Understanding dissent in our times
The history of our times is witness to a growing disenchantment, somewhat with the past, and more pointedly, the present. The counterpoints seem to have taken over all discourse, whether in politics, economics, or sociology. To conform to a code, be it of decency or ethics or one that is imposed by the institutional allegiance of the time, is to be a wimp or without belief. To demonstrate a servile willingness to cheer those in power has always been the courtier’s way. And don’t we all covet the courtier’s role, although we revile and disown it in public pronouncements.
For those who seek to live out their ambitions in the public domain, incitement to non-existent dangers is a necessity to assure themselves of their own relevance as the guardians of societal fabric. Reason or reasonableness be damned! Reason is for the wimps, they argue. And as for facts, ignore them if they are inconvenient, recite them often if they are unverifiable and at the very least inflate them. History is being re-written by the new hunters. The heroes of yesterday’s battles are the vanquished in these revised texts.
The syndrome is international in trends. Politics and political conversations have taken a very different hue across the world. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu causes an uproar by linking the Palestinians to the holocaust and accuses a Nazi sympathiser, Mufti of the time, of having convinced Hitler to adopt a policy to exterminate the Jews. Holocaust experts say that such a claim is historically inaccurate. But the one who takes the prize for the most outrageous public statements is none other than the Republican hopeful for the US Presidency, Donald Trump. He denounces Mexicans, women, blacks, or anyone else he fancies to target with equal acerbic references. In our own midst, there is no dearth of rabble-rousing by the so-called ‘’fringe’’ groups who have increasingly come to occupy the centre-stage of our political and social discourses. We are steadily hearing pronouncements from all kinds of people exhorting communities to conform to the sentiments of the majority, failing which they should leave the country. Certain groups do not want India to play cricket with Pakistan and even a discussion on the issue is branded as anti-national. The majority is always right and its rule is in danger of becoming a majoritarian dominance, where there is no room for an alternate point of view. Constitutional protections too, it would appear, can only flow from the good will of the majority.
There is a growing appeal for finding total solutions to the problems of humanity. Every homogeneous group’s faith in the sanctity of its ideology to the exclusion of other values is the prevailing norm. As long as this sanctity is sustained by adherence to a rule of conduct adopted voluntarily, it makes for a robust framework. But the moment beliefs are sought to be imposed by dominant numbers over the rest, there is a cause for concern. Total solutions for all problems do not exist. There are only compromise solutions to accommodate diverse problems and even then, there are those who remain dissatisfied. That is why political engagement involves negotiating for acceptable means of moving forward.
Yes, politics has always been a continuous jockeying for control of the mind-space of the governed. However, the choices of the governed have always been unencumbered. As long as that is a stated guarantee and the guarantor is the state, there is automatic space even for fringe voices. The ethics of governance demands that this guarantee is reiterated regularly for the benefit of the vulnerable and as a reminder to the state. It is where the rulers of the time have to be alive to the potential hijacks of their narratives. The dissenters’ alleged stakes have to be diluted by credible and timely moves. Calling the faithful to arms and processions only serves to strain the credibility of the governors. The warnings and sirens have to scream through sane and respected voices.
The democratic public discourse in a diverse country like India will produce different sounds at various levels. The cultural health and vibrancy of the discourse will be judged by the resonances that are generated. Every time a voice gets cut off by the sheer strength of the majority numbers, we can see and hear the dissonances. Sure, dissonance can be contrived, just as much as the resonance, too, can be but contrivances do not serve to consolidate the power of the majority. They only weaken it. Moreover, they will consume its legitimacy by the time it has to be tested at the altar of people’s preferences. The people will always be skeptical of politicians, but the politicians must trust the people’s reactions, especially when they are not partisan.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)