Reclaiming Public Spaces – The Need to Rethink ‘Discussion’

I’m going to venture into something I know is fraught with controversy, and let me begin by saying that’s why I wish to be anonymous. I do not want anyone to make their decisions on why I wrote this based on their knowledge of me. I don’t want my name and identity to undercut the issue that I am attempting to underline.

TL; DR:

  1. Engagement should happen in a civil and controlled manner
  2. Not all debates within an overarching issue need to answer the same questions; no groups are homogenous, and debates can be had within a perceived ideology as well

Last evening at IIT Madras, I witnessed an absolute breakdown of civility and restraint on the part of individuals who supposedly have wanted constructive dialogue. While many may argue that it was the topic that invoked emotional responses, I would like to point out at the outset that such controversial topics are the ones that truly test our restraint and commitment to discussion and debate.

For some quick context building to the many who weren’t present: On the evening of the 30th of August, an independent student organization at IIT Madras, ChintaBAR organized a movie screening and a panel discussion. The discussion was broadly going to be about the constant state of conflict people in Kashmir live in, and the violation of their human rights. The 26 minute documentary was to display one aspect of the same, which from its very first moment was made clear – The Enforced Disappearances Act in Kashmir.

The panel discussion was scheduled to happen after, but owing to technical difficulties, the movie was played after a member on the panel, Dr. Sonika Gupta, from the Humanities and Social Sciences Department shared her thoughts on the policy angle to the discussion about Kashmir. For those of you who are gearing up to disagree with the anti-national sentiment and the separatism she potentially expressed, please read this clearly – she never, in any manner, made any separatist claims. She didn’t ask for a plebiscite, she didn’t say they deserved to be independent, and she certainly didn’t say that Pakistan is a phenomenal actor and that Kashmir belonged to them. She did however say, that irrespective of our views on where Kashmir belongs, we need to acknowledge that they experience militarized democracy, and that they are being brutalized on a daily basis by the Indian State as a result of the circumstances they live in. She even expressed the sentiment that such violence is failing to meet objectives of peace, and that we shouldn’t normalize the loss of Indian soldiers at the border if it will not reap peace and stability.

This was followed by Mr. AS Paneerselvan unpackaging terms such as ‘mild force’ and ‘normalcy’, the screening of the documentary, a Ph. D. scholar, Mumtaz Ahmed Shah, tracing the historic trajectory of the conflict, and the film maker, Ms. Iffat Fatima, sharing her experiences. Some audience members at the discussion bought into the clear premise of the discussion – that irrespective of their leanings, the brutalization had to be acknowledged, and ways to build a peace process needed discussion. Some of these people wanted to delve deeper into the idea of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) in Kashmir, some wanted to discuss parameters for negotiation between separatists and the government, and others had various other strands of thought that didn’t include the conventional ‘Who done it’.

Neither these perspectives nor any other could be raised as a result of the fact that the only ones that received time were the very first couple of questions and their follow-ons. This was the loss of an opportunity that can be attributed to an aggressive stonewalling of the discussion in that classroom.

This process began with the question posed by another eminent member from the department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Dr. Jyotirmaya Tripathy. He began by asking how a space for discussion could exist when one party seemed rigid on wanting to leave, and took up arms to facilitate the same. He supported his claim partially by using instances from the documentary where protesters chanted ‘Down with India’. This question however, unfortunately got drowned out in comments and questions he himself had after, one even alluding to the privileges panelists had owing to the ‘insularity the institute provided them.’ It would not be a stretch here to conclude that the audience took an affront to some things he mentioned later, and therefore his earlier question was left unexplored. Those who were at the discussion, even those who didn’t support the premise, would agree with me, and attest to the fact that his question went uninterrupted by the panelists, save one request to adhere to time limits.

Unsurprisingly, there were calls to talk about Pakistani meddling, a fact that nobody denied, but one that panelists chose not to mention for the reason that we cannot control Pakistani actions, but can control ours that enable them exploit people. There was also constant questioning as to why the film, and why the panelists didn’t discuss the Kashmiri Pundits. This was despite the inclusion of the Pundits in the trajectory by Mumtaz, and within Kashmiriyat, and the idea of a TRC by Dr. Sonika Gupta. The film maker then explained that her film didn’t talk about them because her work wasn’t about the Pundits but about enforced disappearances (a theme she also discussed in a prior film about Sri Lanka), but she did attempt to explain the frustrations that led to the events in 1989. It is also relevant here to note the inherent hypocrisy displayed by individuals who argued that the panelists were politicizing deaths, while they were, at the same time, using the deaths and forced migration of the Pundits, and even using instances faced by their own families, while constructing their arguments. The questions also consistently iterated that taking up arms to ask for freedom was not a solution. Let me highlight once again here, that none of the panelists advocated separatism. They didn’t say the separatists were right either, but they did request us to view the separatists in context – an important part of understanding the conflict.

This, very quickly, might I add, devolved into a shouting match, one where the panelists attempted to maintain order in the face of vitriol, while the audience (and I hold individuals jeering from all sides responsible) turned aggressive, frustrated, and quite frankly, scary. I can still recollect the expressions of some first year students, who looked terrified by the display of destructive antagonism. I could spend some space to covering the distinct comments, but I leave outrage towards specific instances for others. I am more concerned with the climate of hostility all these comments collectively created.  On the one hand, supporters of the panelists, a seeming majority within the audience, raged against comments others made, in a terrifyingly unruly manner, making it  literally impossible to listen to any answers. They also further made it a point to rail against the dissenters towards the panel, asking them to leave or asking to answer their questions themselves, preventing respectful discussion. On the other hand, the significant minority of individuals who accused the others of not listening to them owing to ideological differences, consistently interrupted the panel loudly.

Let me remind you here that statements like ‘Pakistan is doing this too’, ‘Kashmiri Pundits were killed too’, and ‘asking to batter India is not the solution’ never negated the initial claim, that the people of Kashmir were being brutalized by the Indian State, which had to be acknowledged in an attempt to build a peace process. Nothing further on that saw discussion. No other questions ever saw light of day. The professors were all too quick to deliver a vote of thanks.

It would also be remiss of me not to recognize that such a topic does invoke a sense of discomfort. This placed the onus on the organizing body, ChintaBAR, to clarify the rules of engagement within the public space they commanded, before the event began. Simple things like the explicit mention of the length of questions and the number of follow-ons should be mentioned before the floor is thrown open. A case for the eviction of individuals who jeered and interrupted after a first warning can also be made. I believe that it is the discussion and consistent implementation of such rules that can protect peaceful interchange and provide parameters that can be reverted to as a tool of de-escalation. As a responsible student body, we need to both set and internalize rules of engagement so as to allow a discussion evolve. We also need to reflect upon this trend we are following of derailing discussion, because it is a testament to our ability to reconcile competing views.

Finally, I wish to stress here once again, that last night was a lost opportunity for many individuals. It was lost to people who believed that the blame game wasn’t the most important part of the discussion. It was lost to people who wanted to talk about truth, peace, and reconciliation. They were denied agency when a professor called them brainwashed, and were denied voices when they were systematically cut out from the debate. It is time we took note of the fact that we have simply been unable to maintain decorum on issues that even slightly polarize discussion. To use a cliché, my issue is hardly with what was being said, but is about the manner in which it was presented.

Why do we expect everyone to agree with us when we make a point? Does our student body truly respect the right to dissent? Do individuals with diverse viewpoints have an equal ability to express them, or do public spaces get hijacked by animosity?

Insti has a lot of student groups and many of them conduct lecture series. In the past few years we’ve consistently seen speakers from across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, increasingly, we are also privy to an insti culture where the real issues get drowned out in excitement over creating or seeing controversy and the takeaways often devolve to deciding who is ‘left’ and who is ‘right’ instead of learning from and engaging with the issues at hand. To criticize the government’s actions becomes synonymous with anti nationalism, while defences are de-facto considered jingoistic by the other side. In this ruckus, we completely fail to perceive all the meaningful debates and talks that have the potential to take place if we moved past our initial anger. Additionally, we also increasingly fail to accept that not all debates are the same, and not all are intended to answer the same kinds of questions. For instance, debates do not just have to be about whether the Indian actions are justified, but can also be about whether a TRC is a better conception of justice than prosecution. We need to learn to acknowledge that there are more debates to be had than the ones that we inadvertently keep pushing in these discussions.

Can we call our institute open minded when we reduce people and issues to labels so unthinkingly? We are fast losing the culture of really engaging and listening beyond token gestures. When we choose to attend and listen, we also make the conscious choice to expose ourselves to perspectives other than our own and the possibility of changing our minds and opinions. This is crucial; but it is an ability that we fast seem to be losing. Something to lament, and something to change – It’s time we reclaimed our public spaces from the clutches of bitterness.


Pic credits: Sumit Sute and Chinta Bar

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