The power of dissent

When a dissenter is dismissed or discarded, he is seen as dispensable. It is the dispensability of dissent that is haunting democracy.

Politics in India is full of ironies played out at several levels. At one level, we are watching the Uttar Pradesh election unravel itself as a festival of democracy. At another, the very politicians we are voting for are threatening our fundamental freedoms of speech, information and knowledge. It makes one realise that electoral
politics cannot be the sole measure of democracy.
Let us take a roll call of events. The human resources development ministry seeks to control networks, especially social networking sites, which are disrespectful of politicians and communities. It demands a censorship of these structures violating our freedoms in the very name of politics.

One has to realise that Google and even dissenters like Julian Assange are a critical part of our future freedom. Mr Assange can tell us more about what threatens us globally than five RTI investigations. The network’s eccentricities and its innovations have to be domesticated within a creative rule of law. A state that behaves like a panicky hostel warden threatening punitive action is hardly the appropriate response to a new cultural space.
Consider Koodankulam. A motley group of fisherman, villagers and NGO activists have been objecting to the nuclear plant. The government in its typical bureaucratic response feels that a development project that once begins must be completed. When it confronts the objections of the protesters, it panics. Its paranoia increases when a few intellectual sign a petition merely requesting that we rethink nuclear energy.
An embargo on nuclear energy seems to threaten the reason for being of the state. The typical politics of suspicion unfolds as NGO and their funding systems are treated as suspect. The tactic is an old one. It holds that if you cannot challenge the argument cast aspersions on the character of the opponent. It is easy to summon the foreign hand as the brains behind any form of dissent. What it really implies is that any form of thought is alien to India. Such a view ignores the fact that two generations of movements and intellectuals have questioned the necessity of nuclear energy.
Three tactics are quickly put in place to suppress dissent. First is to argue that it is a security issue and therefore outside the democratic domain. The second tactic seeks to create an atmosphere of suspicion which sees anti-nuclear groups as anti-national and anti-scientific and somehow driven by alien forces. Third is to argue that there is no alternative. The Tina (there is no alternative) argument goes that nuclear energy is the cheapest form of energy and that the West is anxious that we do not harness it. Establishment icons like A.P.J. Abdul Kalam are summoned to say nuclear energy is cent per cent safe. No one bothers to ponder whether such a statement can be made about a risk technology. It is embarrassing to see Dr Kalam play the intellectual puppet of nuclear state violating the very intellectual traditions of a Satish Dhawan, a Vikram Sarabhai or a Homi Sethna.
Consider a third example. Biotechnology was seen as expert scientific space till NGOs and farmers decided to challenge the idea. The initial response of the state was an open-ended one. The minister Jairam Ramesh did open up debate creating a set of hearings which celebrated science and democracy. His exit created a void and today we face regulatory questions, legislations critical for the future which are deaf to dissenting voices.
The privatisation of the biotech future does not alarm the state, convinced that there is no dissent within science and that lay persons should not have scientific opinions. The whole fate of agriculture in India can be wished away through a few empty-headed bills.
There is a wider climate within which dissent becomes a hazardous activity. Firstly, we are using words like science, nation state, security and development as officially fragile words to suppress dissent. Each of these words demands that we respond to it in uniform. Dissent becomes any move which is out of step with the official.
Adding to this is a feeling that the dissenter is not a good citizen, that he is half alien or partially socialised, that he carries a touch of pathology which needs a punitive response. Sadly ours is a political and educational system which bemoans the loss of the free thought, which seeks innovation but wants to prohibit any form of difference, debate or eccentricity. The dissenter is portrayed as anti-state or anti-society; a creature to be suppressed under defence of India rules. Often one does not have to summon the law. A few goons who beat up protesters become the new forces of law and order. The majority shrugs off attack against dissent content that dissenter asked for it. When dissent is a punishable offence, officially and unofficially, fear becomes a habit and critical thought a lonely affair.
We are a society that is co-opting its intellectuals through committees, little sinecures and a climate of threats. Rule by committee is the biggest suppressor of dissent. A dissenter has few patrons. When he is dismissed, discarded or unemployed, he is seen as dispensable. It is the dispensability of dissent that is haunting democracy. Key politicians in power whether Manmohan Singh, Mamata Bannerje, Kapil Sibal, Narendra Modi share this in common: they all seem to feel that a threat to their regime of ideas is a threat to the nation. Politics once the most open of spaces in India is shrinking.
The Uttar Pradesh poll results are out. The electoral window which was a window to the mind is closing. In this climate of indifference, dissent will become a more hazardous affair.

The writer is a social science nomad


Excellent article...posted

Excellent article...posted the link on twitter, linkedin and facebook. A must read!

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