‘Tipping’ in contemporary India: A colonial story

by Sayan Dey

A few years ago I was travelling by a sleeper class train from Kolkata to New Delhi. As the train was about to reach the final destination, one of the pantry car serviceman approached me for a tip. I was happy to give him a reasonable amount of money for his tireless services that he extended to me during the entire journey, but I was also curious to know that in spite of having a fixed salary why do they ask for a tip from the passengers? When did this cultural practice evolve in India? These questions pushed me towards a galactic socio-historical paradigm that unfurls the colonial roots of this practice.

Kerry Segrave, the author of Tipping: An American History of Social Gratuities (1998) reflects upon the origin of tipping in the late Middle Ages in London and observes that “by 1760, footmen, valets, and gentleman’s servants all expected vails (a small amount of money given to the servants for working beyond their original duties), leading to great expense to the guests. The gentry and aristocracy began to complain. An attempt to abolish vails in London in 1764 led to rioting.” With the passage of time, the culture of tipping became an integral part of the English culture and it spread across hotels, pubs and restaurants. It had very negative impact both on the local and the global society.

On the one hand it widened the already existing socio-economic divisions in London and on the other hand it justified the importance and advantages of slave trade in Europe. The animalistic attitude of the elite class people towards the labor class can be understood through Scottish philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle’s complain about tipping a waiter at Bell Inn in Gloucester, “The dirty scrub of a waiter grumbled about his allowance, which I reckoned liberal. I added sixpence to it, and [he] produced a bow which was near rewarding with a kick. Accursed be the race of flunkeys” [my italics]. Carlyle’s language is largely embellished with Eurocentric, capitalist and racist attitudes which show his disgust towards the people from the labor class who were either migrated laborers from Eastern Europe or the non-whites. This instance clearly outlines the way through which the culture of tipping was one of the many systems that authenticated and normalized the arrogance of Westcentrism across the globe.

The system of tipping came into prominence in India with the arrival of the British. Prior to the era of British colonization this culture never existed. When the British arrived they realized that in order to construct a long-term gigantic colonial empire they have to convince the local natives about the ‘advantages’ and the ‘self-sacrificial’ intentions of colonization. Therefore, in order to influence the local natives to work in favor of the colonizers in a very systematic and convincing manner they introduced the system of tipping. They knew very well that before introducing the system of ‘divide and rule’ they have to practice ‘define and rule’ and so introducing the culture of tipping proved highly beneficial to them. The local natives, who slogged day and night under the dictatorship of the kings and the land owners, were promised a better living condition, high respect and a better payment by the colonizers. In this way they charioteered the natives to a promised land of virtual happiness which in reality did not benefit them. Initially, they were hypnotized by the sugar-coated words and the grand ‘welfare policies’ of the colonizers but as time passed by they realized that it was nothing more than colonial trap. On most occasions their living conditions worsened.

On the one side the workers were given extra wages as a tip and on the other hand they were forced to overwork. If they denied, they were subjected to sexual assaults and physical torture. On several occasions the Indian laborers were allured to commit forgeries by the ‘honorable’ British administrators like illegally stocking agricultural products, black marketing, trafficking raw materials from India to Europe and vice-versa, etc. In return they were paid a handsome tip. When legal investigations were made it were solely the local natives who were identified, criminalized and victimized. Even if someone was convicted from the colonizers’ side they were granted forgiveness after a negligible punishment. This is how, the colonizers used ‘tipping’ as a medium to naturalize subjugation, enslavement and the corruption of the natives. These colonial ethics continue to function in a more diverse and more complicated manner in the contemporary era.  The system of tipping in India, which is usually called baksheesh, exists in a very problematic and conflictual state. One section of the population strongly favors the culture of tipping the restaurant workers, hotel staffs, chauffeurs and housekeeping staffs, while another section of the population firmly argues that the process of tipping is a corrupt practice and it has a fatalistic impact on the socio-economic standards of the nation.

Essentially, the baksheesh system in India has been systematizing corruption, class conflicts, socio-economic divisions and poor workplace performance from the colonial to the postcolonial times. Looking deeper into the system of tipping unfurls the different ways through which India continues to be infected with the toxins of colonization.

Sayan Dey is a Lecturer at the Royal University of Bhutan, the founding member of Aurthaat Archives and part of the Convivial Thinking team.

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