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Depolarising of India

America is a deeply polarizing society in which “safe, mindfully structured dialogues are imperative if we are to salvage our republic and the democratic principles on which it is built”, says Schneider (2020).

Likewise, New India too, shining as America’s buddy now, is a highly prejudiced, divisive, conflict-ridden, and brutalized society. Parakala Prabhakar, a renaissance man and a political economist, has captured this as an escalating reality in his lately released book, which is making sense to more and more intelligent youth drawn to healing dialogues in different parts of our country.

In the brilliant Introduction to his book, Prabhakar (2023) picturises the alarming situation thus:
“For the first time since the 1990s, the number of people who are below the poverty line in India has increased…Employment in the country is on a sharply declining trend…The Modi government has not released any data on employment since 2016…Small-and-Medium industries are yet to recover from the pounding inflicted by demonetisation. Rural distress continues unabated…The ruling party and its supporters flaunt 13.5% growth in the second quarter of 2022-23 as a sign of efficient management of the economy, glossing over the fact that the figure looks impressive only because of the hopelessly low base the economy had plummeted to in the previous two years…the economy is yet to return to the pre-pandemic level…even before the pandemic struck, our economy was well into a slowdown. Indian entrepreneurs are unwilling to invest in the country. The flight of capital continues remorselessly. The nation’s economic woes stem from the Modi regime’s staggering incompetence. It has been unable to put together a well thought out, cohesive economic philosophy. It tries to market the easy path of selling public sector assets as reform. It shuns the heavy-lifting task of initiating actual reforms in running the public sector. New India parrots the idiom of full-fledged neo-liberal market ideology on the one hand, and on the other, short changes the nation’s assets to benefit the ruling party’s chosen cronies…New India falls prey to voodoo economists. They could easily convince a clueless government to take a disastrous measure like demonetisation which broke the back of the economy.

During the pandemic, a phony stimulus package tried to address—or rather, give the impression of addressing—supply side issues, when the pressing need was for strengthening the demand side…While it has made a mess of the economy, the ruling party has proved itself a genius at political manipulation…it has toppled elected governments in state after state…The Modi regime is obsessed with untrammelled power to do as it pleases…Our Parliament today has been reduced to a body that gives a stamp of approval to every legislation and measure proposed by the government. It no longer performs its duty of debating people’s issues; the debates are often prevented by the speakers of both Houses of Parliament…opposition leaders and their associates are raided by tax authorities, summoned by enforcement agencies for long, humiliating hours of questioning, and are even jailed without any trial…

The police force has become a similar instrument…Courts, including the Supreme Court, seem to have aligned with the Executive in its aggressive attempt to constrict civic rights…And through all this, extreme bigotry has been legitimized…Meanwhile, those of our public universities which were vibrant arenas of political debate and contest of ideas are being attacked and made dysfunctional…With a few honourable but dwindling exceptions, our print and television media bend backwards to serve the political and ideological interests of the ruling dispensation…Digital forums are…inundated with fake news and false narratives. The ruling party leads the game…While the Indian government wages war on its own citizens, China continues to enjoy the fruits of its recent incursions and sit pretty on a major chunk of our territory unchallenged. But the Prime Minister tells the nation that there was no incursion at all. Hardly anyone calls him out. The Prime Minister and his government get away with misinformation, ambivalent statements and plain lies because, we, as a people, demand neither information nor accountability…The BJP today is the richest political party in the country, and a significant portion of its wealth has come to it through…electoral bonds, which make it possible for companies to donate unlimited amounts of money to political parties anonymously…Deployment of huge financial resources has made the ruling party a formidable electoral juggernaut…Withholding information about political donations to the ruling party is at least sanctioned by law, however controversial that law may be.

The withholding of information on important parameters regarding economy and governance, however, is done simply by denial and stonewalling…we have noise—the white noise of propaganda and ‘jumlas’, catchy slogans which are as hollow as they are glib. New India is never found wanting in announcing innovative schemes, initiatives, programmes…After the dazzling launches are over—after they have served their purpose of giving a platform for lofty speeches with clever punchlines and vicious digs at previous governments—and made it to the next day’s newspaper headlines, the schemes fall by the wayside…Essentially, nothing straight can ever be made out of the crooked timber of New India. These much-publicised events are only expendable launch vehicles fired to put the payload of a majoritarian political creed into orbit. As the actual payload takes off, they fall away as debris. The political creed that is put into orbit is divisive, hateful…

This government wilfully squanders our demographic dividend by filling the minds of young Indians with violent prejudice…A majoritarian regime militates against social cohesion and thus disables a nation, rendering it incapable of delivering economic development to the people…It is us, as a people, who must ultimately take the blame for this. Democracies are hijacked by autocratic politicians and parties because we empower them to do so, either as active participants in their agenda, or passive victims, or indifferent bystanders…This should lead us to a deep reflection on the sources of political power and the popular appeal of the regime that presides over New India. Fear is a hard and visible reality today…So, many people feel it safer to express support for the establishment, or to remain silent…But there are others. They don’t believe the government’s narrative…Still, they champion it because of the Faustian bargain they have struck with the ruling dispensation. This is tragic for our Republic. These people are conscious of the damage they are doing but their conscience is hostage to greed and extreme self-interest. Their only mission in life is immediate personal reward. Some others sign up for the official narrative because they like to be on the winning side—for no particular gain, but for security, for comfort…And then there are those who simply cannot stand up to the might of the government; their business interests won’t let them.”

Prabhakar concludes that the political strength of BJP “rests solidly on its emotive, divisive agenda that plays on the explicit and implicit prejudice of the majority community.”
The message from the book is crystal clear. We need to build a solid antidote, a counter current from below, to the above trends. It should restore the values as expressed in the Preamble to the Constitution of India.

The proponents of the concept of ‘human library’ and the adherents to and practitioners of ‘publish people as open books’ are worth our attention and emulation, in this connection, as instruments of the antidote by way of social healing and social capital building, as is the Hindus for Human Rights movement in USA.

“Social healing is an emerging field that seeks to deal with wounds created by conflict, collective trauma, and large-scale oppression. It seeks to identify areas of collective experience that remain unresolved, neglected, and repressed within the psyche of groups and even nations. Its domain is centrally within consciousness rather than politics per se; it is psychospiritual in nature yet activist in its consequences. Its primary modalities are truth, reconciliation, forgiveness, and restorative justice. It requires individuals to assume the responsibility to become healing agents themselves and as such, it is experiential rather than ideological.”

Social healing is required to build up social capital of a country. “Social capital allows a group of people to work together effectively to achieve a common purpose or goal. It allows a society or organization, such as a corporation or a nonprofit, to function together as a whole through trust and shared identity, norms, values, and mutual relationships.” This holds good for a multi-cultural nation like ours, and the entire world of different nations as well.

“Social capital — the networks and links within and between social groups — can benefit us by increasing wellbeing and creating economic opportunities. For people and organisations, the problem comes when social bonds and bridges work to exclude others rather than include.”

The human library concept is an eminent mechanism of building up social capital. It is, in the true sense of the word, a library of people. The Human Library organisation “hosts events where readers can borrow human beings serving as open books and have conversations they would not normally have access to. Every human book from our bookshelf, represent a group in our society that is often subjected to prejudice, stigmatization or discrimination because of their lifestyle, diagnosis, belief, disability, social status, ethnic origin etc.”

Started first in Copenhagen in order to stop violence, the human library “is very much like a regular library where people go to check out books. The only difference is that the books are all human volunteers who have opted to speak about their experiences openly to an interested audience and answer any questions they are asked. Each volunteer is a book on a particular topic. Interested readers can check out a human book for an allotted length of time at a designated place (the time and place will be stipulated by the organizers) and have frank discussions about the topic. Thirty minutes of borrowing time is the norm. The space selected should be comfortable and provide enough privacy for open and honest discussions. Readers can ask questions which the human books will answer as best they can. When the reader is done with the book, they can return the book and check out another that is available.”

“In a country as diverse as India, empathy and compassion are essential to weave a strong social fabric. Needless to say, the human library is a great way to vent individual emotions by becoming a “book” that others learn from. In India, the international undertaking that existed in 80 countries around the globe, had their first set up in Indore and is still going strong. There are nine other human library chapters across India – including in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai. A series of events ranging from sexual assault to mental health made India, explore this new space for real and unedited stories that come to life with ‘Human Library.”

A most exemplary and fascinating personality in this connection is Andaleeb Qureshi who handles the Human Library Mumbai. Her TED talk is a must listening for all. She is an enlightened liberal Muslim Indian social entrepreneur, and writes cosmopolitan poetry as well.

As she says, the human library “is a global social project that promotes humanity and social acceptance of people regardless of their backgrounds, profiles and the tags our society places on them. It follows a concept of any library we have ever been to. We just replace paper books with human books, who share their real-life experience – no scripts just real words and emotions. Readers walk into the venue and borrow a book that attracts their attention.”

To conclude, “Once the reader borrows a human book with the help of a librarian, the reading session lasts for up to 40 minutes. In the conversation, there is a narration by book about their life around prejudices they have lived through. After the session, there is an open dialogue between the book and the reader. This exercise is to allow a free exchange of thoughts so as to help the readers know a greater deal about the prejudices. The prime objective of the project is tolerance and respect and the basic principle of learning in the process is not to judge a book by its cover. What is most encouraging about the human library is that it allows the readers the space to directly confront their prejudices by choosing a subject they don’t understand. Through listening to the experiences of the books, the reader is able to connect to its subjects in a deeply personal way because these books say a lot more inside than their cover outside. And there is no pin drop silence.”

By Annavajhula J C Bose, PhD Department of Economics,
Shri Ram College of Commerce

Unjudge someone,%2C%20values%2C%20and%20mutual%20relationships.
Kirk Schneider. 2020. The Depolarizing of America: A Guidebook for Social Healing. University Professors Press.
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