Do not disagree
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Blaming NGOs reveals the diminishing space for dissent in our democracy
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's stray remarks on NGOs have unwittingly revealed two bitter truths about Indian democracy. First, Indian democracy has diminishing place for dissent. Second, our diminishing capacity for dissent paradoxically stems from a government that is both technocratic and weak.
On the surface, Indian democracy has a cacophony of voices. But if you scratch the surface, dissent in India labours under an immense maze of threats and interdictions. Of course, NGOs should be transparent and accountable in terms of their sources of funding. And the reporting requirements for NGOs are immense. It is not the threat that NGOs pose that should worry us; it is the ease with which government can go after them. However, what was disturbing about the prime minister's remark is its construction of what dissent is about. We all pay lip service to the idea that in a democracy there can be genuine differences. But the only terms in which we can understand deep disagreement is by constructing it as extraneously motivated. Nothing is more fatal for disagreement and dissent than the idea that all of it can be reduced to hidden sub-texts or external agendas. You may be a supporter of Bt brinjal or nuclear energy. But you ought to worry if we became a culture in which no one was spooked after Fukushima, or suspicious of data on agricultural technologies. The idea that anyone who disagrees with my views must be the carrier of someone else's subversive agenda is, in some ways, deeply anti-democratic. It does away with the possibility of genuinely good faith disagreement. It denies equal respect to citizens because it absolves you from taking their ideas seriously. Once we have impugned the source, we don't have to pay attention to the content of the claims. The necessity of democratic politics arises precisely because there is deep, good faith disagreement. Reducing disagreement to bad faith betrays a subconscious wish of doing away with democratic politics.
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