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Challenges of shrinking space

The size of massively de-politicised civil society is increasing with an alarming rate, not only in India but everywhere in the world

The other day, in a personal discussion, a well-respected ideologue of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) told me about his concerns of the consecutive actuality of 'shrinking space' in India for the debate by common individuals. I was astonished to hear him say, "Bhai Sa'ab, governments will come and go and politicians of every shade will always try to paint their constituencies with the colour they like, but the real danger to the democracy will never emerge from the activities of one individual ruler of any particular political party, it will arrive with rapidly diminishing physical and mental space for deliberations on real issues. Therefore, we all, every political and social outfit of any constitutional shade, must fight against any efforts by any government to support such policies as a result of which this space is shrinking."

Conditioning of my mind propelled me to microscopically look for butterflies in his statement, but ultimately, I found his apprehensions honest. He felt that after liberalisation, the space for public debate is falling off quickly, not because of the governments heavily influenced by this or that ideology, but because of the reason that capitalist market forces want a world where public discourse is totally absent, where there is no scope for any argument and where no ambit is available for commoners' views. As a result of this, most of our debating haunts have lost somewhere in the process of making a new India.

I recall my school days when long internecine discussions on social issues and local problems were a daily affair at the village meeting place—Choupal. I recall my university days when college corridors and hostel canteens were full of fierce debates on socio-political topics in my town. I also recall my introductory days in Bombay and New Delhi when from office canteen to art galleries, from nearby dhabas of Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg to Coffee House at Mohan Singh Place, from Mandi House to the campuses of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University and from trade union offices to the Press Club of India, there were various evening stands where everyone was free to assert his/her viewpoint, no matter in what ideology s/he believed in.

Things have entirely changed in the past two decades. Our coffee houses where on an affordable cup of coffee and a plate of sambhar-vada one could have taken a world tour of current affairs for hours have been swallowed by unaffordable CCDs located in celebrity markets and malls where commoners find themselves misfit. Our vibrant tea stalls, where on 'two into three' or 'one into two' cut chai, one was free to give his opinion on from Washington to Moscow and Beijing to Jerusalem have disappeared to give space to green tea clubs. Our dhabas where sitting on a charpai and having the satisfying daal-roti-lassi, everyone from truck drivers to scholars felt empowered to discuss the follies of a prime minister to the tricks of exploiting common people by Tata-Birla-Ambanis have gone with the wind of modernisation and converted themselves into roadside 'resorts'.

McDonaldisation and PizzaHutaisation have gulped most of the urban and semi-urban head-rooms that were accessible for healthy debating. Consumers of new market corners have different topics to be discussed—girlfriends and boyfriends, bikes and cars, mobiles and gadgets, night bars and foreign vacations. Most of them are far from the originals and have no interest in the fundamental national and global issues. Their fairy determination for contributing to social causes is confined to FaceBook posts, WhatsApp chats, Instagram photos and TikTok videos. Netflix is their world. Unproductive late-night phone conversation discussing useless thesis is their life. Their total revolution is limited to the transient pleasure of candle marches.

Seminars and round tables are held in gated institutions, think tank premises and centres where no entry pass is available for insignificant civilians. Participants there make every attempt to terrorise others present in the conference room with the bullets of their intellectual tone, vocabulary and quotes. This has become a more nuanced and convenient way of only talking about the problems of exclusion and repression faced by political, social and civil rights movements and practically doing nothing more than to publish a paper. Academicians and scholars have failed to realise how directly harmful is the absence of any contemporary discourse. The size of massively de-politicised civil society is increasing with an alarming rate, not only in India but everywhere in the world.

The freedom of association, assembly and expression mostly remains on papers now. Where are the physical fields which can promote the harvest of alternative consideration? Where is the support base against intersecting dynamics that limit an individual or collective ability to organise around pertinent matters? 'Shrinking space' is a part of a wider struggle. Neo-liberalism is sparing no stone unturned to marketise the state. It wants to hollow-out the democracy. It desires to reduce opposition by redefining the established contours. It is hell-bent on installing a new mode of governance where civil society has to negotiate both with the state and private corporations. Gatekeepers of mainstream political spaces are playing the role of conduits of neo-riches in this game.

The failure of Indian civil society, worker's unions and individual activists have paved the way for the demonisation of causes that address the nerve of any established power. It is because of the liberal elites that common people are bearing the brunt of a new authoritarianism. I agree with my RSS ideologue friend that the problem of 'shrinking space' cannot be solved merely by lip-service. We need a better response from all the concerned corners to tackle this question. We need to first define the problem in a perspective where the politics of clampdown and its relationship to neo-liberalism trying to gain control on everything. We need to rediscover genuine solidarity that resurrects the proposition that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Why can't we create a chain of 'Chaai Choupals' across the nation to provide a highly modest platform to commoners to routinely discuss and debate the real issues? Why can't our union and state governments, corporate-owned think tanks and NGOs support such move to free the flow of expression from the clutches of gated communities? Why can't this be done with the help of extensive crowd-funding? Why can't there be a national framework for people's participation in shaping their country? Why can't we formulate a national civic charter that serves as a reference point for people claiming their civic and political rights? If we commit ourselves to fight for local, national, regional and global issues, we must have a pan-Indian network of civic participation. Everything cannot be left to the whims of a few individuals comfortably sitting in the ruling dispensation of the time. It is high time that we properly address the long-lamented paradox of 'closing space'.

(The author is Editor & CEO of News Views India and a national office bearer of the Congress party. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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