State, society & intelligentsia
By AVIJIT PATHAK (Sociologist)
What else can you do except recalling the forgotten when you see the criminalisation of dissent, or the desperate urge to stop all sorts of critical voices? It is sad that even after such a long trajectory that post-Independent India has undertaken, we have to remind ourselves that democracy is not merely a ritualistic act of periodic elections; nor is it an act of worshipping the ‘supreme leader’ as a messiah. Instead, it is essentially a mode of acting, thinking, feeling and living. Democracy demands the spirit of critically nuanced creative dialogue—the ability to examine the discourse of power, distinguish truth from propaganda, appreciate the practice of nonviolent resistance against the abuses of power, and sharpen the art of listening to one’s ideological opponents. And above all, democracy demands heavy responsibility filled with a sense of humility on the part of the ruling regime. The intoxication with power, the culture of narcissism and resultant psychic insecurity might lead the rulers to prefer monologue rather than dialogue, and suspect all dissenting voices. Hence, democracy demands that people’s critique of the government or its policies is appreciated and listened to. A government that uses its coercive apparatus more frequently indicates the danger of potential authoritarianism.
We used to equate this abuse of power with the colonial or fascist state. If it is the new normal in our democracy, there is reason to be worried about our collective destiny.
It is in this context that the role of public intellectuals with some sort of critical consciousness is important. Unlike a mere academic specialist, a public intellectual is not just a ‘man of letters’; she/he is known for her/his ‘active participation in practical life as a constructor, organiser, permanent persuader and not just a simple orator’. In a way, public intellectuals are educators and communicators; they can question the ruling regime, and raise critical issues relating to culture, polity and economy. And particularly at a time when the news channels love to celebrate the trivia (say, the ‘spicy’ tales of Rhea Chakraborty rather than the agony of rising unemployment), or universities are asked to obey the status quo, some of our spirited intellectuals—political thinkers, economic analysts and human rights activists— are playing an important role in keeping the spirit of argumentation and critical thinking alive. However, the tragedy is that in contemporary India, they are often sent to prisons; or chargesheets are filed against them; and we are asked to believe that they are anti-national, they are rioters, and they have conspired against the state. We used to equate this abuse of power with the colonial or the fascist state. But then, if it is the new normal in our democracy, there is reason to be worried about our collective destiny.
At this juncture, a question arises: Why is it that the ruling regime is becoming increasingly non-dialogic, and harsh towards its opponents? A possible reason is the doctrine of majoritarian nationalism it adheres to. Because of its very nature, an ideology of this kind is militant and one-dimensional; it abhors differences and plurality; it suspects whatever does not fit into its discourse of nation, nationalism and patriotism. From Ayodhya to Kashmir, this harshness is reflected everywhere. As a result, any alternative voice is seen with utter suspicion. No wonder, even young and idealist college/university students who expressed their anguish over the CAA or NRC were seen as ‘enemies’ of the state. And the toxic discourse of nationalism or arrogance of power creates an environment that negates the possibility of any meaningful communication and conversation. The government, it seems, is unlikely to invite some of our thinking minds, and seek to know why they are agitating, critiquing demonetisation or GST, expressing their solidarity with a phenomenon like Shaheen Bagh, and revealing the anguish over the violation of rights in the Valley. Instead, they would be castigated and scandalised. Is it the reason that it fails to distinguish a critical thinker from a criminal? Is it the reason that an ‘Ambedkarite’ professor or a ‘Maoist’ poet has to be sent to jail? Or is it the reason that the chargesheet has to be filed against a ‘Gandhian’ social activist, or a ‘Marxist’ economist? The frequent use of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act or sedition charges indicates a mix of brute force and anti-intellectualism; it is a blow to the idea of democracy as a dialogic space, even though the supreme leader might continue to boast of his mass appeal and popularity.
The moot question is whether our society— extremely hierarchical and poisoned by the virus of communal hatred— can renew the democratic spirit, and make the rulers accountable, and critique them if it sees the absence of equity, justice and cultural pluralism? Is it possible not to fall into the trap of ascriptive identities, or Hindu vs Muslim dichotomy? Is it possible to appreciate the liberating power of critical thinking, and trust our shared humanity even if we have politico-philosophic differences amongst us? It is possible for you not to agree with everything that Professor Apoorvanand says, or Umar Khalid asserts. Likewise, your daughter might not see the world the way Jamia student Safoora Zargar does. Yet, in a democracy they all have the right to exist so long as they are dialogic and non-violent, and striving for a society that cares and heals. Imagine the tormented soul of Sudha Bharadwaj’s daughter; or reflect on the pain of Varavara Rao’s nearest ones. After all, democracy needs empathy— the power of love and compassion, or what Gandhi would have regarded as ‘soul force’.
Is it too much to expect from our terribly violent and broken society?
Courtesy : The Tribune