Referendums, Brexit, Bregret & Democracy

I am surprised that issue of United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union was made subject to a referendum. There iseprecedent in its history of the dangers implicit in the choice. Referendums generally, despite nominal similarity with democratic practices, offend against reasoned deliberations which alone make participation on popular issues a meaningful political exercise.

It is doubly unfortunate that the Chief Minister of Delhi is planning to hold a referendum on statehood for Delhi. The Chief Minister’s sense of history is limited to the immediate past and he seems to be unaware that referendums have often been tools in the hands of dictators and can at many times be anti-democratic.

In the United Kingdom the Race Relations Act, 1968 made amendments to Race Relations Act, 1965. The Act of 1968 sought to make illegal racial discrimination in public-services, housing and employment. However at the time of the second reading of the Race Relations Bill (which was later to become Race Relations Act, 1968) Enoch Powell, a British Member of Parliament, gave what is notorious as Rivers of Blood Speech. The speech criticised the proposed legislation creating fears about “immigration descended population” and the prospect of British becoming strangers in their own country. Significantly Gallup’s opinion poll found an overwhelming majority agreed with Powell. If a referendum had been held on the need to make the Bill into an Act the Race Relations Act, 1968 would never have been passed. The referendum would have brought about an anti-democratic result offending liberal and democratic values through ostensibly democratic means.

Referendums in fact were the favorite of the plebiscitary democracy of Hitler – no exemplar where democratic traditions are concerned. Hitler used referendum to legitimise his holding the posts both of Chancellor and President and assume supreme power in 1934. He had actually assumed the offices earlier (and the sequence of events which preceded that assumption showed he had scant regard both for democracy and parliament) and the referendum was meant only to legitimise that assumption of authority. referendum was held even during the Reign of Terror in France and Napoleon used a referendum to become the Emperor of France.

Some referendums are not conclusive despite seeming to be almost unanimous. Take the example of the Crimean referendum on whether the people of Crimea would join Russia or remain part of Ukraine. Over 95 per cent of the voters, it was claimed, answered “yes” to the Republic joining Russia. The Ukrainian Government however called it a farce a fake and crime against the Ukrainian State.

And even where referendums are constitutionally sanctioned, as in Switzerland, the results (as in the case of Swiss Minaret referendum, 2009) may disregard the interests of minorities. In the Swiss case in fact the referendum was unnecessary as the zoning law which was in place may not have allowed the raising of minarets in any case. The holding of the referendum, therefore, may have more to make a point than to achieve a result and cause further polarisation in society.

Irrespective of who calls for referendums and without getting into controversies about their being free and voluntary or not referendums are singularly inappropriate for complex issues. Opinions on such issues are usually subjective and based on experience or knowledge which is not necessarily precise or accurate and in any event the range of probabilities which issues represent makes a conclusions right for one and wrong for the other and no means of objectively verifying who is actually correct. There can be many sides to an issue and the whole truth may elude everyone. Answers sometimes cannot be cabined in a “yes” or a “no” and the “yes” or “no” may themselves be swayed by emotions not facts. There are different sections of society with varied and competing interests and general well-being mandates accommodating all. A mechanism which operates in binaries can well result in tyranny of the majority sacrificing interests which may be significant even if less numerous. It is for this reason Brexit results in Bregret!

Democracy cannot be what John T Wenders said, “two coyotes and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch”! Yet this is precisely what referendums reduce democracy to.

THE SKILL INDIA AD – A POSER

The SKILL INDIA advertisement featuring Sachin Tendulkar credits skill at the expense of dignity.

One sees Sachin sit on a chair while the carpenter sits on the floor as they talk and have tea. Why could both not be shown sitting on a chair and talking?

Apart from skill, personhood carries value too. Why hold anyone down whether skilled or not?

A patronising attitude carries an arrogance of superiority  which shifts attention to the symbolic generosity of a patron from the worth of the patronised and re-enforces the very inequality which it pretends to redress.

And if an ascribed status will continue despite achievement, as the advertisement suggests, what merit will inculcation of skill attain?

The advertisement presents status as an entrenched power and fails to present skill as being versatile.

Skill is meant to be assertive and itinerant unlike status which is inhibitive and immobile. The advertisement focusses on the status of the carpenter not his skill.

Skill is dynamic unlike status which is sterile and moribund. Yet it is precisely that which the last shot of the advertisement displays.

Skill has to be achieved but any effort in this direction will be futile unless there is a corresponding correction in attitude.

It is the right attitude (Tendulkar making the other sit on the chair) alone which can facilitate social mobility (symbolised in the carpenter also so sitting) to improve our cultural capital (recognition of the innate worth of a human being aside from skill trumping status) and unravel the social stratification which the advertisement puts on display.

 

Rohith & Kanhaiya-Of Dalits & Students

Discipline becomes a “Dalit” issue and Sedition becomes a case of “stifling students”.

Rohit was not suspended for being a Dalit but because of his protesting the hanging of Yakub Memon who was convicted for the 1993 Bombay bombings. And Kanhaiya was arrested for subversive speech which enjoys no constitutional protection and students are not exempted out of the requirement. Yet we are fed constantly with cries of injustice to “dalits” and “students“.

Does identity (being a Dalit) immunise conduct and is location (JNU campus) the sole reason for a privileged position?

It is indeed strange that while protesting social inequality a privileged position is being created in the enforced exemption from norms which are otherwise of general application.

And the cognitive dissonance – conflict arising from holding of contradictory beliefs – is replaced by doublethink – the simultaneous holding of contradictory beliefs entailing as Orwell said the repudiation of morality while laying claim to it!

Thus the very law and system disparaged in speeches and protests is invoked both by Rohith’s kin and Kanhaiya to seek protection from action and redressal of perceived grievances. Is this not hypocrisy parading as virtue which actually robs the protagonists of the moral high ground they seek to occupy?

In any event the question is not who Rohith was but what he did and the mere fact that Kanhaiya spoke in University campus will not make a subversive speech less so.

The defence of both Rohith and Kanhaiya entails deriving moralistic conclusions from evaluative premises which is nothing but a moralistic fallacy. Two illustrations will explain such a flawed approach: Dalits have been treated badly THEREFORE punishing Rohith, a Dalit, is wrong. And students need a free environment there all restraint on them is bad. Considering the opposition of this group to fanaticism such bullheaded opposition to reason is indeed unseemly and inappropriate.

And what will then happen to civic nationalism? Considering the vociferous opposition of the group to any ethnic basis of nationalism – because of the perceived threat of cultural assimilation – even civic nationalism – which deals with shared rights and deference to similar political procedures- would be endangered by such an approach  for rights will be claimed for some which are denied to others and exoneration from procedures, applicable to all, yet sought for a class. There will be no commonality of goals nor cooperative effort. With utter want of mutuality and enclaves of exclusiveness will there not be greater fragmentation of society and alienation of its members with no chance of inclusiveness or adaptability which is being invoked in the defence of both Rohith and Kanhaiya?

There is something fundamentally wrong with what is happening. Such an attitude must not be allowed to prevail. Denying both moral and civic virtues we will then move away from integration to disintegration. And this is injustice to all – not just Dalits and Students!