Manufacturing dissent in a liberal democracy

Noam Chomsky and his fellow academicians showed exemplary alacrity in condemning the arrest of JNU students last month. It took them less than a week to comprehend the matter and come to their profound conclusion that the arrest was an “authoritarian menace generated by the present Indian government”. This statement may have given the eagerly awaited shot in the arm to the agitating students and their sympathisers. However, what’s surprising is the fact that neither Chomsky nor Orhan Pamuk or any international academic glitterati was witness to the theatrics performed for the so-called liberation at JNU. One wonders how could they conclude so swiftly and pass judgement on a matter, which normally takes several months to investigate? Whether this show of solidarity was part of a large-scale design to create dissent or a mere knee-jerk reaction, is not clear. Such acts blur the distinction between the objectivity of academic views and compulsive political agenda.

Ironically, their comment was overplayed by the same media which Chomsky bitterly criticises for “manufacturing consent” through propaganda. If Chomsky and his fellow signatories are watching the series of post-JNU events unfolding every day, they might as well realise that in liberal democracies it is not only consent  but also dissent which can be manufactured. Hasn’t their quick ideological support aligned them with a group of political diehards who have challenged the very idea of India, its sovereignty, integrity and created divisions in the society, media and intelligentsia? However, the rabble-rousing may not have succeeded in polarising the society entirely because for the majority of Indians the issues of Kashmir, terrorism, religious fundamentalism etc. are almost non-negotiable. But it has created a divide by inventing new social and political fault lines which if not contained, may destabilise the country. Chomsky, Pamuk, Appadurai are among the well-regarded intellectual minds of our times, taken in high esteem. Hopefully, they also understand the geopolitical consequence of manufacturing dissent in India at a time when half the world is under turmoil.

Dissent is not an undemocratic process. Holding and expressing views are fundamental for the very survival of democracy. Chomsky warns against manufacturing consent but perhaps he ignores the fact that manufacturing dissent can be far more disastrous for societies and nations than manufacturing consent. Social fault lines are the normal consequence of social systems. Regardless, a mature society either diligently tries to bridge them or learns to live with them. We have also learnt to deal and live with our caste, class, secular, communal divide all these years. No one can object the intellectuals in any Indian or foreign institution studying these phenomena and suggesting remedies. This is what the nation also expected from JNU despite its proclaimed ideological bias. But when views turn into doctrines of confrontation, conspiracy and start challenging the constitutionally accepted idea of the nation the risk of disintegration becomes imminent. By supporting such groups were Chomsky and his intellectual friends endorsing India’s socio-political disintegration? A common man may not be concerned with their intellectual worth, but he would definitely like to know whether they support India’s stand on Kashmir, separatism, acts of terrorism or oppose it? He would definitely not endorse any appeal of ultra-radical mobilisation for the future of India by foreigners.

One also wonders how “the future of India and Indian universities” becomes such a deep concern for outsiders. Aren’t Indians good enough to take care of their country and its institutions? After all, India is not a banana republic. It has its institutions firmly in place and in command of the situation. If any government dares any unconstitutional act, courts and electorate give a  befitting verdict. Perhaps they have completely ignored the fact that justice and reconciliation are the two concurrent forces which do course correction of Indian society and polity not revolutions or ultra-radical ideology which the indoctrinated students were chanting. Justice and reconciliation are also at the core of Gandhian philosophy. Gandhi was not a textbook theoretician like Marx, Chomsky or Appadurai, but he understood the nature and limitations of Indian society much better than any of them. He encouraged peaceful dissent, never invented or manufactured it.

It’s surprising that there has been no student uprising in communist China ever since Tiananmen incident, although there’s simmering discontent against a lack of basic human rights and freedom of speech, which Indians avail in abundance. BBC has reported that Beijing-based columnist Jia Jia has gone missing since March 15, this year after publication of an anonymous letter calling for President Xi Jinping’s resignation. Though Jia denied his role in it. The Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has demanded that journalists and news agencies must “strictly adhere to the news viewpoint of Marxism and raise the high banner”. He has also advised them to speak for party’s will and protect Party’s authority. In the wake of rising terror threats Turkey recently arrested a British lecturer of computer science at Bilgi University, Istanbul, Christopher Stephenson, when he went to extend his support to three scholars who faced charges of creating terror propaganda. He was later deported. There are several such examples. Would Chomsky, his fellow signatories, champions of freedom of speech in academia, and a section of media dare decry these “authoritarian menace of the state” and express solidarity to the sufferers? We know the answer. If Kashmir and North-Eastern states are illegal occupations of imperialist India then what about Tibet and POK? Will the champions of free speech dare utter a few words about it? Those manufacturing dissents against the idea of India must realise that it’s possible only in a liberal democracy like India, not everywhere. Biased ideological conviction is an intellectual burden. Surely, people expected a balanced and constructive reaction from you Professor Chomsky.

(The author is a Senior Faculty of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Views expressed are strictly personal)
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