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‘Now we have a tit-for-tat democracy’

Rashmi Pratap | Updated on January 10, 2018

Raise a flag: “There is another vacuum now — that vacuum of education. If you don’t have education, how do you produce your leaders?” — Prof Homi K Bhabha Photo: Vivek Bendre   -  Vivek Bendre

Prof Homi K Bhabha on how the “criminalisation of dissent” at universities is the bedrock of the didacticism that is killing dialogue in India

In February 2016, when the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students union president Kanhaiya Kumar was sent to judicial custody in a sedition case, Harvard professor Homi K Bhabha wrote to vice chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar against what he called “criminalisation of dissent”. The letter by the cultural theorist and Padma Bhushan awardee may have been written in response to the JNU case, but his call “for engaging with the diversity of opinion” is something that many in the country may relate to.

Edited excerpts from a BLink interview with Prof Bhabha:

What was the context of your letter to the JNU vice chancellor?

The immediate context was a request by Prof Veena Das, an eminent anthropologist at Johns Hopkins University, that a letter to the vice-chancellor would provide an opportunity for him to reflect on a very precarious situation. It is my view that universities are crucibles of conversation and dialogue, and an essential part of democratic dialogue is public dissent, so long as it does not break the law or causes harm to individuals or groups. Without dissent there can be no hope for progress in a democratic society — and this is the lesson of Gandhi, Tagore, Ambedkar, and several other pioneers of freedom. Universities serve the needs of students and faculty from various social strata who espouse a range of views and beliefs. University education is a transitional and transformative phase in the life of an inquiring individual. Good governance on the campus requires the wisdom of the leadership in negotiating dissent as a process and practice of pedagogy. We have to learn to negotiate dissent, not negate it.

Does the present government know how to negotiate dissent, even if in a university? What do you think makes the current regime so attractive to the masses still?

There is a trend in India today to enhance political didacticism rather than democratic dialogue. The appeal to one element of the composite and syncretic culture of India — Hindutva, for instance — on the grounds of patriotism or populism is to distort the fine balance between cultures, beliefs and communities that represents the wonder that was India and could become the wonder of India once again. Our Constitution is a fine instrument of equality with checks and balances to protect minorities as a part of the larger national interest. Once the state devises majoritarian instruments of intimidation and exclusion, and aims itself indiscriminately against the “enemy within” — dalits, Christians, Muslims, the LGBT community, NGOs, etc — then democratic participation is overshadowed by authoritarian paranoia, and citizens are alienated and excluded as scapegoats.

There is a corrosive contradiction in world politics today between globalisation for foreign consumption and nationalist populism at home. World leaders never fail to represent their countries as essential actors on the world stage — economically, financially, technologically, digitally. At home, however, there is a growing social conservatism and parochialism that flagrantly denies the values of cosmopolitanism. We Indians are pioneers of global interaction and intervention because we learned the ‘global’ lesson the hard way by waging anti-colonial struggles and forging independence in the struggle against imperialists who believed that they had the right to be the rulers and definers of the world as a global system.

What explains this decline from being a vibrant democracy?

India is still a country of viable democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society. But global networks also produce new networks of poverty and disadvantage. Unfortunately, we now have broken futures, where some people succeed conspicuously and others suffer conspicuously in the same place and in the same time. Every city in India today belongs partly to the “first world” and partly to the “third world” — to say nothing of the agricultural sector and farmer suicides.

Our current predicament cannot be divorced from the dismay with the last Congress-led government. I was here for much of the pre-election period and there was no credible leadership of the enlightened secular kind. By secular, I emphatically don’t mean anti-religious. Secularism is an idea of civic and republican citizenship committed to people debating and discussing the “common goods” they expect from society. Now we have a ‘tit-for-tat democracy’. It seems that the destiny of the nation is a football kicked between different teams without anybody defining the shared rules of the game.

Why is there almost a famine of democratic discussion?

One of the reasons has to be that the city universities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai have been neglected and under-funded. My college, Elphinstone (in Mumbai), is a skeleton of what it used to be. It prepared me to go to Oxford, but over the years, large public cultural institutions have received scant support and have become battlegrounds of sectarian political interests and influences. The people who suffer are the younger generation, who are ready to embrace a new India and to gather the greatest gifts of the democratic Indian past. There is another vacuum now — that of education. If you don’t have education, how do you produce leaders, how do you generate ideas for a sustainable and equitable future?

What is it that needs to be done?

India has considerable resources — ideas, skills, expertise; we have sustainable social institutions; we have a cosmopolitan cultural tradition. You need political will and scholarly imagination to rethink the educational system which produces not only good scholars but people who are brought up in a system that creates a cultural citizenship that embraces the mosaic of communities and beliefs that constitutes the secular map. Fundamentalisms — whether political or religious — create a toxic, even tragic, condition. I think there has to be a way of making people understand that you cannot scale down value-systems to appeal to any one dominant class, community or faith. We need to recalibrate our value system to live up to ideals andaspirations that witnessed the birth of our nation.

Published on September 08, 2017

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