The strange emptiness of democracy

August 15 becomes a summons for the past and an invitation for the future. Our Constitution needs to rejoin the school of freedom to create a vocabulary that is more life-giving.
Image used for representation purpose. ( Illustration | Soumyadip sinha)
Image used for representation purpose. ( Illustration | Soumyadip sinha)

Every time I sit down to write a report on August 15, I immediately compare it to January 26. Republic Day exudes a sense of carnival, while Independence Day exudes gravitas and solitariness of being. While January 26 invokes an exhibition of communities, August 15 emphasises the distinct identity. The moods and milieu are different. Republic Day is a costume ball of diversity, while Independence Day insists on a report card, an assessment of the nation. I must confess that this year, my assessment is a grim one.

First, the very idea of India itself is at stake. India no longer projects a playful sense of civilisation. We now invoke the grim terminology of “nation-state”. Worse, we demand a textbook assessment of competence and productivity. India is no longer obsessed with excellence but with ranks. We want to be indexically conceived and read as a battery of rankings; we are content to be a middle-rung nation-state—we have lost our sense of originality and creativity.

We are mediocre and majoritarian. Our majoritarianism is a search for consensus. We are not seeking solidarity but consensus, preparing for uniformity and standardisation. In fact, we are afraid of differences and plurality. Consensus and majoritarianism find their consolation in the logic of numbers.

What consolidates the banality of numbers and consensus is violence. Violence has become one of the most inventive aspects of our lives, creating new forms of elimination and brutality, which are systematised through acts of triage, obsolescence and displacement. Violence is part of the ritual of every day. It is normal. Violence heralds every election as a prelude where it becomes an attempt to reinforce old solidarities.

Violence is an endemic part of a policy, and discipline is enforced right from Muslim-majority areas to Manipur. Violence today is not sporadic. From the Gujarat riots to Manipur, violence normalises policy. It is systemic, or in Modi’s words, it must be normalised. That is, it has to be banalised, routinised and made part of the ritual of everyday expectations.

Haunting majoritarianism is mediocrity, fear of ideas and paranoia about dissent. Majoritarianism makes mediocrity comfortable, and any dissent is read as a law-and-order problem. This nexus between majoritarianism, mediocrity and violence makes citizenship a haphazard and unsettled affair. The Orwellian world of the current regime invents a range of non-being, eliminations and dilutions of citizenship.

Citizenship—rather than being fortified and substantial—has been emptied out. It does not even stand as hope anymore, as events in the Northeast, Kashmir and elsewhere show. Citizenship becomes a surreal and haunting emptiness, a stigmatisation of the person as alien as he or she becomes the new non-being of the constitutional regime. Whether it is Assam, Myanmar or Manipur, citizenship, rather than guaranteeing hospitality and residency, becomes a Kafkaesque process to which everyone is subject. Citizenship has become a fragile term, a ritual of vulnerability as one recollects the everyday horrors enacted in the police station.

As a society, India needs new concepts to redeem the fragility and temporariness of civics and create a world where a Constitution keeps its promise. The trumpeting of the rights says little because they create a corseted world which makes few allowances for the everyday fragility of life.

As citizenship empties, so does civil society. The institutions that helped create civil society all become cheap imitations of their former selves, and reports of governance consolidate this status. The NEP is a good example; the quiz rather than the research paper becomes the model of intelligence. Originality is lost in a flood of predictable answers. It is not the growth of the original ideology anymore but the proliferation of information, where information exists without a theory of knowledge. Knowledge as epistemology disappears. Also, an intuitive sense of diversity is lost. What India misses is its intuitive genius of plurality. Instead of celebrating difference, diversity and dissent, we are embarrassed by it.

The word ‘Urban Naxal’ and the treatment meted out to Stan Swamy reflect the symptoms of the time. It reflects the violence we inflict on a difference we cannot manage. We eliminate a Stan Swamy without remorse or mourning. What Stan Swamy firmly represents as an individual, Shaheen Bagh reflects as a collective mentality, a statement of care and solidarity with the other. A colonial mindset still dominates the ruling regime in India. Modi was right to redo Parliament. The Lutyens syndrome exists happily in India.

The years of freedom have shown that the Constitution as a mode of civics and knowledge has to be reworked. Instead of revoking the Forest Act, we have to rework the idea of ‘nature’ in the Constitution, transforming it from a commoditised resource to a form of life. The concept of ecology must be reworked in the Constitution, linking life, livelihood, life-world and lifestyle.

Time must be rethought beyond sustainability. I remember one tribal scholar responding to the Brundtland Report by saying we must go beyond linearity as a dominant mode of thought.

Citizenship has to be reworked as an idea of hospitality to make space for the refugee, the migrant and the informal economy. One needs a Truth Commission to rework the marginal imaginations of the country. A world of rights has to be embedded in the world of commons, especially when the idea of rights borders on the hypocritical. India needs a new imagination for legislation to create a new set of life-giving structures.

August 15 becomes a summons for the past and an invitation for the future. Time has to be reworked beyond official calendars. Our Constitution needs to rejoin the school of freedom to create a vocabulary that is more life-giving, challenging the genocidal forces that we have internalised today. We need new forms of memory and remembrance to challenge the old styles of indifference and forgetting. New concepts of memory have to combine with new ideas of the world to forge a new vision of India as a workable, liveable and lovable entity.

Shiv Visvanathan

Social scientist associated with THE COMPOST HEAP, a group researching alternative imaginations

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