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Posted at: Mar 13, 2018, 12:54 AM; last updated: Mar 13, 2018, 12:54 AM (IST)

Between hope and despair

Increasing cases of violence suggest how far India has come away from being a tolerant, liberal democracy. Recovery may prove hard, going by the rapid rise in institutional failure and communalism.
Between hope and despair
Autonomy issue: BHU saw tension.

Krishna Kumar
Ex-director, NCERT, & honorary professor of Education at Panjab University

A discussion on the general state of affairs has just begun. Someone, without necessarily meaning to be ironical, says, "You seem to be an optimist." In contrast, you might be told that you are being much too pessimistic. In televised debates too, participants often preface a critical comment by saying, "I am generally a hopeful person, but…." 

Handy use of labels like 'optimist' and 'pessimist' points towards the quicksilver ethos we live in these days. Many have characterised the current period of India's history as a time of uncertainty. As Indians, we can seek some solace from a title given by the late John Kenneth Galbraith to a book on economics written 40 years ago The Age of Uncertainty. In the West, 9/11 serves as the latest watershed between a past when things seemed stable and an ambiguous future. In India, we are used to our own political clocks and they suggest, according to many, a long-drawn out period of deep churning and unfamiliar happenings. That is probably where the need to feel consciously hopeful or to acknowledge a deep anxiety arises. 

Things that make people anxious

There is plenty of evidence for both and some of the evidence is equally applicable to both perspectives. Let’s start with things that make people feel anxious and gloomy. Lists can be differently rank-ordered, depending on your area of interest. 

Institutional failure: News of institutional failure tops in many people's list. Among institutions, it is the judiciary that has aroused the greatest anxiety since former Chief Justice TS Thakur broke down in public over the vast number of vacancies that have impaired judicial efficiency. 

More recently, four judges of the highest court went to the press in order to vent their disquiet. In other spheres too, institutional collapse is a common story. Academic institutions, ranging from the Film and Television Institute in Pune to Banares Hindu University, have been in headlines for the wrong reasons. Loss of autonomy is now taken for granted among vice-chancellors. Institutions in sectors as different as health, crime investigation, and the media frequently figure in reports of unsavoury happenings. Then there are institutions about which the public is beginning to feel reluctantly suspicious. Electronic voting machines and the hydra-faced Aadhaar are in this category. No one seems to feel fully at ease with them despite repeated assurance from the authorities that there is no room for misuse. 

Everyday violence: The second salient item on the list of worrisome things is everyday violence. Unending news about violence against women, including rapes and murders of small girls, has numbed the public mind. I find it hard to counter friends who say that gender violence signifies a cultural collapse. Eminent demographer, the late Ashish Bose, had called female foeticide the sign of a civilisational crisis. News of violence among children is yet another source of everyday shock. 

Schoolboys have committed murders of their classmates or juniors in recent months. Our record is not yet as terrible as that of the US where mass shootings are common, but the recent shooting of a school principal caused understandable panic. Then, there are murders of journalists and writers that suggest how far India has come away from being a tolerant, liberal democracy. It stands badly damaged, and recovery may prove hard, say those who see forebodings of a bleak future in such events. They are particularly anxious about the rapid rise in religious separatism, known as communalism in euphemistic political discourse. 

If we turn around, it is precisely these kinds of news that elicit the opposite comment: "Doesn't all this prove how resilient we are as a democratic nation?" People who feel like this use two main arguments: 

1 The first is that institutional decay is not new. The judiciary has been burdened with excessive pendency for a long time. The decline in standards in education, public health, media reporting and criminal investigation is neither new nor as radical. Moreover, there is no reason why things cannot improve in the coming years, say the optimists. 

2  Their second argument responds to the point about increase in violence against women. More incidents are now reported, therefore, we feel as if violence has increased. As for communal tension and aggression against religious minorities, optimists say that our secular fabric has witnessed and survived many such phases. 

Pursuit of freedom and equality: The third argument is that the basic goals of democracy — freedom and equality — continue to be actively pursued. A recent evidence is the challenge mooted by Dalit consolidation in the Gujarat assembly elections. 

Thus, the two sides end up claiming correctness of contrasting perceptions. It is not easy to take sides, but an additional point made by the anxious seems to tilt the balance. This point has to do with compression of time. The first time I read this argument was in Sudhir Kakar's 1976 classic, The Inner World. Kakar argues that India has generally been able to take the jolts of change in its stride. We have met the currents of pervasive uncertainty with slow, steadying reflexes. I was reminded of Kakar's observation when a friend pointed out last week that the change we are witnessing today is much too compressed. Communication technology has enabled centralising forces to dominate. The dispersed, slow and diverse reflexes customarily associated with India are losing out and a quick command system appears to be taking over. If there is even a marginal element of truth in this perception, it deserves attention. The rival perception, I suppose, has considerable appeal today. 

According to it, India cannot afford slow reflexes anymore. If it is showing signs of speeding up, shouldn't we welcome it? The problem with this question lies in the nature of liberal democracy itself. As a system relying on deliberation, it takes pride in biding time and avoiding injurious mistakes. 

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