Democracy is the idea that needs to be continuously reinvented. New issues keep sprouting. There is a danger that we might apply old formats to them. Within that old format, majority dominated minority, experts hegemonised lay people, and populism overwhelmed the reasoned argument.
The challenge before us is that there are new issues regarding growth, science, and innovation that need new public spaces to be created by new and emerging groups in society.
In these contexts, parties and trade unions which constituted the old opposition may not be as significant or sensitive as NGOs, hackers, and activists from the ecological and feminist domains. These groups provide to debate and plurality, a new dissenting quality.
They bring into question current definitions of the problem which excludes or suspects certain kinds of problem solvers. These new entrants create what Harvard scholar Sheila Jasonoff called ‘civic epistemologies.’
The point is a crucial one and it combines two issues. Firstly, they create a new civics, raising as public issues matters which were taken for granted or black boxed as a matter of faith or habit.
Secondly, these groups created a debate around scientific knowledge showing the professional expert to be a problematic creature. Issues around security, growth, science, nuclear energy were opened up to the public eye creating a literal festival of democracy.
Dissent, suddenly popped its head around already settled questions. Nuclear energy was no longer merely a security issue to be solved by a vested group of experts, it was a democratically debatable idea which touched upon livelihoods, rights and the future. Biotechnology could not be appropriated by private laboratories but was an issue on which farmers and housewives wanted a say. There was thus an explosion of stakeholders and a new kind of theatre about ideas.
One must add that three new kinds of spaces opened up to create three separate intellectual forums. One was the public, the other was the network and the third was the commons. Central to all three was the dissenting NGO and the critical academic.
Our current establishment watches the emergence of these two creatures with paranoia and amazement. It creates a demonology around them, accusing them of old sins like anti-nationalism, of being sources or conduits for foreign money, of being anti-development or pseudo secular.
The mere inklings of suspicion seems adequate to guarantee truth. Dissent rather than being visualised as constructive is condemned for being disruptive. So, Kudankulam becomes a German conspiracy, battle against BT cotton, a conspiracy by the pesticide industry while anti-Vedanta, anti-mining struggles are seen as retrograde creating taboos against growth.
Instead of the old weapon of ideology, we hammer dissent with the new demonologies of suspicion. What should be welcomed as an early warning is harassed and what should be suspect is treated as sacrosanct.
The sadness is that between a dull technocracy, a violent populism, an old form of dynastic rule, and a retrograde fundamentalism, India is losing out on the new knowledge debates.
Instead of honoring Udaya Kumar, a Sunita Narain, a Vandana Shiva or a Kavita Kurugunti, an Anant Patwardhan, a Teesta Setalvad, we insult their integrity and suspect their bank balance. Even our minister Jairam Ramesh who added so much to freedom and democracy, now dissociates himself from NGOs as if they are a new AIDS virus.
The sad thing is that the critique of dissent is coming from an education minister like Kapil Sibal and our PM who was once a committed scholar. One feels their desperation at the emergence of new ideas and their fear that old models of political control are dying out. The foreign hand competes with the invisible hand in explaining social behavior. The transition from veiled threats to public threats, from telephone calls to beatings will be a quick one.
The danger here is that fear and suspicion by an establishment which is often knowledge proof, creates forms of violence, threatening democracy. Manmohan Singh, as an academic, should have known that informed dissent is the humus of democracy.
The HRD ministry should realise that knowledge commissions without dissent are museumised entities. I think dissent guarantees the possibilities of the future. To suppress it by banning it, threatening it, censoring it, arresting it is to ban, threaten, arrest, censor and distort democracy.
One hopes democracy in India returns to its quarrelsome style and that the Argumentative Indian that Amartya Sen praised, does not become like the dodo, an extinct curiosity.
(The author is a Social Science nomad)