Democracy without democrats?


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There never was much room for free – that is, fearless – speech and moral choices in the district towns. Between the collector and the police superintendent, the two prime symbols of the law-and-order state, the power to monitor life in the basti stayed finely tuned to the perspective of the local notables. That fine tuning has loosened a little as a result of the local notables getting somewhat diversified. The loosening, however, has brought no relief to the limited tribe of the so-called local intelligentsia who yearn to exercise their right to free speech and association.

An unprecedented increase in the number of guns of every variety over the last two decades or so has made the district towns altogether unsuitable for the practice of enlightened enquiry into matters relevant to public welfare. Both administrative and political life in the district, at least in northern India, are steeped in corruption and civic disorder patronized by the powerful. None of the instruments of civil society have strength to subject either power or authority to any kind of public scrutiny.

It sounds melodramatic and totally unacademic to say this, but the truth is that someone who lives in a district headquarter and does not appreciate the stringent limits within which the constitutional guarantees of free speech may be enjoyed, pays by getting roughed up or killed. Why many more are not killed is because life in a district town quickly socialises you to apply good sense. The stringent limits within which fearless speech can be practiced are the four walls of your home.



Modern communication should have changed this picture for the better, and it has, so far as the exercise of brute force during elections is concerned. The possibility of sending a message to the chief election commissioner by phone or fax has curbed the earlier enthusiasm with which polling booths were captured. However, when the elections are over, the technology of speedy communication ceases to matter, for no one knows who in Bhopal or Delhi would bother.

The only institution which routinely uses communication technology is the local press, but it is hardly an institution in any serious sense. The local man who acts as correspondent to a regional or national daily is chronically under pressure to abandon every controversial matter after touching it once. In any case, there is no news in civic disorder, for it is a daily cycle. From a girl getting kidnapped to selection of teachers on bribe, no information is weightier than the subsidised newsprint that carries it to the saturated reader who does not even hope, anymore, that the collector or the chief minister will read it and bother. As for the locally published newspapers – there are literally thousands of them – they are much too dependent on the mercy of the local notables to enjoy or provide what we may call a liberal space.



District India has to stage a massacre, an epidemic, or a successful blockade of inter-regional transport to figure in the liberal space that our country has been lucky to have at the national level. Several historical struggles and breakthroughs are responsible for the creation and maintenance of this space, and we have every reason to be proud of it, especially if we look around for parallels. It is not just Pakistan and Iran that one thinks of as being less lucky than us, but the richer countries of South East Asia too, which subsist on narrowly defined civic freedoms even as they boast of more open economies.

I feel similarly sorry for those who compare China with India and pronounce China has done better. I suppose civic freedom is a possession one appreciates only when one begins to see the danger of loosing it. This is why I secretly feel happy when I hear people saying with anxiety that the liberal space is shrinking. I almost feel like saying, ‘I’m glad it is, for now you can notice what we had.’ I also feel like saying, ‘Are you surprised?’ Of course I say no such thing and be mistaken for a cynic.

As a true metropolitan, unlike a migrant from the hinterland which I am, you are supposed to say, ‘Isn’t that terrible.’ The usual point of reference is one or the other news, such as the attack on that remarkably dull film, Fire, or the digging up of the Kotla cricket pitch. ‘How objectionable!’ you are supposed to exclaim, and get on with more substantial issues like why Murli Manohar Joshi does not want to win the hearts of college teachers or how The Hindu is now the only Delhi paper you can read.

It is indeed alarming how trivial an issue we make of the rapid erosion of the freedom of intellectual and moral choices, speech and association. Why I am not surprised by the erosion itself is on account of four trends that I have been aware of for some time now. The first of these is the only one to have surfaced in the recent past, especially since the display of unreluctant patronage of globalisation policies by the Rao-Singh regime. The other three trends have been around for much longer, though two of them were not as perceptible earlier as they are now. The fourth one is still quite invisible because it stays hidden in every child’s schoolbag which is quite a treasure of national security secrets in our country.



But let me start with the first reason which I wish to call the commoditization of the media. It is distinct from commercialisation which is a part of life, monetized life at any rate. Commoditization, on the other hand, is new and sinister, an aspect of neo-colonialism inasmuch as it denies us the right to choose and apply our minds.

The slogan of globalisation symbolizes a new incarnation of the European psyche, this time under American command. The incarnation has two faces. One is the intellectually and ethically tired face, showing that the white man now wishes to drop his burden, more out of a desire to enjoy his own life fully with his two boxes, tv and pc, than out of any moral realisation of odium in the burden or a recognition of the futility of carrying it. The other is the face with sophisticated aggression, conveying the right of property over all sorts of resources that can be bought and ideas that can be sold for money. This second face is cruder than the plunderers of the age of mercantile colonialism might have had, or so it appears to us who had not imagined that the West, with its great universities and museums, could come to this, again.

The degree of consensus there is about globalisation having become man’s destiny now, from company managers to human rights groups in the West, is quite amazing, though it is in keeping with the European world’s compulsion to invent something to get euphoric about every couple of decades. What this consensus means for us is a denial of choice in everything, including globalisation itself. We are being told that this time there is no getting away with selective absorption, that everything comes with everything else, that we must sit back and be happy that we can at least manipulate the mouse in our right hand.



Commoditization of the media is a component of this latest round of the West’s chronic obsession with new toys and slogans on one hand, and of a distinct move by a handful of corporate interests towards consolidation of their dominance on the other. Our media managers and state media bureaucrats cannot contain their excitement. They now see their primary role in acting like conduits for advertising. As CNN does day and night, most of our newspapers and glossies are using bits of news to sell advertising. They are using precious newsprint to promote every object there is in the dung heap – from cigarettes to junk food, from systems of music our walls have no substance to contain inside buildings to cars our cities have no space to park or drive with safety. Both news and views are treated as commodities in these publications; therefore, a debate on public health or destruction of the environment must compete for space with Coca-Cola and car advertisements. A large section of the press now regards sustained debate on issues of public importance as being marginal to its main business which is to push the induction of Indian elites into global consumerism.



One might have seen this as a matter of choice on the part of our media owners and bureaucrats had it not been obvious that global media and communication barons have been specifically after us. On the other hand, I wish I could say that our people have been forced into submission, to reprint or adapt junk writing from the American or British press and trivia from the fashion industry. Unfortunately, neither version of what happened is adequate. An ethos existed which made commoditization of the media acceptable. That ethos made elaborate debates or enquiry look boring. Once that ethos started to grow, few seemed to have the strength to resist it.

Post-Rajiv political happenings played their role (some might say, post-Indira); economic forces supportive of the change had been active since the mid-seventies. By the beginning of the current decade, political consensus had been established that colonialist modernism was the only choice left for us to follow. I believe this consensus had its basis in the loss of popular mandate suffered by all national-level parties, but that is a different issue. For the construction of the ethos which made commoditization of the media acceptable, we must turn to the next two reasons which, in addition to their ethos-building role, were directly responsible as well for the shrinking of the liberal space.

When Salman Rushdie wrote in The New Yorker’s special issue on free India’s golden jubilee that he reads no Indian language well enough to read its literature, but, never mind, he knew that nothing worthwhile had been written in any of these languages in recent times, he was saying something I could have associated with some of my colleagues and friends whose reading for news and pleasure is confined to English. It is just nice that they lack Rushdie’s arrogance.

Growing up in an Indian city without having any substantial exposure to the literature of the region to which the city belongs was a familiar feature of the public school student’s personality, but the walls dividing the English-educated intelligentsia and its vernacular counterpart have got thicker and taller of late. The vernacular media have virtually no place in the institutions serving the English educated intellectual elite who depend on English both for receiving news and for responding to it. They have no direct access to the articulation of the public mind which takes place in the vernacular media and literature. Of course there are famous exceptions, but they are exceptions.



The gap between English and the vernacular is perhaps wider in the Hindi heartland than elsewhere, but it exists in other parts of India in varying measures. It is related to the trend towards divisiveness we see in other contexts too, but it has special significance because of its function in shaping the flow of information. I recall the sudden despair into which a number of English-dependent social analysts were thrown by the events that preceded and followed the Ayodhya disaster. I generally find it a waste of time to look at an English newspaper to find out what is happening in Uttar Pradesh. On the other side of the language wall, I miss the generation of Rajendra Mathur, Raghuvir Sahay, Agyeya and S.C. Dube, who wrote in Hindi with a vast and confident awareness of what was being written in English. Liberal press and scholarship in Hindi stand greatly impoverished by the absence of such people. On the other hand, the lack of direct and habitual access to the vernacular world limits both the knowledge and the sensibility that the commentators writing in English can put to use in their professionally and socially significant tasks.



The wall that divides the intelligentsia is symbolic of the divisions that have been growing in the larger urban middle class, irrespective of where it resides. Its upper layers, which include those with power and status as well as the upwardly mobile, have lost all but ritual links with the vernacular world to which they once belonged. This is evident from their orbits of awareness, interests, reading, child-rearing, and objects of desire. The areas where they reside in cities have hardly any trace of the local literary milieu.

If you were to make a foolish query at Teksons in Delhi’s South Extension market for Krishna Sobti’s Dilo Daanish, you would be looked at with contempt and not just surprise, unless you were a foreigner who did not know that bookshops in Delhi are not like the ones in Rome which mostly stock books in Italian. Down at the district level, you can guess who gets the few copies of the English original of India Today. The collector and some of his colleagues are sometimes the only ones who keep in touch with the English media.

If they also keep an eye on the local and regional vernacular press, it is mainly to equip themselves with the knowledge of ground reality which they are literally supposed to control as custodians of law and order. For status-maintenance and mental nourishment they depend on the English media which inevitably provides them the lexicon of current civil dialogue. This lexicon is rather distant from the world of their ‘grassroots’ subordinates, such as members of the panchayat, primary school teachers, health workers, and unemployed youth acting as volunteers in a state programme. These subordinates inhabit a purely vernacular world which generates, off the numerous cutting edges of development, a lexicon of its own. The collector and his colleagues inevitably have a hollow ring in their utterances when they address these armies of development. Many civil servants are nowadays writing about their ‘grassroots’ experiences in journals like the EPW, and there too the hollow ring dogs their words. They lack the language capable of sizing up the corruption, the fear, and the silent violence that surround the sundry initiatives taken by the state to get closer to the people. The interface between the authorities and the state’s own modest instruments of serving the people messes up the little liberal space there is in district headquarters. And we are not even talking about the guns and the goons monitoring the financial flows for welfare.



Let me turn to the third and the fourth reasons, both of which have to do with the general erosion of educational values. Especially relevant to my present theme is the decline of higher education and the use of school education for ideological propaganda. Active political misuse of provincial universities is now an old story. But it gives us a framework which is still relevant for looking at the systemic neglect of post-secondary education. Apart from motivated misuse by politicians, higher education has also suffered the spread of poor quality primary and secondary education.

The thin layer of free and somewhat informed dialogue that the college teacher and students had sustained in places which had no bookshops, vanished during the Emergency of the mid-seventies; it never materialised again. Radical budget cuts of the eighties made a vital contribution to the dismantling of the college ethos, particularly by affecting library supplies. Today, a working library is a preserve of privileged universities; others must do with the oral tradition and baazar notes. During a recent visit I realised with dismay that an old, highly respected institution like Allahabad’s Ewing Christian College was not even expected to have a decent library.

India’s higher education establishment, oversized though it was in relation to the sea of illiteracy surrounding it, had produced since its inception in colonial days a great body of men and women who acted as conflict-managers in a diversified and segmented society. As lawyers, civil servants, teachers, journalists and members of voluntary groupings, they oiled the wheels and gears of our difficult democracy during its formative phases with their skills of civil disagreement and representation of positions. Financially depleted and poorly governed, higher education still produces any number of qualified young adults, but these skills have become rarer. And now, under The World Bank’s persuasion, an argument has gained ground that India needs literacy and elementary education more urgently than it needs serious higher education.



Pernicious as it is, this argument ignores the social history of our democracy. Of course our universities have a lot to answer for in the stagnated frames of knowledge they continue to maintain. Nor can we say that as institutions they have rendered meaningful service to the recent processes of social change. But their presence in a society with so much fighting has been a stabilising and nurturing influence. One can say that democracy does not depend on them, for the norms and procedures of democracy have struck deeper roots. However, democracy without democrats to defend it will always remain fragile. It may not die, but it will waste a lot of energy in survival alone. It may not die also because democracy has proved the most convenient form of governance for India, but its survival as a form of governance is not enough to make it a way of life.



Finally, the use of school education for promoting mindless acceptance of the stated. Who is behind it, I wonder, but it is happening all the time. Most probably no one in particular is behind it; our schools are merely transmitting what is supposed to be a dominant ideology. It is the same ideology that Aakaashvani and Doordarshan transmit in a more concrete sense.

Some important features of this ideology can help us recognize it, and they are as follows. The government knows best. It is following the best possible choices, especially in the context of India’s development and security. Development generally means making India look like a copy of the West. If some part of a city begins to look faintly like a western city, it can be seen and used as a symbol of development. Similarly, if agriculture gets firmly plugged into industries that produce chemical fertilisers, pesticides and harvesters, this too is a sign of development. Poverty, the ideology says, is related to the outlook of the poor, their lifestyle, commitment to traditions and superstitions. Generally, the poor, rural folk are to blame for their own condition.

This brief sketch should suffice to indicate the contours of the propaganda that schools are making all the time. It is not so much in the success or failure in this job that the problem lies; rather, it lies in their ignoring the other job, that of enabling children to make sense of the India that is unfolding. In that systematically ignored India, it is the rural masses who determine the outcome of elections; they resist and campaign against the unfair policies and one-sided initiatives of the state, thereby acting as correctives to state policy; they force development and modernisation to take a specifically Indian shape. Our schools fail to present to the young an India which is an exciting place to live and work. On the contrary, they put across an image of India where only statesmen, civil servants, and scientists who act like civil servants matter. I recall the biography of a Nobel laureate Indian scientist which emphasised, for the benefit of elementary-level children, the fact of his being so brilliant that a commissioner of income tax decided to choose him as a son-in-law.



We can read deeper meanings – class hegemony and sinister foreshadows – in the school curriculum and the textbooks produced by the NCERT and the state bureaus. What is more important for now is to notice that the system is not designed to make children think. The approved policy of packing the maximum number of facts in the minimum space also gives a valid excuse to textbook-manufacturing bodies to leave no clues or room that might allow a young reader to stop and wonder about something.

The implied reader of these textbooks is someone who finds the world too cumbersome a place to make sense of; so it is best to leave it to the state to manage. Can we call such a reader a ‘good citizen’? Such readers will undoubtedly be loyal to authorities, but they can hardly be trusted as guardians of our turbulent democracy. If the liberal space has shrunk on issue after issue, good citizens of this kind and the system which produced them must take some responsibility.