Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Sub Continent - No Place for Debate

In one of the life sketches of Benazir Bhutto that appeared in the media after her assassination, it was mentioned that Benazir happened to be the first Asian President of the Oxford Union, one of the world’s most distinguished debating societies. This is a bit ironic if you take into account that debating and rational arguments contributing to informed decision making is not a phenomenon existing any where in the sub continent.

Decisions are made here not based on sound reasoning but on the basis of display of brute force and muscle power. We are a living, breathing example of Mao’s axiom about power flowing out of the barrel of a gun. India and Sri Lanka are probably the only two nations in the sub-continent where there is some kind of democracy that is visible and when the benchmark is Myanmar or Nepal or Afghanistan or Bangladesh or Pakistan, there may be little reason for us to pat ourselves on the back. And any way, we all know how in India even though parliament may be in session from time to time laws are often passed with a handful of members present in the house and even fewer numbers actually speaking.

Maybe Bhutan which is slowly and quietly transiting into democracy and had its election to the upper house of its bicameral parliament recently will have a lesson or two in not just conducting elections but perhaps also in forming and shaping democratic institutions where opinions and counter opinions are provided and challenged in the context of debates and not bullets.

I remember the quaint debating clubs we had in schools and colleges. Grand sounding topics were given and then teams were formed – one team to speak for the motion and another to speak against. Those speaking for the motion had a second chance to rebut what those opposing had said. I remember participating in a couple of them and although I wasn’t very good at public speaking, there were still many things I learnt that I still continue to value. Among them are the virtues of being able to present your case rationally and cogently illustrating them with facts and figures, the ability to think on your feet if necessary as you can never predict what the opposing side will come up with and the necessity of research and preparation. Sarcasm was permitted and was indeed often a virtue as was dry and caustic humour but personal attacks, rudeness and incivility was a strict no no.

These debating clubs, though some what childish in their presentation, were also nevertheless the crucibles for the formation of the democratic process.

After we had also spoken, usually the student assembly would vote on the motion, either accepting or rejecting it. Although the voting wasn’t necessarily dictated by the strength and coherency of the arguments but by other extraneous considerations (pretty much like our parliamentarians voting along party lines irrespective of the force of the debate), the discussions weren’t all irrelevant and redundant.

If that was the standard of my modest high school debate, I can only wonder what the stature of the Oxford Union debates might be. But sadly enough, Benazir schooled herself in the use of a weapon that is best used in the mature democracies of the world and not in places like our subcontinent where matters are often decided by the thud of the bullet or the thrust of a bayonet and where in most countries, opinions, governments and leaders are thrust upon a people through varying shades of violence. And that is one course they do not teach in the Oxford Union!

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