By Divya Parmar
I wake up to the sounds of notifications and my phone screen is spammed with updates from all around the world. Too much information gushing in is attested with varied public opinions influenced by the so-called social media “influencers”. FOMO (Fear of missing out) adds to this rush giving an extra kick to my anxiety adrenaline. As the day proceeds with exchanges of reciprocity and conversations building up, I sense a hint of intolerance in them. It troubles me.
It is surely pleasant to see greater indulgence and interactions happening around the existing state of affairs in India and around the world. There are a plethora of discourses ranging from political debates to societal injustices, from rationality in religion to the dismal state of democratic institutions, the share market rally to the surging Covid cases. The existence of this public discourse is the food for democracy, and the accessibility to global information at the fingertips has helped in the process. However, biased, prejudiced and irrational opinions taking over these discourses raise alarm bells. More often than not, people put others’ agency and rights below because of their own choices, religious and political lineages, and existing power structures. Such judgmental behavior that prone the Indian society leads to incidents like comedians getting arrested for a joke not even made!
Owing to such generalized behaviour, the conversations surrounding ongoing farmers’ protests in India essentially boiled down to the question of who is right, instead of what is right. The three contentious farm laws passed by the Indian Parliament in September 2020 did not strike the right chord with all the Indian farmers alike. A series of peaceful protests marked by restraint and prudence began in August 2020. But the farmers’ cause took a significant blow on Republic Day with a violent turnaround of events at the Red Fort and other parts of the national capital, Delhi. The incident was unjustifiable and despised on all grounds. However, this hiccup changed the narrative of protests from farmers’ demands to the illegalities and the state’s suppressing powers.
Soon, the entire debate shifted from the relevancy of the laws to the conduct of fringe elements. The reforms in agriculture are long pending and much needed. While the credibility of farm laws lied in its reform-based agenda, the policymakers lacked addressing stakeholder concerns. Debates and deliberations inside and outside the constitutional premises of the Parliament and proper communication to fizzle out the underlying anxieties were mainly missing in the central government’s strategy. Amidst all this chaos, the point of contention in social interactions was narrowed down to alleged conspiracy, sovereignty, delegitimizing, and framing the protestors and their supporters as anti-nationals. Advocators of peace and human rights in India and abroad should understand that supporting the government does not necessarily mean being against the farmers or their democratic right to peaceful protest. Similarly, sharing solidarity with the farmers should not be narrowly interpreted as disbelief in the government’s reformative actions and intentions. Why is this polarization taking place?
Recently, owing to the crackdown on civil liberties, democratic backsliding by the authorities, and undermining of the secular conceptualization of citizenship, Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2020 dubbed India as a ‘flawed democracy’. It has slipped to 53rd rank in the index, a fall of 26 positions since 2014. This indicates the poor state of liberalism in the country that needs urgent attention and deliberation. Even for a majoritarian government, authoritarianism can never be a substitute for dialogue and confidence-building measures. These latter concepts are seminal to retain the goodwill of the citizens who brought the government to power in the first place. And this hinges upon the quality of conversations our society engages in.
Selective and convenient interventions initiated either by authorities like the judiciary or the public are likely to derail the conversation. A difference of opinion is expected to occur in the process, and hence, it becomes crucial to understand and respect them. While stereotyping a person based on his/her take on one subject at a given point in time degrades our society. It also leads to missing out on the essential questions to be asked.
How does the government plan to resolve farmers’ apprehensions while furthering the agricultural reform agenda instead of maligning their campaign and fortifying the city? What policies will address the mounting education gap among the young generation due to school and college closures amidst the pandemic? How can the efficacy of the right to free education and the equitability of online education be ensured today? The mental well-being of the people who lost their loved ones, who are distressed due to job losses and future obscurity are paramount developmental issues to think about, besides economic revamp and fractured Indian health infrastructure. The responsible authorities should be made answerable to these questions.
There is a pressing need to converge ideological extremities with open and healthy conversations. Let skepticism out of the box with only informed opinions and debates. Feeding our pseudo-intellectual selves with half-baked influencer stories and sensational biased news serves no good. Instead of indulging in social media banters and hashtag wars, picking out on people who think differently, it is imperative to develop these conversations constructively and reach conclusions empathetically. This way, people like me struggling with online versions of almost everything, amidst this pandemic, will find some solace.
 Salam, Zobia. “If a Comedian Can Be Arrested for a Remark He Didn’t Make, Is the Joke on Us?” The Wire, January 11, 2021. https://thewire.in/rights/jokes-on-us-comedian-jailed-bjp-political-comedy-satire
 Mustafa, Faizan. “An Expert Explains: The arguments for and against the three central farm laws.” The Indian Express, September 29, 2020. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/an-expert-explains-farm-acts-and-federalism-6622769/
 ET. “India falls to 53rd rank in EIU’s Democracy Index, dubbed as flawed democracy.” The Economic Times, February 04, 2021. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/india-falls-to-53rd-position-in-eius-democracy-index-dubbed-as-flawed-democracy/articleshow/80665859.cms
Cover art: Leslie Hunter’s Figures in conversation, Étaples, 1914.
About the Author
Divya Parmar is an Indian graduate student at the School of Public Policy and Governance in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. She has also been a Management student and holds a diploma in Creative Writing. She looks forward to learning public policy’s nitty-gritty, exploring, and framing her perspective with a zeal to write.