Beyond the faction
Pavan K. Varma
MANY years ago, I was present at a brilliant lecture by the philosopher J. Krishnamurthy. It was a pleasant October evening, and not a very big audience. Krishnamurthy spoke for about half an hour or so and when he finished he said he would be happy to answer questions. The moment he said this, a gentleman raised his hand. Krishnamurthy smiled. He then told his questioner: ‘You have not been listening to me. Your mind was only busy formulating your question. That is why you have raised your hand with such alacrity. I will respond to your question but you may have missed my answers.’
Why has India become a nation of poor listeners? Why is it that our social fabric has become so brittle, so unaccommodating to any dissent? Why is it that we have become so adept at asphyxiating a different viewpoint? Why is our discourse so riddled with suspicion? Why have we become a nation of backbiters? Why do we rarely talk with each other, only at each other?
It is not enough to recognize the symptoms of a malaise. The important thing is to identify the causes, and of course, possible remedies. There was, I believe, in the years leading to freedom in 1947, and for some years thereafter, a certain civility in the vocabulary of national discourse, an acceptance of restraint, and of limits. It was not as if differences did not exist then. The Indian National Congress was never an entirely homogenous ideological entity. It had its divisions between the moderates and the extremists; it had its personality cults; it had its camp followers.
There were well-known differences between Gandhi and Nehru. These are strikingly revealed in Nehru’s letters to the Mahatma. With the frustration of a rationalist striking against the wall of irrational faith, Nehru railed against some of Gandhi’s inexplicable obscuranticisms. And yet, the differences of opinion between the leader and his often rebellious follower never led to the questioning of bona fides. Even when there was disagreement it was based on mutual respect. Indeed, the right of disagreement was never questioned. There was thus a basis for civilized debate.
What has changed in recent times? Some of the causes can be identified. The first is the increasing primacy expediency has acquired over principle. When a goal has primacy over principle, the principle no longer needs to be debated. The important thing is to reach the end. When the end is exalted out of proportion, such niceties, as principled disagreements, no longer have any place. Argument becomes a means to an end; differences are created in order to achieve an end; dialogue is overtaken by name-calling in order to further an end.
An important aspect of such an approach is the systematic and consistent questioning of bona fides. It is not enough to dismiss an argument. The person making that argument should be tarred. There are no ethics involved in such an exercise. When the goal is king, the means are flexible. In a sense, this progression from opinion to person is logical. If the general belief is that an opinion is but a matter of expediency, then the opinion itself stands devalued. The real target then becomes the person. He must be given a limiting label, a label that defines him or her beyond the possibilities of objectivity.
Partisanship is then elevated to a fine art. A person can no longer be in public life. He has to be a politician belonging to a party and, if possible, to a faction of that party. He can no longer only be an Indian; he must be either Muslim or Hindu, or some other denomination. Nor can he be only a citizen; he must be either a spokesman or a votary only of the poor, or of the rich, or the middle class, or a state or a region. The reflex questioning of bona fides dilutes every stance. The automatic ascribing of motives weakens every platform.
Of course, public discourse of value cannot be sustained in an era of the crook, the fixer, the unscrupulous achiever, the unethical winner. When the careers of small men prosper, the discussion of big issues suffers. The shrinking space for healthy debate is essentially a reflection of the diminishing quality of leadership. When those who have never held an opinion honestly, or who have never had the courage of conviction, or the liberality that is the concomitant of statesmanship, come to power, they are suffused with an intellectually stunted but ferocious self-righteousness which translated into real life conveys: I am right, and therefore, you must be wrong.
Anon-partisan debate is also the victim of a pervasive sense of insecurity. In the last days of the Mughal Empire, there used to be a saying: Yak anar, sad beemar (one pomegranate, a hundred ill men). This scarcity syndrome is largely responsible for the frenetic activity defining the energy of urban India. When objects of desire are in short supply, obtaining them acquires an importance which obliterates all other considerations. Opinion then becomes merely an instrument to optimise the ability to grasp, a means to further individual reach.
The essential truth, specially about urban India, is that the cake is small and the claimants many. The race is tough. There is no time for introspection or contemplation or of seeking to strive a balance between what is necessary and what is desirable. Issues have to be opposed or supported for the tangible gains that they yield at a personal level. Nothing in this unceasing race is sacrosanct: not religion, not heritage, not environment, not friendship, not scholarship, not honesty. The irony is that for all the compromises that an individual agrees to make, there does not seem to be an end to the sense of insecurity.
In the undergrowth of such an unforgiving jungle, there is a need to belong, to co-opt, or to oppose, but never to stand alone. Only two extremes reign, defeat or satiation. There is no scope for the middle ground where a person can stand on his own, unsupported by the scaffolding of one group or another. In such a situation, intellectual integrity becomes subordinate to emotional security. It is a war in which the faction overwhelms the viewpoint. Or, to put it differently, the viewpoint only has validity when it reflects the views of the faction. The merits of an issue are relegated to the background.
The increasing social insensitivity and self-obsession of the middle and elite classes of India is also a factor. Recently, a man lay dead on the busy Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg – the Fleet Street of the capital – for three days before people stopped to notice. And they stopped to notice not because a body was lying dead, but because the body had begun to stink. If individuals become deadened to the external milieu unless it impinges upon their self-interest, how can they be expected to participate in a debate from a point of view that does not pertain only to their narrow worlds?
One of the commonest observations of any foreigner visiting India is the degree to which the educated Indian is unmoved by the deprivation around him or her. It is almost as if the educated Indian has decided that he will only see and believe what he wants to see and believe, and nothing else. Why else, then, would so many citizens in Delhi go about their business as if there is no crisis when over 40% of those who live in the capital continue to be illiterate more than 50 years after Independence and 35% have no access even to latrines. The scenario elsewhere is not different. A city like Aligarh, whose profile is otherwise that of a gracious academic city, has more than one-third of its population defecating in the open, with only 6% of residents with access to potable water.
But the educated Indian refuses to take cognizance of the severe and sustained deterioration of the environment around him. He has a fortress mentality. So long as his or her world is somehow above water, the rest can happily be deluged; so long as his overhead tank is full even if this is achieved by illegally installing a pump on the main supply line, the rest can stare at dry taps; so long as his home has electricity, obtained by bribing the local linesman, or tampering with the meter, the rest can sit in the dark; so long as his house is kept clean, the back lane or the local park nearby or the street outside can be full of garbage. Such an insular and excessively individualistic world cannot provide a nurturing milieu where people are willing to set aside their own little agendas in order to constructively forge, through discussion, a platform for the larger good.
An interesting dimension is that in recent times, opinions in the elite and the middle classes have tended to oscillate between two extremes: eulogization or vilification. The reason for this is that the public realm now is viewed almost exclusively as an instrumentality for the fulfilment of certain expectations. In the case of the educated classes, these expectations deal essentially with a greater slice from a finite cake. Some of these demands are legitimate: more electricity, more water, better roads, more security, lower prices of essential goods, a more responsive administration, less taxes. However, there is no inclination towards a constructive participation in the public realm in order to achieve these expectations.
On the contrary, there is a cynical withdrawal from civic responsibility. The net result is that every time there is a change of government, or a new leader, there is only an exaggerated hope pinned on the fulfilment of expectations. No government or leader can, given the constraint of resources, and given competing priorities, particularly of the numerically greater poorer sections, fulfil these expectations. So, in a short while, the initial eulogization of a leader turns into an automatic condemnation. Between these two extremes, both irrational, there is no scope for a rational public discourse that can enable the educated to clinically separate the feasible from the desirable, the personal from the public, and the priority from the purely sectoral.
It is, of course, germane to this discussion that the middle and elite classes are becoming increasingly less influential in public life. Much of the debate that goes on at the national level, in the print media and on television, is in the hands of the middle and elite classes. But thanks to the increasing democratic empowerment of people below the middle class who are numerically larger, the critical role of the middle class in being able to determine the content and course of politics has shrunk.
This identifiable marginalisation has led to its own frustrations, the most manifest of which is a reduced faith in the system as a whole. This reduction in faith has led to a neo fundamentalist narrowing of vision: if the system is inherently flawed, what is the point in trying to debate its reform? Once again, the sentiment is one of withdrawal, not one of constructive engagement. In the face of this increasing marginalisation in a political system that can no longer be manipulated exclusively by them, the common reaction of a great number of middle class Indians is that what the country needs is a dictator, somebody who can wield the rod and enforce discipline, and drown out the cacophony of protest (and demands) of the ‘unwashed masses’. Such a mental attitude is certainly not conducive to a reasoned or restrained public discourse.
Thus, in the milieu that we have today, anyone with an open mind is categorised as a fencesitter lacking conviction, a ladder-climber and an opportunist. Very often this may be the case, but in the odd instance where it is not, nobody is prepared to give the benefit of doubt. Perhaps there is, as well, something in our inherent mental make-up.
For all our veneer of modernity and education, we belong to a structured society. Many of us accept that we have a preordained place in the structure of things. We accept hierarchy. That is why we are so effortlessly domineering, or so easily sycophantic. We accept that it is our position either to be told, or we assume that it is our right to tell. There are no shades of grey. We are either toad eaters, or toad eaten. The faculty of debate falls flat between such inflexibly distanced stools.
The paradox is that within the framework of this inherited social structure which militates against the holding of individual opinions, we are among the most opinionated of people. We have a viewpoint on everything. We revel in argument. Whether we voice it or not, we hold on to our reservations of opinion, waiting for the right time to strike. It is a truism that four Indians mean four factions. And, yet, the important point is that this natural ability to bifurcate opinion, as it were, is not a foundation for wholesome debate. It is merely a fertile ground for the growth of factions, a prescription for hostility with those who differ.
Perhaps this incessant inclination to have an opinion, in variance to that of a peer, is linked also to the absence of a single or categorical ethical centre in the corpus of Hinduism. The intellectual liberality of Hindu metaphysics does not allow it to say anywhere that only this is right, or only that is wrong. There is a philosophical relativism permeating Hindu religion, mythology and philosophy which, in real life, incubates shades of opinion to the point of sterility, and could well be the reason why so many of its present practitioners hover so easily between unthinking conformity and congenital dissent, neither frame of mind conducive to rational debate.
Today, there is an urgent need in India to build and rebuild the foundations of a civil society where another’s point of view is respected, and where national concerns are allowed to be discussed with a sense of restraint and balance by all concerned. We need to rise above our sectional interests. In any country where the particular becomes more important than the whole, division begins to be celebrated as an end in itself. In any nation when only portions of the landscape are considered to be important, bridges to other counties of opinion lose their value. In an era of retreat from objectivity, the half-truth is enthroned, accusation acquires primacy over argument and denunciation over debate. In an era of instant answers, truth becomes a casualty. In a milieu of assumed truths and of absolute dogma, reasoned doubt and rational debate have little chance to survive.
We must as a nation once again discover that truth is a torch that does not illuminate only in one direction. Nor should it be a flame so intolerantly intense that it pushes back into darkness every difference or dissent or doubt. Seminar was (and continues to be) an antidote to such unidirectional thinking. That will remain its enduring value.