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Uncivil debate

The free and frank expression of contrarian viewpoints even if they are perceived to hurt the interests of the nation-state and as long as they are not a call to violence or extra-constitutional in nature are an essential component of mature democracies.

Statesman News Service | Kolkata |

It is worth iterating the need for civility in public debate given the viciousness surrounding the argument around the National Security Advisor’s comment recently that ‘civil society is the new frontier of war’. In the main, those riled by the comment have played the man, not the ball.

The simpatico, on the other hand, have largely resorted to demonising Mr Ajit Doval’s critics. In the ensuing brouhaha, the substantial points made ~ and countered ~ have got lost in the din. Taken at face value, the NSA’s comments may seem unexceptionable.

There is little doubt – unless one is a latter-day hippy, trippy kind of public intellectual with no skin the game ~ that civil society has been, is, and can be manipulated to hurt the interests of the nation-state. In that sense, it is a ‘war’ albeit of ideas that lay the basis for a distinct advantage in an armed conflict if matters reach such a pass. But that is not enough reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The free and frank expression of contrarian viewpoints even if they are perceived to hurt the interests of the nation-state and as long as they are not a call to violence or extra-constitutional in nature are an essential component of mature democracies. Equally, the allegation that Mr Doval’s observations are a dog-whistle to those who would curb the boisterousness of arguments on a host of issues in the public domain is a bit far-fetched. Indeed, they say more about the biases of those making the allegations than their subject.

As is usually the case with trigger-happy social media warriors with a penchant for going off halfcock, the context in which Mr Doval made his comments has conveniently been elided. It needs to be underlined that the NSA was speaking at the passing out parade of the 73rd batch of Indian Police Service probationers when he articulated the notion of “fourth-generation warfare”.

It may be summarised as the manipulation of civil society by adversaries in our tech revolution-enabled information age where conventional wars are getting unaffordable and ineffective in guaranteeing the political-military objectives for which they are launched. It would have been a dereliction of duty by the NSA if he had not brought out this issue before those who will be charged with upholding law and order in the national interest.

Yet, his critics and those of the state, in general, do have a point when they assert that police officers, given their training and orientation, need a more nuanced understanding of how civil society works and the value it adds to democracy and individual liberty rather than being focussed exclusively on preventing it from being “subverted, suborned and divided”.

Perhaps the solution would be to ensure the next speaker the 73rd batch of the IPS gets to hear is a prominent civil society advocate even if s/he is opposed to the government of the day. It would, hopefully, provide for a more balanced approach among those authorised to use force when interacting with citizens.