Governments are now scrambling to make some changes.
The UP government asked for some time to figure out a notification. I understand this -- it is very difficult to draft a notice saying, you are now not allowed to drive around with a red beacon playing Beverly Hills Cop in the Lucknow streets anymore.
The Maharashtra government has issued a notice trimming the list of people who can have flashers on their cars. This is causing some heartburn because imagine the shock and haw of going from Very Important Person to simply Person. Which Indian can survive this?
The Karnataka government has been mindful of cushioning the blow. While they too have trimmed the list of VVIPs and called the non-beacon walas merely VIPs, they have also instructed the transport department not to enforce (their own) rule, but to wait, as they do not want to ruffle the hairdos of deputy commissioners, superintendents of police, police patrol vehicles and other VIPs who could still be using red beacons, though the notification bars them from doing so.
In a country as heterogenous as ours, where innumerable codes operate simultaneously we struggle with a way to decide the value of people and so, marks of status become very important as a means of judging and being judged by others. In a way, externalising these marks of importance is almost democratic because it allows all people to acquire importance, rather than to receive it through the usual privileged journeys which land you in important places.
But really, maybe no one should have a lal batti. The concept of the VIP could just be junked, being a relic of the Raj, which like many other, merges particularly well with a deeply caste-based hierarchical culture. Maybe we could search for ways to find importance on the basis of need or worth, rather than status. Because only when no one lot is more important, everyone can be important and we can get on with establishing new and meaningful measures of value.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com. The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.