Paradoxically, many of the social forces which derive strength from the grassroots are becoming intolerant of dissent and diversity of opinion at grassroots in different parts of the country.
On one hand, social media is criticised – and not for completely wrong reasons – for keeping millions of people busy with trivia. On the other, it is also providing space for people to express their opinion freely. Public memory being very short, such issues fade away rather fast. The youth of today has not been told much about the situation that existed during emergency in 1975-77. Most of them take freedom for granted.
Those of us who experienced the situation firsthand have not necessarily become champions of freedom. The result is that a lot of discussion takes place underground and through whispers which is more dangerous than explicit diversity of opinion. Whenever information is not exchanged across the counters, the corridors become alive. Every institution builder or system manager has to remember that by chocking the feedback channels, we put too much pressure on the safety valves.
There are five kinds of fears that prevent people from sharing their or inhibit them to support those who do speak out. First is the fear of being isolated and thus labelled or targeted through shame or ridicule. In a culture where congruence and compliance are put at such a high premium, it is not surprising that so many should remain quite when they should actually speak out.
The second fear is that of losing friends and supporters who may have a contrary viewpoint. In our society, dissent is often confused with disrespect, not realising that it is the diversity and dissent which fertilise our imagination. Indian bureaucracy can become much more buoyant if only it puts premium in expressing honest opinion.
The third fear is of retribution. The state can use coercive power as it did in West Bengal and Maharashtra and several other states by arresting a dissenter. Despite more than six decades of debate on the subject, bureaucracy still uses disadvantaged regions as the site of punishment of posting. The fourth fear is the worry that once labelled or censored, future opportunities may be denied. And the fifth fear is the perceived loss of certain privileges or entitlements.
Many of these fears can be easily overcome and that is why fortitudinous capacity, whether in the form of whistle blower or an explicit dissent, is appreciated even when it is evident quite infrequently. Recent cases demonstrate that social respect and support for dissenters is slowly increasing. A large number of people are aware of the timidity and are not hesitant in making compromises but they have a respect for those who stand up for what they believe in.
The challenge before us is how to create an environment where dissenters don’t feel inhibited in expressing their view so that social discourse becomes more inclusive and pluralistic. It also means that the authoritarian structure of the family itself needs to change. Children must learn as early as possible that it pays to express their view even if it is extremely unpopular and a minority view. They should not be asked to keep quiet when elders talk, as is customary.
At the end of the day, there is a trade-off between not having a view and thus not involving oneself in the debate versus having a view and expressing it or choosing to have a view with or without expression.
The intolerance for dissent, exclusion of the minority and lack of consideration for the disadvantaged cannot be sustained in a democratic society in the long term. But, these attitudes can generate support in the short term. Rise of authoritarianism hurts the authoritarian leader the most.
Vibrant societies are characterised by pluralistic environment permitting a hundred of flowers to bloom. I hope that the youth will stand up more and more often for the views and positions that are inclusive and at the same time, imaginative to make India a compassionate and collaborative society.
The author is a professor at IIMA