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Dividing Lines: Culture and regulation

SHIV VISVANATHAN
Published May 2, 2015, 7:11 am IST
Updated Mar 29, 2019, 7:40 am IST
It seems that since we cannot regulate our economy, we as a society have decided to regulate culture
Representational Image
 Representational Image

The media as news often triggers a compost heap of interpretations. One wants to read events both as forms of action and as modes of thought. Analysing news then becomes a way of understanding the imagination of the present, especially the fluidities of the present with their combined sense of ambiguity, irony, doubt, hysteria and confusion. By juxtaposing events, one often realises connections that one had not understood before. In analysing this, one goes beyond certainty and recreates a canvas doubt and debate. One senses this tension especially in the government’s response to dissent in Kashmir, to recent responses to sexuality and to its crackdown on NGOs.

Let us be clear — there are no hard certainties in these domains. The art of politics demands an art of managing contestations as this is what creates a pluralistic democracy. The real test of democracy today is to fight for the rights of those you dislike, those who come close to threatening the fabric of consensus, to protect the weave of diversity that holds India together.

 

I will add one more caveat. I do not want to discuss these fears as acts of regime. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not the trigger for all of them. They reflect, in fact, the milieu of the time and the complexity of responses of civil society. Let us begin with the crackdown on Ford Foundation and Greenpeace. The government feels that both these agencies have interfered in critical acts of governance, but one wonders if these aren’t just unfounded fears.

Ford Foundation has been a part of the Indian scene and groups like Ford, Gates, Rockefeller have been a part of the policy-making arena, launching careers in civil society which would not have been possible otherwise. If one juxtaposes the crackdown on Ford-Greenpeace with the excitement around CSR (corporate social responsibility), one wonders what the regime is up to. Looking at the list of foreign donors, one wants to ask why the government does not scrutinise evangelical groups. One wants to ask why the system of philanthropy is underdeveloped in India? Is the government using CSR as a substitute for civil society action? One also has to ask, are the two imaginations comparable?

I must confess there is a smug satisfaction about the fate of some NGOs. But one has to simultaneously ask, is this part of a broader crackdown on civil society and an attempt to reshape policy through think tanks and CSR. There are doubts here that civil society and academics in particular have to debate because what is happening to NGOs is also happening in a parallel way to the universities. Attempts at surveillance filtered through the eyes of national security destroy dissent and diversity in our society. In a regime like this, dissent always verges on the seditious. Dissent when it becomes embarrassing becomes a form of sedition and this includes protest movements fighting for the rights of marginal groups. We are fast becoming a society where the notion of security is emasculating the need for sustainability and the idea of development seeks to vitiate any idea of dissent or diversity.

Take the case of Massarat Aalam, who was arrested for shouting anti-India slogans and carrying Pakistani flags. The question is, is the display of the Pakistani flag an anti-national act or should we face up to the fact that Kashmir needs a different response from all of us. Will arrest, ban and censorship be our response, now that the Bharatiya Janata Party has failed to obtain electoral control over Jammu and Kashmir?

Kashmir and the Northeast have been submitted to decades of military rule and now unrest is a part of these societies. As an Indian responding to fellow Indians, should we not ask how long this has to go on? As a democracy, should we not ask how we can end the brutalisation of these societies?

I remember after the floods a Kashmiri, an educationist, told me all he dreamt of was a bookshop and a café where people could come, talk and be without fear. I was wondering playfully yet seriously whether we need more coffee houses, public spaces of conversation rather than a perpetual Section 144. My question here is, can civil society allow for difference and debate when the state feels tied down by the linus blanket of security?

Civil society has always had problems with certain forms of sexuality as dissent. I recently saw a hoarding on a Manipal beach that requested people “to be educated and not hold hands”, and I also attended the debates around silenced author Perumal Murugan. The writer was threatened, harassed and literally ostracised.

The civil society seems as anxious as the state to regulate, filter and ostracise in order to control its anxieties. A society which claims “hurt” does not seem to mind a vigilante justice which finally culminates in a governmental ban. And there seems little or no resistance as publishers cave in to any vigilante group.

Between patriotism, security, development, majoritarian fears and contempt for dissent, we are creating a climate of intolerance. It seems that since we cannot regulate our economy, we as a society have decided to regulate culture. India, which was proud of its cultural diversity, now wants a patriotism that it equates with uniformity.

Diversity and difference need eccentricity, dissent, marginality and even radical thought. One realises that they can be disturbing, even destabilising. But the sadness is that a regulated society can be more violent in the long run than a disordering society. We need a democracy that sees the noise of dissent as a welcome music. Deep down the biggest casualty of the next few years might not be the economy, but the logic of our culture that has been our strength and survival.

The writer is a social science nomad

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