Consent may not always be a marker of democracy
The unquiet ones
By: Uddalak Mukherjee
In a recent interview, Justice J. Chelameswar, who will retire from the Supreme Court next month, made some observations that are pertinent to the crisis that confronts Indian democracy today. Among other things, Chelameswar voiced his unequivocal support for the principles of debate and dialogue in the democratic project. He further added that “the established systems are such, that any questioning will not be taken kindly”. The willingness to question – the judge confided that he had been taught to ask ‘why’ by his father – which bolsters the spirit of dissent, should be, according to one line of thought, integral to the idea of democracy.
But the wonder of the democratic fabric is such that it can be tailored to suit diverse views. In his book, Rajneetir ak Jibon – the recipient of this year’s Ananda Purashkar – Santosh Rana, who has been involved in peasant movements as well as ultra-left politics, offers the jurisprudence system of the adivasi samaj as an example of an ideal democratic institution. Rana writes that in these indigenous systems that have evolved over time, differences are resolved on the basis of consensus. At times, the sittings of the gram sabha can last for days. It is to be noted that this consensus, which is arrived at over protracted deliberations, is usually absolute. The consent of each and every participant is mandatory. But once it is achieved the ensuing concurrence, unlike Chelameswar’s insistence on critical engagement, appears to be unquestionable.
Rana’s book also identifies the markers of differentiation in village council meetings in non- adivasi settlements. In Dharampur, the village in West Midnapore where Rana spent his childhood, lower castes such as Bagdis, he writes, were expected to stand or sit on the ground at such congregations. Women were absent from these meetings. In contrast, the gram sabhas in Santhal villages are far more representative and their decisions inclusive, argues Rana.
Unfortunately, Rana’s description of these deliberations are perfunctory. For a lively and relatively contemporary account of council meetings among tribal people, we may turn to the evocative Woodsmoke and Leafcups written by Madhu Ramnath, an informative and heart-rending account of the Durwa community in strife-torn Bastar. Ramnath recounts the major topics of discussion in the hamlets of, say, Kodupar, Kermel and Koleng: the price of tendu leaves, the stripping of the forests, the protection of sacred groves and so on. What makes Ramnath’s recounting richly anthropological – Clifford Geertz’s ‘Thick Description’ comes to mind – is his observation of rituals that are not quite peripheral to the meetings: feasting, dancing, and even the occasional drunken fit.
The works of Rana, Ramnath and other localized literary sources – Boro Baski’s Santhali translation of Ascharya Thakurda is an example – converge on their assessment of the tribal village council as a metaphorical representation of a democracy untainted by discrimination. The authors’ predilection for the democratic plinth of the adivasi samaj is thus fairly discernible.
Significantly, the projection of the gram sabha as a democratic exemplar can, at times, be abetted by the subversion of this very institution. It is plausible that the intensification of the threat to the sovereignty of grass-roots institutions has resulted in the consolidation of an imagination and a discourse that consider them to be an ideal. It must be conceded that the threat to the autonomy of indigenous communities and their institutions is real. Visits to India’s troubled hinterland bear proof of this erosion and the consequent anxiety, anger and retaliation. Parts of Jharkhand – Seraikela-Kharsawan, Khunti, Patradih – are witnessing significant mobilization among the tribal people to reclaim the gram sabha as a legitimate alternative to the agencies of the State. Fiction, too, has remained a faithful chronicler of this trampling of the symbols of adivasi autonomy. The violation of Draupadi – or should that be Dopdi? – in Mahasweta Devi’s eponymous story remains a chilling and troubling representation of a violent encroachment on and besiegement of an ancient, accommodating way of life.
But even an ideal is not free of wrinkles. In a society that is as diverse and iniquitous as India, the implementation of a model of democracy that functions on the principle of consensus is a pipe dream. Rana is honest enough to admit that the democratic template of indigenous communities that he so cherishes is an impracticality on a pan-India scale. But there is another, almost imperceptible, problem with a democracy that is expected to thrive on universal agreement. When every citizen is in agreement, what happens to the prospect of dissent in a polity? Is not the uniformity in choice an anomaly in a democratic system that is meant to safeguard the plurality of and variance in thought? Can consensus, then, serve as a precondition for the inception of a majoritarian ethic?
These questions can no longer be treated as philosophical preoccupations. They have a particular urgency in New India where an authoritarian government seems to be keen on altering the public perception so that difference and plurality are seen to be anomalous with India’s democratic tradition. The bogey of ultra-nationalism and that other ideological vice, Hindutva, are particularly useful to condemn both the critic and his dissenting views to the pyre.
The Indian reality, in Chelameswar’s words, needs to be fixed. He is in favour of scrutiny and query to this effect. The judge goes so far as to suggest that democratic liberties are only for the “bold” and the “vigilant”. But liberty cannot be the fief of the unquiet ones only. Liberty is the domain of the collective. And to make this constituency truly representative and uphold diversity in belief and faith – the kernel of the fruit called Indian democracy – the unquiet ones have to whisper the secret of the contrarian tongue in the ears of those in perpetual agreement.