Difference of opinion is fundamentally born of thinking. It’s not just thinking, but an ability to think beyond parameters already established by tradition and authority on the strength of longstanding practice is what produces dissent.

All cultures and societies for the fact of being what they are feel compelled by the force of habit to place restrictions on thinking in the interest of what they perceive as sacred and inviolable rules that regulated and sustained life in the past. That such rules regulated and sustained life in the past is (mis)taken as a kind of guarantee that they would be effective enough to continue to do so in future.

What is missed in this logic or absence of logic is what Heraclitus famously proclaimed: “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he is not the same man”. It simply means life is defined by unstoppable changes and society is always in a state of flux. But this process inevitably entails an element of fear; the fear of the unknown that acts as a deterrent against the ‘hazards’ of independent thinking.

Premium is put on what is tried and tested regardless of its being in the way in the discovery of tomorrow that is the cornucopia of potential and possibilities hitherto not realised.

Another factor closely related with value of having closed mind is the unsettling nature of diversity. Apart from other natural factors such as geography, terrain and climate, thinking minds add to immeasurable diversity we see all around.

Multiplicity of views and opinions has always been perceived as a threat to the established order that self-perpetuates by virtue of its longevity; being established at a certain point in time in the past is offered as an incontrovertible proof of its being based on reason and rationality. In other words the raison detre of the order is factually not hidden in the principles that underpin it but rather in its age. The longer the age the greater the authority.

An established authority with the passage of time assumes the form of hallowed tradition that emphasises the conformity as a prized societal norm. Preparing the young for a conformist way of thinking and living starts at home, is nurtured at school and comes to fruition with the entry into public life.

Family structure based on patriarchy is hierarchical. It rewards obedience and punishes disobedience which means acceptance of authority as the way for the young if they want to be accepted as ones deserving love, care and affection of the family. Only the most rebellious in spirit would dare to deviate. That’s why independent minds are far and few in any society. Children are brought up mostly by mothers who for the natural love of their offspring train them to on the safe side i.e. to follow the so-called rules.

Callow youth mostly guided by men can hardly resist the temptations offered by the prospects of being in league with the conformists. In schools teachers inculcate in the students the sense of responsibility and discipline which is thinly concealed respect for authority, academic and intellectual. By the time the young enter job market they are ready to undertake the responsibility of keeping the machine of the system oiled and running.

The developed world while jealously safeguarding the status quo has found a way of creating a niche for independent minds that have the ability and capacity to think critically. There is realisation among the ruling elites of the advanced societies that independent thinking of certain segment has provided them with an unassailable lead in all fields and its absence would render further development impossible. But situation in our society is altogether different due to myriad historical factors.

Our non-democratic society burdened with its feudal and tribal jetsam and flotsam treats naked authority as a supreme value. Authority fetishism, a fetid legacy bequeathed by the indigenous old world, was unnaturally promoted by colonialism in their interest. The point is well illustrated by a joke in Punjab. A wise man and a powerful man are engaged in a debate. The wise one says:“I base my argument on the following” and enumerates his points. The powerful one says:” mein nahi munada [I am not convinced]”. The former elaborates further: “sir this how it is”. “na, toon methun wadh jaanda ain [Hallo?Do you know better than I?]”, retorts the latter.

The wise man goes further into details to put across his argument. “Jaa, mera jo karna e karlae [Look, you do whatever it takes to do me down”, comes the final reply.

Similar kind of logic is used by our post-colonial state suffering from surfeit of arrogance which in fact reflects the lack of self-assurance when it deals with independent minds and dissenting voices that dare to articulate their counter narratives. The state makes it simple but dangerous in the sense that it leaves little room for debate and dialogue without which a modern democratic polity is hard to imagine.

Material progress is of course possible without democratic dispensation as has been shown by some of the countries ruled by dictators but holistic development, an ultimate human goal, remains a far cry.

Another factor that ought to be kept in mind in our context is that a state like ours, which is multi-national and marked by wonderful diversity, may become internally vulnerable if dissent is suppressed and multiplicity of views is swept under the carpet in the name of national harmony.

Genuine national harmony lies in discovering the connections between diverse ethnic communities, not suppressing the manageable differences born of long historical process.“Let’s savour every shade of life if the true Lord is kind to us [Satgurhoyedayaltaahur rang maaniye]”, says Guru Nanak, the sage of our land. So the state has to make a choice; power of logic or logic of power. Power of logic will create a space for all while logic of power will only benefit some. And you cannot build an inclusively harmonious society with some for some. It has to be built for all, with the participation of all. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2020