Importance of dialogue in democracy

At a time when electoral democracy is ossifying in majoritarian authoritarianism, minorities are reinventing a direct and dialogic democracy.

Published: 26th January 2023 12:27 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th January 2023 12:27 AM   |  A+A-

Illustration | Soumyadip Sinha

One of the beautiful aspects of democracy is its sense of diversity and complexity. When the official theories of democracy are wearing out and its major concepts look mouldy, democracy is busy reinventing itself at the margins. At a time when electoral democracy is ossifying in majoritarian authoritarianism, minorities are reinventing a direct and dialogic democracy. This experiment in dialogic democracy has as its roots the dialogue of religions. This creation myth is reinvented and applied to culture, science, and politics. As a Jesuit scholar explained to me, minorities are tired of being labelled as minorities. The label of minority is half-stigma, half-uniform. “As a minority I am subject to a majority and have to pass its loyalty tests. I am tired of being a minority, I want to celebrate my citizenship as an Indian,” the scholar said.

The dialogue of religion and democracy are reinvention exercises. They challenge the indirectness and the distance representative democracy creates by reinventing the intimacy of the face to face. Dialogues rework memories and reinvent not just democracy but the original idea of enlightenment. In the original slogan of liberty, equality and fraternity, the first two concepts were strong in Western thought. But fraternity as a theory of difference was weak. The enlightenment theories of difference such as tolerance, liberalism, and secularism failed to work beyond a point. Democracy needed to re-theorise diversity, and so dialogue became the instrument for that. Dialogue is essentially an adventure exploring difference.

As the philosopher and theologian Raimundo Panikkar put it, “Dialogue is a pilgrimage into the domain of the other so that one can discover oneself.” The other survives in all its creative difference between play, plurality, and pilgrimage. Dialogue in fact becomes a trusteeship of difference.

One witnessed the creativity and inventiveness of such an exercise at the Dialogues Conference at the Dharmaram Academy in Bengaluru recently. The seminar hosted over 40 philosophers, about 30 Tibetan monks, and a medley of theologians, and became a festival of tribal and Dalit activists and intellectuals. The arguments were fresh and went beyond the cliches of the postmodern. The Christian theologians asked what it meant for Asia to go beyond a Christian West. The Dalits challenged the ossification of the idea of the subaltern by saying that Dalits are not reducible to diaspora. The tribals pushing the indigenista ideas argued that Christianity had impoverished ecology and destroyed their livelihood. The young Tibetan monks suggested that Tibetans in exile are not merely diasporic but added to the imaginations of difference in India. Exile is not a passive state but an invitation to reinvention.

The power of dialogue reappears in some recent experiments. Probably the most powerful was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was that moral point where the violence of the anti-apartheid guerrilla gave way to the non-violent Satyagrahi. Mandela appointed Desmond Tutu in charge of the commission.

Tutu, an Anglican Bishop who won the Nobel Peace Prize, was a relaxed theologian. He joked about himself, claiming only in his name did TU and TU make four. He listened patiently to the Anglo-Saxon critique, which held that neither the Apartheid nor the Holocaust could be forgiven. He conceded that he admired the achievements of Anglo-Saxon law.

He then added that African cosmology had a different solution as its folklore created the concept and theatre of forgiveness through the folk cosmology of Ubuntu. Scene after scene at the Truth Commission attested to Tutu’s insight. A woman confronts a man who tortured her son and tells him: “I can live without my son but you cannot survive without my forgiveness.” In another, a torturer washes the feet of his victim as an appeal for reconciliation.

The Truth Commission as an idea is fascinating. The Truth Commission, people realise, is an act of ethical repair, and societies subject to violence need desperate healing. Forgiveness has to be part of the ritual healing of any democratic imagination. The repeated suggestion is to look for exemplars who can apply it to Kashmir or the Northeast.

Another case study is the tragic fate of oral languages in India. The Centre defined language as any form of life with a script, thus exiling over 2000 languages. As Ganesh Devy once said, it reduced the tribal to silence.

Dialogue has to be seen as an act of trusteeship, a revival of memory, and a battle against official obsolescence. A simple suggestion made at an anthropology seminar was that every school should acquire a trusteeship of one fading language, one dying craft, and one near-extinct species. Dialogue becomes a life-giving act of culture. Diversity needs the trusteeship, the myth, and the gossip of dialogue to sustain culture. Only a dialogic culture can have 300 Ramayanas. Recently, filmmaker Sashikanth Ananthachari shot a documentary of a village in Chennai that sustains over 70 versions of the Ramayana as an act of trusteeship, without government support.

Another fascinating suggestion made was that dialogue was not just preservative but inventive. One example was suggested decades ago by the Dalit critic D R Nagaraj, who proposed the possibility of a Dalit science. A Dalit theory was not enough. One needed a Dalit science built out of a Dalit sense of smell, waste, and sound. A Dalit sensorium would alter the imagination of a city. The Dalit experience of waste would make sustainable economics real and life more equitable. There is humour, creativity, and laughter in dialogue.

One remembers the Dalai Lama’s remark that George Bush’s speeches bring out the Muslim in him. The Dalai Lama has created dialogues between Buddhism and science both at MIT and through the efforts of his translator Matthieu Ricard. In fact, Ricard’s conversation with his father, the philosopher Jean-François Revel, is an example of dialogic imagination at play. The point is simple: Politics by itself becomes arid. It needs the humus of culture to be both subtle and simple.

Sadly, in recent times, electoral democracy has overplayed the role of number, especially as articulated in majoritatianism. The Indigenista movement in Latin America, the Occupy movement in the USA, and the third-world dialogue of religions, are all adding to the imagination of democracy. A new world is being created and the future cannot be deaf to it. India needs to celebrate the power of this imagination.

Shiv Visvanathan

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


India Matters


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  • SK

    8 years of Modi dialog govt is far superior to the 50+ years of corrupt khangress majoritarian autocracy.
    4 months ago reply
  • Murthy

    Dialogue is important. For the first sixty years of 'free' India there was a tyranny of Congress majoritarianism. Our med
    4 months ago reply
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