Polarisation and riots: Dialogue is crucial to a healthy democracy. Its absence triggers confrontation and violence

Images of bloody communal violence have scarred Delhi. The violence comes barely weeks after a shrill and polarised election campaign in which anti-CAA protesters became the target of incendiary rhetoric by top politicians. When politicians described protesters as “desh ke gaddar” (traitors) the message was clear: there would be no reach out, instead, there would be confrontation. When leaders preach violence, they give permission to footsoldiers and street confrontation is precisely what has happened, pitting Hindu against Muslim.

The politics of confrontation is not limited to Delhi. In Bengaluru a young citizen has been slapped with sedition charges simply for chanting a slogan. According to a Crime in India report, sedition cases were slapped 156 times during 2016-18. Since the anti-CAA protests began in December, 194 people have been charged with sedition. When governments repeatedly slap sedition on citizens a chilling warning is sent out.

Politicians have become confused about the meaning of democracy. They equate democracy with an electoral majority. But majoritarianism is not democracy which means, above all, respect for debate and dissent. Today’s governing party could be tomorrow’s governed, which is why by restraining the coercive power of the state through watchdog institutions, democracy protects the smallest minority – the free individual. Majoritarianism, on the other hand, inevitably leads to an abuse of the state apparatus because majoritarian regimes cannot tolerate anyone not part of the “majority” which is in office.

Illustration: Uday Deb

It’s intriguing that it’s fallen upon the higher judiciary to send emissaries to the public agitation in Shaheen Bagh. The role of such interlocution ordinarily should fall on the government which is best placed to offer solutions. But the Modi government either ignores Shaheen Bagh or demonises it, ruling out dialogue. In fact the Modi government consistently avoids the principal forum for dialogue, namely Parliament, thus grossly devaluing discussion and debate.

The fact that the establishment has not been able to offer any kind of structured interaction for a protest that has been going on for two months, shows the government prefers wielding force over face-to-face interaction. This is dangerous.

When governments refuse to dialogue, the result is a slide into violence on both sides. India’s state is already a highly coercive one, and if the threat of state violence is used against protests, this not only normalises violence but also blurs the lines between law and crime on the ground. In the process, moderates are squeezed out and space is created for goons of every stripe to enter the fray. This is evident from the armed ruffians prowling the streets of Delhi, emboldened by governing parties’ violent speech.

In Kashmir too, where there should be dialogue, there is instead a deafening void. Three CMs are in detention on questionable grounds. The longest internet shutdown in a democracy is depriving millions of access to services and information. The best the government has been able to do is send some EU representatives for shikhara rides and a group of BJP ministers to meet carefully vetted “Kashmiri people”. In sharp contrast, former PM Vajpayee (also from BJP) and home minister Advani held several rounds of talks even with the separatist Hurriyat Conference.

The Big State is using strong arm tactics across India. In Bidar, Karnataka, authorities chose to slap sedition cases on parents and teachers because of a junior school play rather than hold talks with school authorities for a resolution of the controversy. When historian Ramachandra Guha was whisked away in a police van it showed that aggressive state power doesn’t spare even distinguised scholars.

In Lucknow’s ghanta ghar, where a Shaheen Bagh like protest is ongoing, police swooped down in a show of armed might and arrested over 100 women. In Chennai, another anti-CAA protest at Washermanpet locality has been lathicharged and barred from taking out a procession. During Delhi’s election campaign the governing BJP sought to muzzle and delegitimise its rivals by calling them “terrorists” who speak the language of Pakistan. Using the high perch of state power to cast political rivals as national enemies and terrorists, legitimises violence in society as a whole.

Gandhi warned constantly of the inherent violence of an expanding state. When a government begins to use police power to coerce citizens to its agenda, we have the makings of a police state. The police then becomes a partisan political player, always on the side of governing politicians against the citizen.

Why is dialogue crucial in a healthy democracy? Because peaceful and voluntary exchange of ideas and products lies at the heart not only of a successful society but also of a growing economy. Citizens who want to protect their freedoms and liberties need to be utterly intolerant of violence either by the state or by private actors. By refusing to engage in peaceful exchange with those who are opposing it, governments themselves encourage the cult of violence.

The question may be asked, whether the previous UPA government went too far in attempting to dialogue with its opponents, surrendering executive space. Did the UPA outsource decision-making to NGOs and anti-corruption movements and allow itself to be fatally weakened? The sight of top ministers going to the airport to receive Baba Ramdev at the height of the Anna Hazare agitation was seen as a feeble government meekly capitulating before challengers.

Yet from an enfeebled UPA, we now seem slowly but inexorably moving to the other extreme: an authoritarian state that criminalises dissent and replaces dialogue with the danda. Remember, the Indian police are still governed by an antiquated 19th century law that made them a ‘standing army’ of the colonial raj. Is that the role we expect them to play in a modern republic?

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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