There is surely a strong breeze (some believe it is raging fire) sweeping many parts of the country these last few months that simultaneously gives cause for celebration and worry. It seems that the consciousness of the nation has been stirred. Passions have been stoked and there are those who have quickly come forward to suggest which passions must be fanned. Voices muted or distant have become loud and closer – in one’s neighbourhood if not within our homes. Of course there are those once again who profess their voice to be more true than some others. You and I can perhaps never agree as long we hold that there is one truth in human experience.
Some have read into the agitation of the last few months the death throes of this or that, and some others the birth and rise of something else. Depending on your perch and view, you celebrate or mourn the birth or death. The processions and the din therefore evoke the festive and the funeral.
At the heart of the recent struggles as a nation is the question of our democratic ideals and how we might reconcile our differences regarding our history, the direction of our future, and the modes of expression in the present. Also relevant here is to question a selective form of engagement that we find our comfort in.
My recent conversation with a 40 + year old manager from a global IT major was revealing. This was when the ferment in JNU was fast transforming into a broader question of the institution’s relevance and the university as the site of one’s education in politics. This manager was dismissive of JNU, and was critical of the misdoings and anti-national nature of the goings on. When quizzed on the basis of his opinions, he declared “We can’t even go there for campus recruitment. We won’t get even one suitable candidate”. When queried further on the ‘anti-national’ it was soon evident that he drew his lessons from a handful of TV channels that mostly pass off opinions as facts. It was a most astounding judgment that betrayed utter ignorance on the one hand, the success of a campaign to recruit into a particular idea of institution-worthiness and a brand of nationalism that has only one colour.
Our modern democracy is a work-in-progress resting on hallowed ideas of diversity and plurality, and grappling with the shadows of oppression, discrimination, denial and deprivation brought on by religious, caste and class divides. With traditional community structures and living processes near extinct and residing in our latent consciousness as a trace, we need to perhaps renew our idea of citizenship. What would responsibility for the ‘whole’ and not just to ‘me and myself’, the part, mean? How is one to live this in a context that fuels unbridled individualism and the pursuit of unabashed self-interest as the new order? The political, the social and the economic, are not just out of step with each other. In the absence of an active and engaged process of reflection, dialogue and shared commitment to align values and reshape structures, processes and behaviours, the lines that divide us will feel like impregnable defences to thwart any real change towards living the values we dearly espouse.
Parliamentary debates are all very well. However if we believe that we can outsource our responsibility to be an active participant in shaping the practice of democracy to elected representatives, we will have surrendered our rights and forsaken our obligations. Our record as ordinary citizens is unflattering. Our direct engagement with dialogue spaces, and public hearings is replaced by vicarious participation through televised discussions and a cacophony of debates. At the other end of the spectrum, even our voter turnouts are often rather middling.
The practice of democracy is messy at times. It comes with risks. It is threatening to pre-existing hierarchies. It often underlines what we must give up in order to have what we espouse. So it is hard work. It requires active learning. It requires us to learn what it is to value the human being rather than a statistic or a pair of hands and limbs and to treat one as such with respect and dignity, to see and call out when this valuing is under threat. It requires us to learn to value the rational and the sentient part of ourselves, and to not treat one as somehow more desirable or worthy than the other. It requires that we learn to value subjective truths and dialogue about them in order that we learn a higher order of truth that can hold apparent contradictions, and the truth of who we are in our multiplicity.
Democracy then sounds like an exciting and life long pursuit. But where does one begin? Where do we learn? And what do we do with those who haven’t learnt the lessons ?
As things stand for most Indians, lessons in democracy don’t start at home. Conformance is replaced by a resigned friendliness as the child grows up. The notion of ‘respect’ for elders mostly remains coded in behaviours / practices that belong to a bygone era and equalisation is verily not possible.
Students in India can vote in elections once they reach 18. But mind you, academic campuses are not meant for political activities as you have been reminded more than once in the recent weeks. Never mind that quite often, student Union elections are proxy battles between mainstream political parties. Students are told that they need to develop an inquiring mind, and a scientific temper. It appears that this is fine if one is talking about mathematics, physics or chemistry but is condemnable if the gaze shifts to anatomy of the status quo. Nationalism is not an idea that must be inquired into and explored. Instead, it is a given as if it were a fixture in the curriculum authored by an immutable authority.
Most work organisations remain steeped in the classical hierarchical structures. Such organisation designs militate against the essence of democracy. The more progressive organisations have evolved variants to allow room for horizontal communication flows and ‘collaboration’ in order to ‘get the job done’. In essence they have space for ‘go along’, ‘get along’ and ‘get ahead’ behaviours; none really serves a lesson in democratic processes. It is interesting to note that in the midst of this raging debate on democracy, diversity and dissent, we have heard no business leader speak up, or speak out. One suspects that there are few organisations that would meet qualifying grades for internal democracy. At best they are consumers of the established rule of law, patrons to political actors, claimants to closeness of the powers that be, and beneficiaries of largesse (all for the organisation!) that their proximity confers.
Live broadcasts of Parliament in session has remained a mixed bag. Empty seats, heckling, sloganeering designed to disrupt, and many such don’t serve as object lessons and the long history of pious promises during debates not kept leaves one questioning whether democracy is about demagoguery, not deeds. Representative democracy they say has served us well the last 6 decades. What the lessons from your observations that you have brought into your practice of democracy in your surroundings?
I have searched hard to see where we might begin our first lessons in democracy and the results are not good. Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie with the structures out there but within ourselves as we start to our provisional answers and follow through with practice on the following questions: Who am I? What is my relationship to the world at large? What is the world I am creating right now by my words and deeds? What is the world that I wish to leave behind when my innings is over and it is time up for me?