Sunday, May 26, 2024

In Focus:The fraying of India’s social fabric :Diverse threats to the citadel of diversity

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India is a country that has always welcomed people from all parts of the world, including those persecuted from their homelands, with open arms. Inclusivity has been the country’s distinctive feature and a matter of immense pride. Over thousands of years, our biggest asset has been the nation’s charming diversity. Unfortunately, ‘unity in diversity’, the nation’s long-admired showpiece,is now under vicious attack. The Pioneer’s Amartya Smaran takes a close look at the fraying of India’s social fabric due to aberrations in the political sphere, the mainstream media as well as fake narratives on the largely unregulated social media platforms.

Over the years, political leaders belonging to all stripes have used the policy of ‘divide and rule’ to their advantage, regardless of the consequences. They have demonically turned some of our strengths to weaknesses. The idea of having an open dialogue is no longer appealing. Pray, why? Courtesy TRPs (Television Rating Point). The sight of seeing two individuals peacefully putting across each other’s points of view sounds rather boring to most of them. What works? Get a few supposedly qualified individuals on the panel, give them an identity; left, right, centre and so on. Although the first few minutes go smoothly, in no time, the slanging match begins. This is deemed to provide gyanto the public and sadly this has become a benchmark for debates.

We have taken TRPs as an example, though there are a lot many issues that remain unaddressed. With the advent of the internet and social media platforms, the propensity to spread misinformation has increased manifold. For instance, it has become easy to constantly target members belonging to the minority communities so as to appease the majority community through various means, including new media dissemination techniques. Nupur Sharma, formerly BJP spokesperson, was rebuked by the Supreme Court for making controversial statements on national television, enraging an entire community. In its statement, the top court said, “…her loose tongue has set the entire country on fire.” To cite another example, in August 2022, the authorities arrested BJP MLA T Raja Singh for making offensive comments against Prophet Muhammed. As a result, BJP suspended the leader with immediate effect.

India, with the largest number of Facebook(330 million) and Instagram(230 million) users, is seeing the spread of misinformation and disinformation like wildfire. The internet too has groups divided into left, right and more; this inevitably closes all doors to have an open discussion sans group-oriented agendas. Now, almost every top publication has a dedicated desk to verify claims being made on the internet. Television channels, which are best equipped to empower citizens with legitimate and authentic information, have been indulging in petty gimmicks, making matters worse.

With respect to the World Press Freedom Index, India is currently ranked 150th among 180 countries and territories. This gives us an idea of how much the authorities care when it comes to freedom of the press. Unfortunately, many journalists in India bear the brunt of sedition charges for merely reporting truth that powers that be find bitter.

There is also this unnecessary pressure to take sides. We’ve been conditioned to it right from our childhood, be it in the name of religion, community, caste, or culture. Most of us have been told what to think, feel, and believe, starting from parents at home to teachers at school and finally politicians imposing their ideas on us. We are being gradually robbed of our ability to think independently.

A mind that has been stunted by an authority will never dare to question. As is known, India is left without a strong Opposition since the ruling party came to power in 2014. The efforts of the opposition parties are being stifled by a disgusting counter narrative. Of course, in politics one has to play dirty, but this doesn’t mean mindlessly labelling an individual for questioning. Afterall, questioning creates space for an open dialogue, right? If an individual fights for his/her basic rights, a few leaders from the ruling party label them as extremists, pseudo seculars, radicals and anti-nationals. In that case, should the toddlers who fight with their parents for chocolates be called extremists? In the current times, there is not a single party that is completely free from a scandal. Throughout contemporary times, one scandal or the other has come into the limelight with respect to various parties or their leaders.

The Pioneer approached Professor P.L. Vishweshwar Rao, a respected social activist, to dig deeper into the topic. “The entire electoral democratic process today is on the basis of religion and unfortunately, religion has become the opium of the masses…

You are not giving a development agenda and you want votes based on religion. Is the ruling party raising developmental issues? Are they saying we will preserve constitutional values? The institutions of the country are going to be compromised as a result of this rule. We’re going through a critical phase of democratic life where the institutions are in crisis. However, there is hope as there is enough vote bank available for other parties to make room for themselves.We are living in a world of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda, but ultimately there are sources that are striving hard to present the truth.

The youth must have an understanding about society, constitutional values, secularism, socialism, and democracy,” says Rao.

The word ‘extremist’ has a derogatory connotation attached to it. According to many dictionaries, a person who advocates extreme beliefs or ideas unreasonably is known as an extremist. Therefore, how does merely questioning policies and governance make one an extremist? Remember, they are not attacking one’s belief system, but asking the government some valid or maybe not-so-valid questions. Now, you target them, call them ‘anti national’, ‘radicals’ of the left, ask them to leave for the neighbouring countries, and provoke hardcore sentiments to engender violence? Who is an extremist now?

Prof Vishweshwar Rao points out why it is imperative to understand the context within which such terms(extremist, radicals, pseudo seculars, etc) are used. “Wherever there is suppression, people will naturally revolt and rebel. The state would like to give their own definition for the people who revolt; urban naxal, extremist, radical, etc. We have to understand the context of why these movements are growing. The state is violating our rights by not respecting the Constitution of the land. If the state doesn’t give me the right to exercise my Fundamental Rights, I will certainly have to fight for it. Does that make me an extremist? Dalits, Muslims and minorities are lynched; why is all this happening? When these definitions are given, one should look at why one is becoming an extremist? For example, the farmers’ strike went on for a year and some of them called them extremists! Some of them said those farmers were destabilising India. Who has coined them? All this coinage was by the police, The National Investigation Agency, the Home Ministry of Amit Shah and some of the social media as well.”

Here, the long-standing social activist cites some examples and questions the ruling party for dictating and imposing policies on citizens. “Implement what is written in the Constitution. We are a plural country and we have something called minority rights and privileges. We have got to look at this in a larger context. Now they are talking about Uniform Civil Court! How can there be a Uniform Civil Court? Marriage laws are not the same for everyone, is it? Alright! You have done away with Triple- Talaq, but why do you want to have a Uniform Civil Court? Can there be uniformity in a country like India, where there are multilingual, multireligious, and multicast sects? The idea of India is secularism, plurality, and religious tolerance. In Tamil Nadu, they want to impose Hindi and people are already opposing it. Does that make them extremists? In the 21st century can anyone have an education in Hindi? Won’t you be ruining generations to come? Any kind of imposition will result in rebellion.”

Journalism Professor Shayne Reynolds under scores the importance of having an open discussion about the issues that matter. “Open dialogue and discussion should be encouraged in a way that one doesn’t end up arguing and fighting … so that one finds consensus. It’s always the differences that are being pushed by the mainstream media because they know that controversies spread easily. What I’ve seen on the mainstream media is one person shouting at the other person. What’s lacking is the ability to listen to the other person and an urge to push our views on to the other person. The humility to say, “Why are they saying things so differently from what I am saying?” is completely missing. We need to figure out why such a huge gap exists in the way we think and react and try to bridge the gap,” observes Shayne.

On the condition of anonymity, a professor from the city, who is an expert on the country’s politics, agreed to share his honest opinion regarding the polarisation that is taking place in the country. In conversation with The Pioneer, Prabhu(name changed), said, “Open dialogue can take place only in a society where people are willing to listen to one another, to discuss and deliberate, and arrive at a mutually agreeable decision. With some give and take. However, of late, especially with the rise of the authoritarian brand of politics, and the cult of personality that has been cultivated around leaders like Trump, it is very difficult. The level of polarisation is immense, with people moving towards the far right or far left, away from the centre. Social media platforms with their tendency to encourage trolling, fake news, conspiracy theories, have contributed to this.One also needs to keep in mind that most of our political communication is taking place on social media. So, the space for open dialogue. Similarly, the rise of anchors like Arnab Goswami who have reduced television debates to histrionics have created a situation where sane, reasoned discussions are impossible to carry out.”

Adding further, he explained, “India is no exception to this trend; especially India’s right wing, which has adopted the strategy of deeming anyone who disagrees with any policy of the government as seditious or anti-Indian. Even balanced advice regarding major economic policies is no exception (look at what happened during demonetization).

This indicates a lack of basic competence and/or understanding when it comes to governance. When people lack competence or an understanding of how things like the economy or govt work, or do not have any meaningful political solutions to offer, they indulge in identity-based politics or culture wars which are very good at polarising the electorate. The success of religion or identity-based politics is actually proof of the internal weakness of such polities.”

In conclusion, to govern is to take into consideration the concerns of people. In a country that is as diverse as India, it is an uphill task to achieve absolute uniformity. Yet, it is plausible to stop dividing people in the name of caste, creed, religion and culture.
As one of our contributors to the article expressed, it is important to encourage open dialogue and discussion to understand one another’s problems. It is the need of the hour to analyse the game that some of the greedy politicians play in order to gain power. All they want is to ‘divide and rule’. It is time to raise our voices together as Indians and tell them: ‘Unite and prosper’.

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