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Thursday, January 23, 2020

The democratic virtue of unreason

Sometimes it is necessary to be unreasonable to make the established order listen

Written by Peter Ronald DeSouza | Published: July 29, 2013 5:51:56 am

Sometimes it is necessary to be unreasonable to make the established order listen

Some weeks ago,I had gone to the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy in Mussoorie to speak to senior IAS officers. They were there as part of their mid-career training,an exercise planned to reconnect them with new ideas and policy debates. I had accepted the invitation because I believe that if we have to make a difference,and avoid the kind of tragedy that occurred with the midday meal in Bihar (this happened later),then it is to this group of people,the steel frame of the Indian state,that we have to speak. Influencing their minds,even marginally,is of utmost importance. My friends on the new left may regard this as an innocent understanding of power but,in spite of their warning,I am still willing to believe that even senior administrators have a future.

The topic of my lecture was “India’s democracy: a life of contradictions”. I had borrowed the title from B.R. Ambedkar’s powerful closing statement in the Constituent Assembly when he,while presenting the draft Constitution,said that “on the 26th of January 1950,we are going to enter a life of contradictions”. We have entered this life,and hence the task of political scientists is to document it and examine its dynamics.

One of the contradictions I was speaking about was on the need to “democratise democracy”. Hardly had I completed my sentence when a backbencher put up his hand and asked me to explain the phrase,saying that I was using (he meant hiding behind) jargon,as academics are wont to do. This jargon of democratising democracy was not comprehensible to practitioners like him,and would I please elaborate. Sniggers could be heard. Even senior IAS officers sometimes want to play the backbencher. Fair enough. Somewhat defensively I set about explaining that even in a democracy there remain spaces of tyranny,areas where democratic procedures and norms are absent and tyranny rules. Our task is to identify these spaces,explore their internal processes,and liberate them from the tyranny. Democratising democracy in India is a work in progress.

Since educating the IAS is also a work in progress,let me here dwell on one of the contradictions that we need to think about as we set about democratising democracy. I was talking to a colleague from UP,who was explaining to me the life-world of the Dalit. He came from this world and through a life of struggle and incredible heroism,entered the academy. He demonstrated a charming feistiness and though soft and open-minded,remained rock-like in his firmness about the things he believed in. He described to me the regular sexual abuse and rape,by the dominant castes of the village,of women in his Dalit basti. He narrated the frustration and weakness of the Dalit men in resisting this violation of their women,because doing so would mean economic destitution and even perhaps death. Filing an FIR was near impossible. The dominant castes would not permit it. The police would acquiesce to this reality of power.

The details of regular abuse of the Dalit women that he described,particularly when they worked in the fields,was so matter of fact that it could only be authentic. It reminded me of Arjun Dangle’s Poisoned Bread,a collection of poems and short stories that are so full of pain and anger that you cannot read the book continuously. It is so troubling. Not a single poem or story has even a hint of celebration or joy,as one would expect from good literature. It is an endless narrative of pain,humiliation and degradation. I wondered if democracy,and its driver of equality,was changing this Dalit world and making our village spaces more decent. My interlocutor’s autobiographical account seemed to suggest otherwise. Perhaps his is the only village in India where this oppression persists? The life of contradictions is moving in challenging directions.

We changed topics and began to talk about politics. Being from UP and a member of her jati,he was an ardent admirer of Mayawati. I asked him if he had met her. He smiled and said that she was too big and distant for that to happen,since there were many layers between her and her supporters. I asked if she knew him since he,as an emerging intellectual,could have attracted that attention; a safe enough assumption. He smiled again that enigmatic smile,as if to suggest that it was a remote hope. I probed his admiration for her. He replied that all her supporters,because of the daily oppression they experience,have blind faith in her and are unwilling to countenance any criticism of her even from respectable and reason-driven institutions like the higher judiciary.

His own position was close to theirs but,I noticed that as he was amplifying his own position,he,like all academics,had also entered and been infected by the world of caveats. The “but” had entered his appreciation of her. Somehow,as an academic,giving unqualified support was not possible. She has given us dignity and made sure that police stations register FIRs,“but” she has not given enough jobs to Dalits. These were feeble “buts”,but they were there. And they were growing.

Should they be there for him to get a certificate of reasonableness from the court of scholarly opinion? Must he be reasonable in engaging with counterfactuals in all circumstances? Must he,as an inhabitant of a poisoned world,be reasonable? Is not being reasonable succumbing to the wiles of the established order? For a Dalit demanding respect and dignity from the oppressive social order,to be told to be reasonable is to ask him to make allowance for competing claims,to do a trade-off with them. But this is the world of poisoned bread. By being unreasonable in a democracy,he makes the established order listen. They,in contrast,have now to become reasonable. As long as there is no violence,his attitude of unreasonableness will democratise democracy.

Imagine a conversation on TV where my colleague states his unqualified admiration for the Dalit leader. The anchor wades into him with details of pending CBI cases. My colleague just replies to this barrage of counterfactuals with a simple “so”. In the process,he places the burden of argument on the anchor who,taking the bait,then produces more arguments and more counterfactuals. Again my colleague replies with an unreasonable “so”. This happens five times. My hunch is that the argument will have,through logical regress,reached higher levels of abstraction on first principles such as decency,respect and dignity. At which point my colleague would inform the anchor that his support to Mayawati is exactly for these principles. The unreasonable “so” produced the reasoned argument about decency. Mayawati’s presence at the centre of power gives the victim Dalit a better chance of living in that decent society. An FIR will be lodged. The police station will be made more democratic. I hope my backbencher IAS officer is now a little clearer about democratising democracy.

The writer is director,Indian Institute of Advanced Study,Shimla. Views are personal

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