City City Bang Bang, Columns

2013: Time for a societal dialogue?

It is not easy to sum up 2012 without a deep feeling of despair. If 2011 was the year in which some fundamental structural issues with our political system were exposed, 2012 seems to have not only deepened our understanding of those shortcomings, but also made us alive to the deepening fissures in society. This was a terrible year in terms of crimes against women with the brutal gang rape of the young girl in Delhi and the subsequent callousness and insensitivity shown by the political class, underlined the fact that gender discrimination is deeply embedded into the societal fabric.

If one were to try and tease out some patterns underlying the events of this year, they might broadly fall under two, somewhat related heads. For one, we are beginning to see the tentative first steps towards the formation of the idea of citizenry; the notion that as citizens there exists a reciprocal responsibility to not only respond to one’s immediate environment, but also play an active role in managing it. Over the last couple of years, the interest in directly influencing modes of governance has grown; democracy as a practice is increasingly detaching itself from the narrow idea of elections. The political class has not understood this change; one has only to look at the fact that in the recent protests in Delhi, virtually no elected representatives, not even local politicians, were involved. When a movement that holds the nation’s attention with such intensity fails to stir the representatives of people even a little bit, the schism between citizenry and the polity can be deemed to be enduring.

The other pattern that has emerged is the deepening divide in society. If the gang rape case underlines the deeply misogynistic character of society even today, 2012 saw many incidents that underline the struggle to reconcile the many contrasting pulls and pressures that have followed in the wake of sweeping change over the last few years. It is now clear that the new came without any accompanying compass, and asked questions of the old that it did not have answers to. The larger question of change penetrating beneath the skin of the modern, into our everyday lives, and finding genuine and widespread acceptance is the really big one that we are left grappling with.

A lot has been said about the sickness that lies within society and the need to change mindsets. The trouble is that society cannot be hectored into change, no matter how just the cause. Social change needs a whole ecosystem of actions, but above all it needs a real dialogue. We have seen unprecedented change in India that has come without any mechanism to justify itself or explain its implications. A small section of society has embraced enormous change and now looks at the rest of India with uncomprehending and often judgmental eyes. No intermediary mechanisms exist that would interpret this change and find place for it in the traditional way of life. The state does not function adequately nor do its institutions offer clear benchmarks, the market creates a sense of surface modernity while simultaneously reinforcing existing prejudices, and traditional institutions like the panchayat and religion have not really done their bit in making the new intelligible to the old, often acting to the contrary.

Along with pushing for comprehensive reform that makes the legal framework more effective both in concept and delivery, it is also important to carry out a sustained societal dialogue. This is not the same as one section lecturing to another or ‘educating’ them from a superior vantage point, but a genuine dialogue between peers that addresses each other’s anxieties and aspirations. So many Indians are experiencing things for the first time in their lives. New freedoms need new boundaries, which in turn requires a framework that is relevant for the times. The old sources of authority that drew boundaries cannot make sense of the new, and no institutions are either facilitating a dialogue or stepping in to fill the void. The problems facing society have a lot to do with old mindsets being amplified by new freedoms, rather than being re-defined by them.

The fact is that change is happening across the board in India. Women, in particular are experiencing new freedoms and reveling in a greater sense of confidence and control that they increasingly have over their own lives. The need is to harness this and convert it into a deeper, more enduring reality. New conventions need to be formed; a new vocabulary of change needs to be established. The conversation needs to move away from the extremes to the centre, and the progress made, even if partial, needs to be welcomed and encouraged. Platforms that allow for people, not just politicians or commentators, to communicate on a broad range of issues, are vital to fostering such dialogue. So much has been said about India’s economic progress but very little is being communicated about the social change that has been embraced nor have been any real conversations about the questions that have been thrown up as a result.

There was a time when the sense of right and wrong was received as a legacy from the past. The definitions were by no means perfect but clarity certainly prevailed about was deemed desirable and what was not. As the past loosens its grip on us and we emerge as individuals that voluntarily organise ourselves as citizens sharing a common present and shaping a common future, we need to develop our own compass. The time to act exclusively as critics observing our lives must give way to becoming participants in determining not just the course of our life, but also play a role in framing the rules that govern it. And it is only when this compass has broad agreement across all sections of society that a common moral and ethical framework can get developed. For that there is no alternative to putting pressure on institutions to draw and guard the outer boundaries of behaviour and to negotiate through mutual dialogue, all that lies in between.