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The Idea of Democracy (2022): Opening Address - Naveen Kishore


Updated: Jun 30, 2023

This opening address inaugurated the 6th annual History for Peace conference titled 'The Idea of Democracy' which was hosted in Kolkata through August 4, 5, and 6, 2022.

Look around you. Look within you. Observe what is happening to all that we cherished and termed ‘democratic’. Will the undermining of democracy require the invention of a new language in which to express support for democracy or critique anti-democratic moves? Democracy is under fire. This is of concern to us. Democracy is dependent on the free individual. Curtailing the rights of citizens is akin to emasculating them. You will have noticed that the nomenclature ‘citizen’ itself is being used to discriminate against and to exclude as in the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) or the NRC (National Register of Citizens).

Even as I welcome you to three days of deliberations on the Idea of Democracy, I would suggest to you that each one of us is under threat. As are our ‘freedoms’, ‘beliefs’, ‘rights’; as is ‘democracy’ beyond the binaries of ‘majority/minority’, ‘equality/inequality’; ‘democracy’ beyond ‘rights’ and ‘duties’; ‘democracy’ not just as a 'theory’ or an ‘ideal’ but also as ‘everyday practice’ of ‘thought’, ‘expression’, ‘art’; of ‘being’; of ‘existence’. And of course, the most important virtue of all that has mostly disappeared from our everyday usage: of ‘ethics’. Tagore in his thesis on democracy links the individual and the other, the individual to the world, and talks about values/ethics as a practice—more like an exchange/interaction between the individual and the other. This is unlike Dewey and Gandhi who consider the individual to be ethical, self-aware by default, and therefore, sovereign. A long list of our ‘losses’ may include courtesy, plurality, compassion, solidarity, empathy, identity. I choose this ‘litany of words’ precisely because these are crucial to our idea of the democratic in a climate that is disallowing/censoring/banning words! Our ability to critique the framework of democracy itself is no longer something we may take for granted. And yet that is the first principle of democracy: the fact that it invites a critique of itself. Or what we call introspection. So much is no longer allowed.

I’m afraid there is no longer a choice. It is just a matter of time. All that we have left within us is our will; our willingness to act.

Let me as a man of the theatre offer you two fables to set the scene, as it were, for the conversations to follow:

Here is a fable on ‘our willingness to act’.

Always the dream. Like stepping onto a screen straight from the street. One moment you are on the real and the concrete. Feet echoing briskly. Body focused on the art of walking. Treading air in the manner of a drowning swimmer. Against a backdrop of a city moving at twice its speed. And then, the silence. Like the breath was squeezed out of its throat. Now you hear it. A keening. Growing in volume. Its goosesteps marching towards you.

You reach for the knife. The one hidden under your jacket. No longer allowing the film to slow you down. Clinical. Painful. You stab each eye.

To stop the dream from spreading.

Here is my second fable. A tribute of sorts to Tagore:

Untie my head. Unravel the knots. Unscramble unlock undo my thoughts. Let them out. Line them up. Won’t you? Against the white wall. Remove the blindfolds. For everyone to see. Touch. Feel. Face the firing squad. Expose them. Let them beg for mercy. Or scoff. Mock. Show disdain. Let light discover their merit. Or their lack. And sound. Air. Let the wind whistle. And the salt waters tease. Let the fires spread. Wild. Roaming. Devouring. Amongst the bushes. And the forests. Let it hail. And let lightning aim its bolts at them. Let the voices of other people speak. To them. Arguing. Debating the pros. The cons. The nature of death in life. The meaning of nature. The shame that follows humans. Entire races of people who kill. Maim. Plunder. And later. Rejoice. Large nations that prey on smaller ones. Justice sought. Not always successfully. Nations as undertakers. As they plan assassinations. And inflict famines on others. Under the guise of humanitarian aid.

Set them free. My thoughts. And let them roam. For better or for worse.

I wish to thank a dear friend of PeaceWorks, no longer in our midst, Kozo Yamamura. Economist of the left, friend, author, someone none of us ever met. Kozo supported our History for Peace initiative and supported us while he was alive and now his wife Susan Hanley continues this support thereby making it possible to do what we do.

Dear Susan, a heartfelt thank you. We dedicate our conference to the memory of Kozo Yamamura.

I will end my brief cautionary welcome with these thoughts:

Democracy is the insistence on defending the rights of the citizen and representing the wishes of the citizen.

Democracy is not the prerogative of some cultures and civilizations. It is absolutely essential to every nation-state—if only to avoid some citizens getting more privileges and becoming first-class citizens, citizens of priority, and others being second-class.

Naveen Kishore is the founder and publisher at Seagull Books and Managing Trustee of The Seagull Foundation for the Arts.


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