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We must agree to disagree

india Updated: Mar 06, 2011 13:22 IST
Namita Bhandare

Salman Khan tells a Pakistani TV channel that 26/11 was hyped because the elite were targeted. He is branded an anti-national.

Arundhati Roy has admittedly extreme views on nearly everything from Naxals to big dams. Her condemnation of the Indian state leads to the charge: she is an anti-national.

Congress MPs say the Commonwealth Games are linked to ‘India’s prestige’, criticism, therefore, is anti-national.
Unfortunately for them, the evidence of corruption, inefficiency and sheer shoddiness is so overwhelming that we’re all anti-national for raising our eyebrows. Yet, we continue to believe India’s image is somehow linked to these Games.

On national networks, anchors with no pretence to journalistic objectivity jump onto the national/anti-national bandwagon over the Kashmir issue: demands to dilute army presence are anti-national. And any mention of the ‘a’ word (as in az**i) makes you not only an anti-national but a Pakistani agent too.

I like the idea of belonging to a nation. I like standing up when the national anthem is played. I like the deep blue of my passport. And, yes, I hope as hell the Commonwealth Games go off without a hitch — as long as we nail the crooks afterwards.

I like the fact that I live in New Delhi and celebrate Ganesh Utsav as my husband’s grandparents did in Girgaum, Mumbai, taking my Ganpati idol for immersion into the Yamuna like hundreds of other Maharashtrians who live here. I like that our Constitution gives us the right to live anywhere, follow any religion (or none at all) and, with reasonable restrictions, practise free speech.

Yet ours is a complex democracy, with multiple voices, multiple identities and multiple problems. This has only been compounded with the growth in media platforms, including the internet and blogs, where this multiplicity finds expression.

But along with expression there’s also been a hardening of stands and an easy tossing about of labels: pseudo-secular, anti-national, chaddiwala etc. Our growing intolerance to listen to each other or accommodate dissenting opinions is frightening and goes against our understanding of what makes India great. It limits public discourse. I might not agree with Salman Khan or Arundhati Roy or the candle-wavers at the Wagah border, but as long as they’re not breaking the law, I recognise the right of every Indian to hold a view.

In our increasingly polarised public discourse, suspicion and labelling make for easy victims. If you’re a Christian and object to the killing and burning of churches in Kandhamal, you are suspect: it is your religious belief not conviction in humanity that prompts you to speak up. If Salman Khan says 26/11 was hyped because terror targets included luxury hotels — a view that has been expressed before — we conclude that he is speaking as a Muslim (and the fact that he is speaking to a Pakistani TV station inevitably leads us to question his loyalty to the nation).

The right to disagree and hold a contrary view is a fundamental right of any democracy. In our democracy, this becomes even more important because so many of us simply don’t have a voice: the tribals in Chhattisgarh, the stone-throwing children of Kashmir, the victims of terror attacks, the mothers of Manipur.

But the price of suppressing dissent is high. We’ve seen that in Kashmir where an incident-free year was seen as evidence of things returning to normalcy. Today, an anguished Sonia Gandhi asks, where is this anger coming from?
Perhaps it is coming from our refusal to listen to the rumblings beneath the surface. Perhaps it is coming from our refusal to listen to opinions that didn’t neatly tie in with ‘national interest’.

What is national interest or rather what is anti-national? If an opinion can become anti-national, then how anti-national is it to tolerate corrupt politicians who occupy public space; or rigged tenders by public sector undertakings to suit a particular business group; or judges with questionable reputations; or the murder of female foetuses and the suppression of women? All of this could well be anti-national. But also anti-national is this: the refusal to listen to another voice.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. namita.bhandare@gmail.com. The views expressed by the author are personal