Our institutions need help

Sometimes I feel democracy needs a mourning wall, not just for those who suffer because of human rights violations, but because one is witnessing the death of institutions. The sadness of our democracy stems not just from the brutality and philistinism of a majoritarian regime but from its sheer indifference to institution building. Institutions like the university, the media and the trade unions anchor not only the world of information and work, but they create a normative framework critical for democracy. Yet, of late, one has watched the literal death throes of these institutions and our society has been indifferent or silent about it.

In a way, the first to go were the trade unions. The very crises of manufacture, the liberalisation policy of the regime, the massive retrenchments and the aspirational nature of the middle class, which sought social mobility rather than struggle, condemned the unions to be backbenchers of history. The trade unions have done little to anticipate the changing dynamics of technology and work. The fate of work, the future of work and the radical prospect of employment, stalks the unions. One of India’s outstanding activists, who has the commitment of an activist and the sensitivity of a social scientist, made a profound comment recently. In a conversation, Aruna Roy stated reflectively that our movements were defeated by theory. They failed to anticipate the future and corporations out-thought them. Trade unions, as institutions, should provide early warning signals of the threat to livelihood yet even they greet the epidemic of retrenchment, obsolescence with the helplessness of a silence that borders on indifference Ms Roy argued that research and theory must be brought back to political struggle or our movements, our trade unions would be outthought and outfought.

As trade unions lapse into a meek silence, one sees their fate catching up with the media, specially newspapers. The corporatisation of newspapers has not been subject to critical sociological scrutiny. In all these processes, it is the working journalist who suffers. One of the great paradoxes we face is that the media is supposed to create a critical scrutiny of institutions, serve as an early warning system to institutional or normative rot. Yet the media seems strangely silent to its own institutional decline.

Few people seem to look at the human problem of downsizing. In fact, it has become a corporate equivalent for sustainability. The very ritual is crude, rarely explained democratically attributed to some magical management consultant and shrugged off as inevitability. The worst irony is that the media as a storyteller greets this tragedy with silence. In fact, there is an eerie fascination with the Taylorism of downsizing, management rituals to cut down cost and streamline expenditure, but little concern with the feelings, emotions or even the fate of journalists dismissed. It is time firms like McKinsey, often invited to perform this expertise of downsizing, are subject to a social audit. There is no reference to the humiliation, the suffering that ordinary working journalists undergo. Strangely consulting firms possess a halo which claims an authenticity one needs to examine. One has, as a civil society member and as a sociologist working on human rights, wondered whether these so-called definitions of efficiency are human rights-centred. One also senses a deep conflation of accounting with more morally resonant words like accountability and responsibility. The rules of transparency in a democratic society demand that such management rituals be subjected to an ethical evaluation.

The third institution literally dying a prolonged death before our eyes is the university. The RSS, as obsessed with tampering with the syllabus as with our Constitution, is seeking to disempower the university as an autonomous body. It is using the logic of patriotism and the nation state to emasculate free thought, dissent and sedition. The CPI(M) should not feel pious because its track record has been equally marred. But the independent Left has a greater responsibility to keep intellectual tradition alive. One needs a theory of the university as a normative commons, committed to the sustenance and resurgence of plurality and diversity on campuses. Sadly, the battle of Left and Right has vitiated concern with the university as a normative institution.

There is a more important challenge here. Workers from these three institutions must see the affinity of their fates. It is time these institutions get together politically and institutionally to resist the destruction of these forms of life. In a tangible sense, the university must anchor the two other institutions while creating new forms of reciprocity and responsibility among them. More particularly, the university must create research centres, which will help trade unions confront the changing nature of work in society and understand the critical nature of the informal economy for the future. Second, the university must adopt harassed workers and journalists as prisoners of conscience. One need not wait for Amnesty’s selective list to do so. Finally, all three must support each other and with a sense of communitas and information, anticipating future threats to institutions and democracy. Unless civil society becomes more active and imaginative, Indian democracy will become a literal desert of abandoned institutions. This is a future we can ill afford.

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