The JNU row has once again emphasised an interesting fact of our public life — lack of respect for truth. This less talked about fact of our public discourse seems ironical in a country which has words like — Satyamev Jayte in its national emblem. Debate over JNU has just, once again, proved that half and convenient truths are cherished more in our society.
JNU is just a stark example. If you are keeping track of any public discussion, you can almost predict as to what a particular person is going to speak. Even words and phrases can be predicted. This is applicable not only to established political parties and groups but also to individuals. All the recent debates, like the one on beef eating or issue of tolerance or death of Rohith Vemula, have seen sharply divided arguments which have no room for a contrarian view.
If we look at JNU row dispassionately, after so many days two facts have clearly emerged. One, a group of students indulged in seditious anti-national sloganeering. Two,Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Student Union and his supporters were wrongly assaulted in Patiala House Court by some lawless lawyers. During every debate, the clearly divided camps have harped on one of these two parts of the story.
One side have been bashing students for anti-national activity on the university campus and roaring to hang them for the sin. The other camp is defending the students tooth and nail. They do not even want to talk about anti-national slogan issue and blame police and advocates for all the ruckus. JNU has brought to the fore the issue of unbending opinions but our public discourse is afflicted by this problem of extremes otherwise also. There are not many people who would speak their mind taking all facts into consideration and leaving personal biases aside. The people who can listen and give respect to an opposite view are further scarce.
Take for example, the burning issue of reservation for Jats. Cutting across party lines, most of the Jat leaders are in favour of this demand. Some are openly fighting for it whereas some others are fanning the fire from behind the doors. It is difficult to find a Jat leader who would oppose the demand. But the same Jat community and its leaders have been vehemently against reservation for other communities. Today the situation has changed and so have the arguments. Similarly, it is very difficult to find a person from any other community who would support reservation for Jats. This includes the people from communities which themselves are enjoying benefits of reservation for generations.
Electronic media has helped us in mastering the art of arguing for half and personal truths. In good old print media also, one could argue for a half-baked point. But when pitched face to face on TV, people can really go berserk. The 9 p.m. debates are all about shouting others down with bombardment of one-sided facts. It ultimately boils down to high volume and non-stop monologues. JNU row has taken this trend to a new level. Now, not only the participants but news anchors and debate moderators, who are expected to facilitate the debate without bias, have also joined the various camps, sometimes in lead roles.
With a stubborn opinion and control over camera angle and volume buttons, an anchor can really defeat all the panellists and also the very purpose of a debate. Panellists are anyways selected on basis of their capacity to put forth a strong rather than balanced views. With anchor joining one of the sides, debates are really getting bewildering.
It is natural that in any panel discussion, experts from debate related fields are invited so that viewers can get a comprehensive view of things. But most of the time, these experts become advocates for a cause with single focused arguments. For example, if a debate is taking place on human rights issues, a person with police or army background will invariably defend security forces even if the excesses are glaring and tend to justify blatant acts of human rights violations also. On the other hand, if a panellist is from a human rights NGO, he would habitually condemn forces without any consideration to the ground situation and even on blatantly false allegations.
It is not that both sides don’t know the truth. They are not ignorant of the other part of the story. But they presume that they have been invited to defend one side at any cost. Truth is not important here. Defending half-truth is. Sometimes, passion to defend a particular point of view overtakes basic decency also. People shouting at each other and trying to shut the other by unstoppable high pitch argument is so common on national channels. The ideal of Voltaire to give one’s life for even an opponent’s right to put forth his views is probably too lofty for us Indians. But one can always value the idea of Anekantwad of our own Lord Mahaveer which says that truth has many facets.
We all can see a part of it depending on our respective situations. But that may not be the truth in totality. What others can see may also be equally true. Defending one’s view comes naturally to all of us but allowing and appreciating others’ point of view is becoming so uncommon now.
Lack of courage to simply say sorry is another sad part of our public discourse. You can find people defending the indefensible whereas a simple expression of regret could close a chapter.
Raising slogans to break India in pieces was a clear and indefensible mistake on part of the concerned students of JNU. Because they cannot defend it, most of them don’t want to talk about it. Some are saying they were not present at the spot. Some others have been captured on camera. A plea of absence is not available to them. Hence they claim to have kept silent during the ruckus. But none of the slogan-shouting students have said a simple sorry to the nation.
Like personal life, in public space also this five-letter word can change things dramatically. But we argumentative Indians are more comfortable with shouting down the opponent to defend our mistakes rather than offer a simple apology.
The author is an IPS officer. The views are personal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org