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The shrinking space for dialogue

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-09-2017 Anil Padmanabhan

Last week, Gauri Lankesh, journalist, publisher and activist was brutally gunned down by unknown assailants at her home in Bengaluru. On the same day, coincidentally, Rakesh Ranjan Yadav, son of Manorama Devi, suspended Janata Dal (United) MLA in the Bihar assembly, was convicted by a lower court for shooting dead a teenager Aditya Sachdeva in a road rage incident in Gaya. One is cause for despair and the other for hope that our legal system delivers justice and, in this instance, on time.

More importantly though, both tragedies point to a growing malaise of Indian democracy: the shrinking space for dialogue. We, as a nation, stopped listening to each other some time ago; now we have launched further down the path of slippery destruction of democracy, killing those who disagree with us or as they say enforce the maxim of ‘my way or the highway’.

And ironically this is happening in the 70th year of the country’s independence—the milestone is no mean achievement, given that other countries have failed where India has succeeded.

Whether it be national spaces like Parliament (where pique and less of national interest drives political decisions), highways and city roads (increasing incidents of road rage) or educational institutions (where the ecosystem for dialogue, a basic criterion for academic excellence, has been replaced by a mindless cycle of binary exchanges), the divide is most apparent (and of course it is nowhere most manifest than with the belligerent talking heads on news programmes). A regime change in New Delhi, especially with a new government determined to pursue structural change, has only exacerbated an already existing problem. In our personal space, especially social media (as I often see on my timeline on Facebook), the spewing of hate, by both liberals and conservatives, is depressing and a tragical reaffirmation of the new binary contours of national discourse.

This column has, on several occasions, flagged the perils of a binary discourse. The rash of recent incidents—some which have not even got play in the national media—suggest that India may have reached a tipping point. This is indeed a moment of reckoning and clearly it is not just politicians, but other institutions including media, judiciary and so on, and the people at large too have to step up to the plate. As the cliche goes, it is better late than never.

But where could we possibly begin? The clue lies in the simple message from David Bohm, a physicist (a message previously repeated by this column). About five decades ago he presciently pointed out, at a time when television was emerging as the primary entertainment medium, that people had stopped listening to each other. Fact is that if you don’t listen you can’t communicate, creating a perfect environment for a binary dialogue and prejudices.

“In spite of this worldwide system of linkages, there is, at this very moment, a general feeling that communication is breaking down everywhere, on an unparalleled scale,” Bohm observed in his book Dialogue, before adding, “What appears is generally at best a collection of trivial and almost unrelated fragments, while at worst, it can often be a really harmful source of confusion and misinformation.”

Bohm flagged the irony of the fact that as communication improved with the growth of a medium like television (and the internet in our era), it only worsened the problem as it created noise and confusion instead of dialogue. “The consequent sense of frustration inclines people ever further toward aggression and violence, rather than toward mutual understanding and trust,” he said.

It is then time for us as a nation to start listening to each other. It is the necessary, certainly not sufficient, condition for India to regain its democratic space.

Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.

Respond to this column at anil.p@livemint.com

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