There is something seriously wrong in the quality of our public discourse. A certain coarseness has pervasively invaded it that does little credit to our claim of being one of the oldest and most refined civilisations. People talk at each other, not to each other. Abuse, slander, malice, innuendo and below the belt diatribes, flourish. There is a brittleness in public life that recognises only absolute black and whites, cutting out all shades of grey, or doubt, or the possibility of another equally valid point of view. In short, the great art of civilised dialogue appears to be mostly dead in the world’s largest democracy.
How has this come to pass? It is not something that has always been our tradition. In fact, far from it. In the 8th century CE, the great Adi Shankaracharya had emphatic differences with another scholar of great eminence, Mandana Mishra. To resolve these, they agreed to have a Shastrartha, a discourse or a dialogue. The points of divergence were fundamental. The Jagad Guru believed in the jnana marga, or the path of knowledge as the way to salvation. Mandana Mishra, was a follower of the Purva Mimamsa school of Hinduism, that believed in karma kanda, the practice of rituals as prescribed by the Vedas, as the path to redemption. But, in spite of this divide, they were willing to have a civilised dialogue. Shankaracharya even agreed to Mandana Mishra’s wife, Ubhaya Bharati, to be the umpire in the debate, which continued in a civilised way for weeks, with the whole of Bharat — even in the days of no TV and social media — following its progress by word of mouth. Mandana Mishra lost the debate, and became the Jagad Guru’s most prominent follower, as did his wife.
The Upanishads were a dialogue between a guru and a disciple. The Bhagavad Gita was, in many senses, a dialogue too, between Lord Krishna and Arjuna. The Brahma Sutra, which — along with the Upanishads and the Gita — comprises the three foundational texts of Hinduism, is not a dialogue per se, but the extensive commentaries or bhashyas written on it, are. The commentaries — including the seminal one written by Shankaracharya — invariably include the viewpoint of the “opponent”, or the one who is in disagreement. This disagreement is not disdainfully dismissed, but is sought to be countered by reason and argument.
This dialogic aspect of our civilisational history is not confined only to ancient India. The great Mughal ruler, Akbar, began a series of debates under the awning of his dialogic forum, Din-i-Ilahi. In this platform, the proponents of Islam had to face the viewpoints of those of other faiths, with the ultimate aim of finding a meeting point of synthesis that would combine the best in all faiths. More recently, our freedom movement is a shining example of the primacy of civilised dialogue. The letters of Nehru and Gandhi wrote to each other show on how many vital issues the two were in disagreement, but, while these were voiced without inhibition, they were always civil. This is also seen in the letters between Nehru and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Here the ideological points of divergence were even more pronounced, but both argued their case with great respect for the other. After Independence, there was a phase when some of the finest debates took place in Parliament, where speakers with firmly entrenched views were willing to listen with respect to the opposing argument. In fact, there is the famous incident when Prime Minister Nehru, after listing to a young Atal Behari Vajpayee’s scathing indictment of his policies, went to congratulate Vajpayee, and even predicted that he had the material to become the PM one day.
What has happened to this civility, this generosity of spirit, this ability to listen to the other with respect, even if you are emphatically in disagreement? The kind of debased vocabulary of people in public life today we get to hear is nothing short of shameful. There is no notion of linguistic restraint. The only aim is to score an immediate hit at the opponent, irrespective of the language, and the veracity of facts. Are our leaders suffering from a terminal sense of insecurity that becomes disgustingly accentuated every time an election is imminent? Or, is this kind of discourse par for the course? Is political acrimony — even rivalry — so great that it removes all barriers to public civility? Is there a lack of political supervision, or even worse, is there complicity on the part of those who are in a position to counsel their subordinates to speak in a more dignified manner? The worst aspect of this situation is that one undignified jibe, provokes another of the same ilk, until the entire national discourse is hijacked by linguistic anarchy.
The malaise is contagious. When our political leaders are culpable in taking discourse to its lowest common denominator, TV channels do the same. Or, perhaps it is the TV “discussions” that influence the public discourse. There are very few TV channels where one can watch a civilised discussion. Most have fallen prey to shouting matches, with panellists outdoing each other in the simultaneous display of lung power, with full encouragement of the anchor. The social media, while certainly democratising public debate, has also legitimised abuse. The press of a button on your mobile phone can send into cyber space filthy expletives and innuendoes, and trigger hate campaigns and troll armies amplifying this garbage.
There are honourable exceptions to this narrative who need to be lauded. Nitish Kumar is one such person, and I don’t need to say this because I belong to the same party. Not once have I heard him using undignified language, and that sets the template for those who are his spokespersons too.
Such examples need to be replicated. All of us need to reflect on what can be done, before we go further down the drain of the endless name-calling that goes about in the name of public debate. At a personal level, I, along with some others, have set up a public platform called “Shastrartha”, whose sole aim is to further, through public programmes, the dying art of civilised dialogue. We seek your support and participation. If you wish to know more about this I am always available.