The growing ‘democratic deficit’

Sixty years of indifference and the throttling of the public sphere in India

Democratic deficit is American linguist Noam Chomsky’s term for describing the fatal inability of institutions within a democratic state to contribute positively towards sustaining democratic principles; indeed, systems that perform the opposite function by choking information, dialogue, dissent and crucial sharing of opinion. 

Within a worldwide emerging doctrinal system, democratic agencies that deliver educational, administrative, electoral, judicial or communicational and media functions turn sclerotic and conspire to cook up a ‘permitted democracy’ where crucial subjects hardly enter the realm of public discussion, depriving the public largely of the opportunity to form considered opinions. 

A system of shadow-boxing emerges, within which democracy is acceptable only if it is consistent with strategic and economic interests. The day-to-day engagements, so necessary to create a functioning democratic culture within which the public can play a role in determining policies, is effectively throttled. This means a deliberate rollback of the state and the active promotion of social buccaneering. 

Since the ‘public sphere’ is already an integral element of the bourgeois state, any dent in the role of the state can only lead to a guillotining of the idea of the ‘public sphere’. 

The emergence of ‘public sphere’ as a notional device during the long passage from a monarchical to a more open, democratic form of society was conceived as a level playing field for plural and contesting interests to enter into dialogue. It was premised upon the abstract existence of an independent ‘critical-rational’ space within daily life, which took one to social commons like the market, the theatre, the media, the library, the public transport or the club. 

The manner in which scholars of the Frankfurt School posited the idea, there was an emancipatory aspect to the notion of the ‘public sphere’, as it opened out hitherto closed or controlled areas of a citizen’s life under more totalitarian systems and thereby tended to extend the formal limits of democracy.

Within the binary counterposing of ‘state’ and ‘society’, the ‘public sphere’ found legitimisation as a site for contestatory public opinion that would provide the check and balance against arbitrary exercise of the state’s authority or a deviation from any rule of law. 

Thus, in an ideal sense, the ‘public sphere’ necessarily encourages both, a diversity of opinion and practice as well as the conditions for dissent from majoritarian pressures. The theorists, however, failed to sufficiently delineate the nuances between, say, a bourgeois ‘public sphere’ and a socialist ‘public sphere’. 

The distinction would have been both substantial and significant. It would have alerted us to the trajectory of the ‘public sphere’ over at least the past fifty years, as having been a flight path that successfully achieved a high degree of information denial, advertisement induced consumer slavery, mass surveillance, media generated dumbing down and collective hysterical behaviour thriving on pathological violence.  

It would also have emphasised the need to comprehend the idea of the ‘public sphere’ as a dynamic and constantly forming one, and not as something frozen in time and space as an institution ‘out there’ and to be taken for granted.

It would have further informed us of the recurring possibility of the vitiation of this sphere every time the state undergoes corporatisation, meaning, when the democratic agenda is hijacked in a unidirectional manner towards solely serving the purposes of the elites. 

Right from the outset of the Indian nation state, the public sphere has been a stillborn baby. If, even after sixty years, our statistics throw up absurd figures like 44 per cent of the population living on less than US $1 a day or, in other words, 440 million people (double the population of America) living on less than Rs 40 a day, the notion of the ‘public sphere’ becomes largely abstract. It, in fact, becomes a space from where they can mount an attack on the infructuous state. It becomes a site for both lumpen and elite vigilantism, for mystical revivalism, for majoritarian fascism and for militant Maoism. 

The cultural commons and the discourse within it has now been systematically usurped by mainstream cinema with its cynical messages on the status quo or glorification of the violent hero or neurotic appeals to the divine. This has become the staple mass consumption. Supplementing it is the contagion of mass mysticism. Satsangs and bhajan mandalis have become the new polluters of the public mind where literally millions of people are administered their daily dose on the virtues of conformism to the brutal, savage society they live within.  

The fight against Maoist resurgence takes the form of private landlord militias like Salwa Judum on the one hand and massive state mobilisation on the other to "flush out" the "Naxalite menace". The entire language is as if that of mosquito eradication with not even a token concession to the possibility that this movement (albeit violent) from below might be a marker, a window to the real frustrations and exhaustion of patience of a large number of people. Instead, almost one third of India running vertically "from Pashupatinath to Tirupatinath" is dubbed a "red corridor" and a staggering budget of some Rs 12,000 crore is earmarked to carry out "aerial assaults" on them with devices including ‘Agent Orange’ – last heard of being used in the killing fields of Vietnam. 

Or take the consequences of some five decades of annual floods in Bihar, brought about by the entirely non-democratic mechanism of building embankments to contain the north to south flowing rivers in that state. The whole exercise has turned monster and systematically submerges thousands of villages every year, taking lives and snatching livelihood. Over 2.5 million people in Bihar today reportedly live on top of these narrow embankments, as they have nowhere else to go. The rest of India perhaps doesn’t even know this. And this is boom time for the media, with papers and channels sprouting faster than scruff on young chins. But the Indian media has collectively decided that it will now stay entirely with ‘good times’ India. As a crucial player in the ‘public sphere’ it will operate within a cordon sanitaire and insulate its middle class consumers from disturbing realities.  

Take the other monstrosity, Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Extensive areas, which were once rural districts, are being turned into SEZs. This again is one of the most un-debated and undemocratic activities of our times, where large chunks of land and other resources like water, power, labour, etc are written off in favour of single-minded economic extraction. People living in such zones then get recalibrated as criminals or lawbreakers if they make any claims to a sense of ‘residence’. 

Or consider the deafening national silence over the proposals of the National Commission on Creative and Cultural Industries – total silence in the media and in every other public sphere. Not even a single editorial in any language or a public symposium in any language on a proposal that promises to mop up Rs 60,000 crore by parasitising on the crafts and artistic base of the nation. This can only be construed as a victory of the market management of the ‘public sphere’ within which large-scale silence can be interpreted as consent and artificially manufactured opposition can be interpreted as ‘public will’. 

The past weeks must have been particularly difficult and alarming for all those who put store by the growth of democratic institutions and the consolidation of a healthy, supple, responsible ‘public sphere’ in India. A wave of vigilantism seems to be mobilising and replacing the existing spaces of political negotiation.

And the cascading violence has also turned unrepentant. A lad in Palanpur is lynched for eloping with a girl. In Bhagalpur a petty thief is beaten up by a mob and then, in full view of television cameras, tied to a police motorcycle and dragged through the streets until he falls unconscious.  

Principals and professors of colleges are dragged out, assaulted and killed. Fatwas are issued for cross-dressed religious leaders in Punjab or feminist writers like Taslima Nasreen. The Bhandarkar Institute in Pune ends up endorsing the violent censorship that wrecked its own research library. Media institutions like Dinakaran in Madurai and Outlook in Mumbai are ransacked and torched for ‘opinion polls’ that disseminate results unpalatable to some parties. Caste panchayats across the country now increasingly determine how people should live or dress or love or marry.  

Films like Fire, Water, Parzania, Jo Bole So Nihal, Rang De Basanti, Jashn-e-Azadi, etc are attacked; plays like Ponga Pandit, The Vagina Monologues, etc are threatened, artists like MF Husain, Surendran Nair, Bhupen Khakhar, Arpita Singh, etc are pilloried. 

In the most bizarre of these incidents, the dean of the faculty of fine arts at the MS University, Vadodara, Prof Shivaji Panikkar is suspended for having upheld the law by supporting the fundamental and artistic rights of his student, Chandra Mohan, who was attacked by a mob that illegally entered the university premises.  

In an equally bizarre manner, Leela Samson, director of the Centre administered Kalakshetra, the revered school for Bharatanatyam and other arts in Chennai, is at the receiving end of an anonymous campaign vilifying her and insinuating that a ‘Christian’ director is bound to be detrimental to the ‘Hindu’ character of the institution. 

Since the deliberate ravaging of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 in full media glare, and with absolutely no one being brought to book for it, one can trace a new era of right wing activism that has been set in motion, in which strategic mob action unleashes rounds of violence in the public sphere, claiming injury to specific honour or pride or identity. 

Of course, it must be mentioned that the blueprint for this was drawn up earlier, in 1984, during the all India anti-Sikh riots in the wake of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. That is when the Indian state officially decided that it would henceforth speak through the mobs. 

Since 1992, however, the Hindutva brigades, proclaiming themselves custodians of social morality, have conducted several operations against beauty pageants, Valentine’s Day events, cricket matches with Pakistan, Michael Jackson and the Spice Girls, the Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali and so on.

The domain of artistic expression, in fact, has come in for special attention. Art criticism in India now comes with a cutting edge. Literally. Pens have been replaced by penknives. The new critics swing together in shoals of thirty, forty, hundred connoisseurs. They pay periodic visits to art galleries (like the one in Surat a few years ago) where they display equal interest in the works of pioneers of contemporary Indian art like the late NS Bendre, radical pioneers like KH Ara and MF Husain and young modernists like Chittrovanu Mazumdar; to stage plays (like Habib Tanvir’s Ponga Pandit in many towns of Madhya Pradesh); or even libraries of rare manuscripts (like the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune).  

Even as mainstream Indian media seems to collectively shut out serious arts coverage, comment or critique (rendering the individual ‘critic’ redundant), a new cabal of critics has taken to the streets. They fly diverse flags – the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, the Shiv Sena, the Sambhaji Brigade. Yet their critical sensibilities are distinguished by suspicious similarities. They believe in instant judgement and in swift enforcement of aesthetic yardsticks (and stones). Scar, tar, mar, is their preferred mode of critical practice. 

It is not an entirely new approach to art. Many hatchet men have romped through the portals of history, slashing a canvas here, lopping off an exposed breast there, hammering a sculpture elsewhere. The Taliban even carried out, with great success, missile target practice on the Bamiyan Buddhas. The complex structural and technical features of those awesome giant sculptures or even Buddha’s own beatitude seemingly had no calming influence on the rubble-masonry experts of artistic fundamentalism. 

The new Indian aesthetes (who seem to have no qualms about emulating the deep cultural tutelage of the Taliban) do not place much value on what ‘pleases’ in art. They focus selectively on what ‘offends’. And that’s a pretty broad criterion to apply. For, one can offend with anything. Humour, irony, sarcasm, candour, irreverence, imagined insults to imagined cultural values or traditions; anything can instigate their critical faculties. In the blink of an eye they can pull out their idle kerosene cans and matchboxes and apply their well-practised pyromania on the offending object. 

These ‘cultural zappeurs’ are forever alert and active. They track individual artists. They ambush auditoria. They throttle theatre. They are cynical of serious cinema. They dread documentaries. They get into hysterics with history. They cannibalise canvases. They gherao galleries. They parade their penchant for pinch-hitting. "Apologise, or else!" becomes their magic mantra for regulating a compliant art. 

Their steady list of victories, over the past decade and more, includes corralling individual artists like Husain while thoughtfully torching the Husain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmedabad which housed the Chester Herwitz collection of Husain’s works; amputating the work of leading Indian historians in exhibitions like Ham Sab Ayodhya in Faizabad and Delhi; terrorising scores of individual artists and writers; censoring filmmakers like Deepa Mehta or Mani Ratnam or even an entire festival like the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF). 

The ‘little man’ that political psychologist Wilhelm Reich so beseeched us to beware of has now turned critic. We are squarely into the era of an aesthetic of erasures where it is not creativity that will evoke pleasure but destruction. Here, destruction is the magical antiseptic in the hands of necrophilic agents, to be used on what seems "offensive and impure" in order to maintain social hygiene.  

Perhaps the day is not far when a casual tourist to our cities will be able to identify the location of a handful of art galleries there by the quantum of police bandobast around them. 

The more worrying issue is about the artists who have not been singled out and targeted or whose works are ‘non-objectionable’. What are they to make of themselves? Should they now preen at being certified ‘safe’ artists or should they voluntarily consign their works to the flames for not being good enough to provoke anyone? The essential premise of the post-classical foundations of art in modern times has been about the individual artist’s sacred right to self-expression – often against the grain. If classical art was considered divinely ordained and canonical, resulting in it becoming over-decorated and decadent, modern art has sought freedom to turn the canons upside down, to seek a more liberating human content.  

Poets, painters, playwrights, dancers, filmmakers, have functioned on the premise of an imperative need to assert their personal insights on the inner universe of the mind on the one hand and the outer world of social practices on the other, often coming up with views quite divergent from accepted beliefs or familiar and comfortable positions. Artists have claimed a space that has the potential to undermine, disturb, subvert, the status quo. In fact, their art consists in their very ability, in Italian semiotician Umberto Eco’s words, to perennially "carry out a new and subtle guerrilla warfare at the borders of meanings". This has been construed as their valuable civilisational contribution which, in turn, confers an aura upon the arts and artists.

 But violent chastisement for having transgressed imagined boundaries of the permissible is now considered a legitimate activity within parties of the Right. Way back in 1993, senior ideologues of the sangh parivar like LK Advani, KR Malkani and others attempted to publicly instruct MF Husain on how and what to paint. In 1996, VHP president Ashok Singhal cautioned Husain to "ceremonially burn" his "offending" paintings of Saraswati to demonstrate his "good intentions". A far more belligerent Uma Bharti had also recommended "psychiatric treatment" for Husain. 

Since those days in 1993, the art appreciation brigade of the Hindutva flank has not missed a trick in drumming up the bogey of uncontrolled art leading to social prurience, erosion of cultural values and, more significantly, simply being critical. It is hardly surprising now to hear Mr Advani doling out artistic advice to students of the Vadodara school of art, on the "limits of artistic freedom". 

There is a well-articulated middle class conceit that the cut/slash/rip/dig formula of art appreciation is the dark hubris of a loony fringe of the sangh parivar. They would assure us that these are small and isolated incidents whose perpetrators are mere lumpen madcaps and should not be confused with the otherwise sane and cultured lot of the parivar. Well, perhaps the news needs to be delivered to these worthies – the fringe has, in fact, usurped the field. 

The pleasures of destruction are unquestionable, as any child psychologist will corroborate. But extended into adulthood and the public sphere these merely become self-indulgent pleasures. As a society grows, it needs to find filters to curb this destructive tendency. All residues of it can only be termed malignant.  

What they surface as then, to the eternal shame of any claims to a democratic ‘public sphere’, is the kind of state instigated/supported genocide that we witnessed in Gujarat. For parties intent upon aggrandising the ‘public sphere’, one of the advantages of encouraging such deviant violence in citizens transformed into mobs is the well-known psychological fallout – Guilt. Their silence in the face of injustice and their complicity in guilt merely propels them into further cycles of escalating violence. Only this can explain the totally remorseless and sullen non-acceptance of the ‘Best Bakery’ savagery or the videos of the brutalities of the riots now circulating through video libraries in the state as ‘home entertainment’. 

It is clear that the existence of a supple and robust ‘public sphere’ has always been a well-nurtured myth of Indian participatory democracy. It is a myth that conflates the principle of ‘voting rights’ of citizens with the idea of ‘janata janardhan’ (people power), making out as if the sheer exercise of casting votes ensures the nurture and amplification of the ‘public sphere’. 

No one has explained more clearly than Herbert Marcuse (German-born philosopher, sociologist and member of the Frankfurt School), the blinding fallacy of this premise. Marcuse said, "Free election of masters abolishes neither masters nor slaves."  

Indian democracy has enabled a rapid formation of this ‘master’ class, which has successfully violated every principle of democratic politics. It has also substantially reneged on the idea of a ‘democratic commons’ that can not only inform democratic practice but create a community of activist-citizens who fiercely defend the systematic throttling of the ‘public sphere’. 

"I am tired; tired of the patience of my people," the ‘nightingale of India’, Sarojini Naidu had exclaimed in exasperation a decade before independence.

Six decades after independence, the marker of that collective ‘patience’ progressively translates as an increasing silence over the daily encroachments into the public sphere.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Polity



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