Last week, the filing of a chargesheet by the police blew the lid off one of the most heinous crimes ever, in which an eight-year old girl was abducted in Jammu, brutally gang raped and murdered. It has, like the Nirbhaya rape in 2012, shaken India at its core. More worrying is the aftermath, where groups rallied for the accused seeking to give the entire episode a communal hue.
This entire episode—together with what panned out in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh—is a scary wake up call in so many ways. It is not just the brutality of the crime, but the audacity of the accused (including a juvenile in the Jammu incident), partisan response, attempted cover-up (policemen are accused of not only being complicit in the crime but also destroying evidence) and of course the mockery it makes of the idea of the rule of law.
In short, it points to a breakdown of the polity in the country, a warning an aspiring India can ignore only at its peril. For this each of us 1.2 billion Indians, not just opportunistic politicians, are equally culpable (peruse the distasteful conflicts in WhatsApp groups and it is evident that our politicians are just a microcosm of us). Instead, it is the symptom of a larger malaise: the death of dialogue and the rapid rise of a binary public discourse. It is permeating every aspect of our lives and threatening the very democratic credentials our founding fathers bequeathed to us 70 years ago.
Over the last five years I have flagged this problem of a binary discourse in several columns (citing two: India’s binary obsession and The shrinking space for dialogue). The point here is that this crisis has been in the making for years. Instead of addressing it we have just kicked the can down the road.
The growth in social media has created the perfect ecosystem for the spread of a binary discourse. The business of fake news is like a pandemic. A recent research paper published in the peer review journal Science found falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.
More importantly the empirical work lays the blame for spreading of fake news not on what is widely believed to be the key propagator: bots. Instead it argues that it is humans with their predilection to believe false news who are to blame.
“The greater likelihood of people to retweet falsity more than the truth is what drives the spread of false news, despite network and individual factors that favour the truth," the research paper concluded.
Exactly what we are seeing panning out over the last one week as conspiracy theories on the crime committed in Jammu jam our WhatsApp inboxes. In fact, some of us are beginning to see the national outrage as part of some conspiracy. Even if we did, for a moment, accept this viewpoint how does it deny the heinous nature of the cold blooded and premeditated assault and murder of a minor. This is exactly the problem with a binary discourse narrative. The noise overwhelms the news and once this takes root it is like an endless spiral into negativity and binary conclusions.
Something that President Pranab Mukherjee identified as a malaise in the national discourse. “I learnt a fundamental lesson (in 48 years of public life) that there is nothing comparable to debate and discussion and exchange of views in Parliament. Of course, there is dissension. For the success of parliamentary democracy, this lesson should be learnt by everyone who wants to serve through Parliament," he said in a television interview after leaving office.
Is there a way out then? Of course there is. It is just that the solution requires a collective responsibility of purpose and acceptance of the fundamental premise of the Indian Constitution: we are all equal regardless of gender or religious denomination. Implementing the Mukherjee formula is the next step and even before we realise the middle space—which has all but been eroded—will be reclaimed and the basis for dialogue would have been restored.
If not the Indian Republic is at risk of being overwhelmed by the threat from within.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.