Reducing oneself to irrelevance

Rohit Dhankar

Then the king said, “Venerable sir, will you discuss with me again?”

“If your majesty will discuss as a scholar, yes; but if you will discuss as a king, no.”

“How is it then that scholars discuss?”

When scholars discuss there is a summing up and an unravelling; one or other is shown to be in error. He admits his mistake, yet he does not become angry.”

“Then how is it that kings discuss?”

When a king discusses a matter and advances a point of view, if anyone differs from him on that point he is apt to punish him.”

“Very well then, it is as a scholar that I will discuss. Let your reverence talk without fear.” (Emphasis added)


(Debate of King Milind, Chapter 1.3.  Tranlation Bhikkhu Pesala, Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc, Web site:

This is part of a debate (dialogue?) between a Buddhist Monk Nagasena and King Milinda— a Bactrian Greek—who was ruling over major parts of the north India at that time. “Milind Panha” (literally “questions of Milinda”) was “probably compiled in the first century B.C.” This indicates historical roots of the culture of dialogue in this country. This also shows that the scholars of that time made a distinction between dialogues held between scholars and that with a King. And Nagasena makes it clear that he is willing to discuss with the King only if the King discusses as a scholar. But then Nagasena also characterises the dialogue between scholars as that in which there is summing up, unravelling, admission of errors and all this without getting angry.

This was a scholarly dialogue on existence of the soul and other related matters. But the conditions of scholarly dialogue sound good even for a political dialogue, as what is the point in a dialogue if there is no summing up (however delayed), no unravelling, no change of opinion and admission of mistakes either in the facts or in the logic employed in the dialogue? A dialogue is not to bash the other, or to buttress your own point. If a dialogue is to enhance understanding and arrive at informed consensus then ‘listening’ to the other and admitting the strength and persuasive power of the other’s argument—if there is any— has to be an integral part of it.

Can presently raging political ‘debate’ in our beloved country, then, be called a “debate” or a “dialogue”? Of course the matter is much more complex and serious. The subject matter is not a theory about the soul, but a live political situation which has immediate effect on people’s lives. That makes it much more emotionally charged. The participants are not only the government (King) and the Monk (journalists and intellectuals) but also an army of social media using commoners, the janata, and the supporters of the government. So it is a battle between multiple forces to grab ‘public mind’.

There can be other positions in addition to that of the scholar and the King. One such position can be a closed minded propagandist who cares little for the fact and truth, and actually wants to create public acceptance of a predetermined political position. There can be an umpteen number of bullshitters in a public debate who are determined only to push their own line of thinking with complete disregard for the available facts and accepted moral (political included) and epistemic  principles.

To understand this let’s take a small part of the currently raging debate around taking one channel of NDTV off air for a day. But before that, to avoid misunderstanding, let us admit that the government presently is not behaving in a manner conducive to either democracy or a healthy public debate. Their position on nationalism, cow slaughter/protection and communalism is deeply disturbing. This is a matter that should be understood in detail, here I am simply accepting all this without providing any evidence or argument in support of these claims. This is obvious that all this should be resisted and fought against to protect the right to free speech and to protect a vibrant democracy. In this context let’s look at the NDTV one day ban on one channel.

First there are some factual questions:

  1. What exactly is the order of ban? On what grounds? Does anyone know and have read the exact text of the ban order?
  2. What is the legal position on this issue? Katju in his Facebook post claims that legally TV channels are banned only from airing live operation. Other reports that are not live feed can be aired? Is that the case? Can one air position of sensitive installations and other spots like ammunition depot?
  3. Is it really a first ban of this kind or such bans have been there in the past as well? Venkaiah Naidu claims that “AXN was banned for two months. FTV was banned for two months. Enter10 for one day. ABN AndhraJyoti seven days. Al Jazeera was banned for five days for showing wrong map of India. These are all done earlier.” Is he right? What were the reasons behind such bans?

Then, there is the issue of singling out NDTV. It is claimed that other channels have aired the same or similar reports, they are not punished. Only NDTV Hindi channel is picked out. Is it a good argument? Suppose airing the kind of stuff NDTV aired, is it a good defence that it should not be punished as others are not punished for the same crime?

Ravish Kumar’s programme on the episode in Prime Time is very well appreciated by a large number of educated Indians. Does that episode clarify any of these issues? Does weaving a powerful episode using an art form necessarily enhance the level of debate and help in making informed choices? Even if all the questions or facts and moral principles are left untouched? Or such a programme becomes just a powerful propaganda which further caricatures the real situation and firms up the already existing non-communicative divisions in the society? In short: was this particular prime time episode of Ravish a sound argument in healthy debate or is it simply a closed minded propaganda? Does Ravish explains and unravels? Does he provide counter facts to make the other party in the debate accept their error? Does he answer the questions raised by the other party?

Another question that arises is to whom should a serious journalist like Ravish Kumar respond? Ravish has made much of Rijiju’s statement that raising questions on the security forces and authority is not good culture. As a journalist with conscience and intelligence was it his duty to clarify whether Rijiju’s was talking about “questions in general” or about the “habit of raising unnecessary doubts and questions”? Should we as alert citizens come to an immediate conclusion (that the government is wrong) on all events involving security forces? Or should we try to ascertain facts and then come to a conclusion? Do all questions have the force to challenge powers that be? Or can questions be asked in a misguided and hyperbole manner that end up discrediting the one who asks them and therefore, strengthen the stranglehold of the entrenched powers?

On the other side a characteristic response from the supporters of Modi and his government is somewhat like this: “कभी आप ने कुत्तों के झुंड को भौंकते देखा है? आपने देखा होगा कि गली का एक कुता जब भौंकना शुरू करता है तो उस गली के सारे कुत्ते पीछे से भौंकना शुरू कर देता है। कुछ ऐसा ही हाल हमारे देश के एक गली में हो रहा है जिसका अगुवाई देश के जाने -माने होशियार कुता कर रहा है। खास बात यह है कि इस गली में रहने वाला सारा कुता कुछ खास समय पर कुछ खास अवधि के लिए ही भौंकता है क्योंकि ये कुत्ते किसी आम गली के आम कुत्ते नहीं है, ये कुत्ते खास हैं।” (Taken from a Facebook user’s wall. I am not writing the name because I am using it as a characteristic response and not from one particular person alone.) Obviously this supporter is not ready to listen to any genuine and serious criticism and questioning of the government, BJP and Modi. Is he helping in a democratic debate? Is he actually challenging the critics of the government and BJP or simply discrediting himself? Is he not being abusive?

Kant gives us a few useful concepts in his essay “What is enlightenment?” to understand this situation. He writes “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage.” And to him tutelage is “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.” And “Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another.” Have most vocal Indians given themselves into some kind of other tutelage to their chosen guardians? Are they making use of their own reason?

Further down in the essay he talks of “private” and “public” reason. He says by “the public use of one’s reason I understand the use which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public.” While “Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him.” Kant recognises that in private use of reason—say, as a government official, defence personnel, a Church official, etc.—one may have to accept some restrictions in speaking out. He says that “Many affairs which are conducted in the interest of the community require a certain mechanism through which some members of the community must passively conduct themselves with an artificial unanimity.” Examples for this may be as given above. But in public use of reason he argues for sharing one’s own opinion by a scholar, his/her opinion guided by his/her own reason alone, without any tutelage.

The people engaged in public debate in India are members of political parties and media houses who have their own policies and positions. One often wonders: are they speaking as public scholars and using their own reason or are going along the lines given by their respective masters? And what should general public do with the opinions and arguments advanced as per standard line of some political formations and organisations? What if such political lines demand avoiding certain questions and disregarding some facts and principles?

At present most of the voluble participants in the debate already seem to have taken some or other positions and conducting their thinking strictly on lines demanded by that position. If anything counter to that position surfaces the standard response is ignoring that particular argument or fact and dive straight in to the conclusions propounded by the guardians. Are these debates taking us all into self-incurred tutelage of our respective masters? Or are they enlightening us? Making us independent in our own judgment?

And the Trolls

At the end I would like to understand the phenomena of trolling. Ravish kumar has made a lot of “the Troll” in his above mentioned Prime Time episode. The most often complaint and fear one hears from the government biters is that of getting trolled. There is much in this which is beyond me. I need help from more knowledgeable people to get my head around this problem.

Let’s construct a scenario: suppose I write a piece which severely criticise some action or policy of the government or Modi or BJP. Then I notice that hundreds (if I am very famous may be thousands) of people react to my piece; in comments, on twitter, on Facebook, and so on. Suppose that they all condemn my piece. Some try to give arguments which are not very sound. Some try to provide counter facts which are wrong. Some others simply call me names like antinational, and advise me to go to, say, Pakistan. And lastly, some others start abusing and attacking my personal life.

The questions that come to my mind are:

  1. How do I know that I have not irked some public sentiment, and given the fact of accessibility of social media and general level of semiliterate Indian net user these are not just random people from the public? Or that there is some organiser of this troll attack who is targeting me?
    1. To make sure on these two points I must be able to trace the commenters to some IP addresses and see some threads of coordinated attack in all this. Is there evidence of this nature? Please share if there is.
    2. By the same token if I notice that there are some particular people who deride every single decision of the government about 10 times in a day, though never use abusive language, can I call them trolls as well?
  2. How is a troll a threat to me? What can this anonymous person who is abusing me on the social media do to me? Yes, it is irritating, insulting and infuriating. But how is it dangerous to me? Why should I stop from saying what I want to say because of these morons? Where does the fear factor come from?

If it is such a big factor and all the critics of the government fear this, these are important question. Any answers please?

In conclusion the questions this style to countering the government and BJP design raises in my mind is: can you refute stupidity by becoming more stupid? Can you counter bias by becoming more biased? Does poison really cure poison? Or will you have to be more logical, more balanced, more accurate and more rational in your attempts to counter all that is going on? This is not new, this question always assaults my mind each time I read exaggerated and biased analysis, each time a cacophony is raised which paints Indian society more black than it actually is. Are we aware that there are people who can make a distinction between genuine criticism and hyperbole? Who may be worried about the dangers of the government and want to fight that with fair reason? In last two years has exaggeration strengthened the supporters of the government or is it having any effect in mellowing it down? Or are here any signs that the critics are winning the support of silent voter? If not, do they need to rethink their style and strategy? Should they become more balanced and just in criticism? Should they respond to the arguments advanced by their opponents with less cunning and more reason? In other words should the opinion making sages of today debate like scholars who sum up, unravel, admit errors if any?


2 Responses to Reducing oneself to irrelevance

  1. dksrenu says:

    What can be a better analysis than this of current situation of Ban on NDTV Hindi channel for one day. Of late I was thinking why can’t NDTV approach court and challenge this decision?


  2. Anonymous says:

    Rohit ji,

    In view of the tale you quote in the beginning of this post, it appears to me that criticizing the government is actually criticizing the all-powerful king, who we all know is in no mood for scholarly dialogue, and it’s common knowledge that the state does silence, crush, threaten or purchase people who question it’s actions. Where is the space for scholarly dialogue then, if the king is ready to be the king alone, and no scholar? In any case Ravish kumar courageously and clearly says what he wants to say, without mincing words and gives substantial arguments to support his view as well. Even this time, he has let his thoughts known in other ways, on other fora. A single episode of satirical art is certainly not going to harm dialogue and debate in this country where so much cacophony goes on in the media in the name of debate. To me, just a different mode of subversion itself, that too on prime time tv, was so delightfully refreshing. And whoever said scholarship should suffocate other modes of expression?



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