The necessity of knowledge panchayats
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | sourav roy)

Shiv Visvanathan

Dams have created more refugees than the wars we fought, making development a cognitive war against our people.

Democracy, as a way of life, desperately needs life-giving processes. Firstly, it needs the power of rituals to recreate the drama and the magic to revitalise everyday norms. Performative rituals create new memories to reinforce myths. Secondly, democracy needs inventiveness. A formal democracy that survives on mediocre representations becomes majoritarian or merely electoral, losing its sense of everydayness. So, one needs the inventiveness of language and institutions to sustain democracy. Between renewal and inventiveness stands the future of one of our most precious institutions.

When one thinks of democracy as an imagination, one senses that it loses out to an impoverished idea of citizenship which fails to recognise the possibilities of innovation and knowledge. Citizenship, rather than becoming a creative civics, becomes reduced to certification and residency. The citizen is whittled down to a consumer or voter. Very rarely is a citizen seen as a person, a carrier and a creator of knowledge. A citizen, in conventional terms, participates in a knowledge system, utilises it and rarely questions it. The idea of expertise eats away the freedom a citizen has in confronting specialised knowledge. The challenge today is how to weave knowledge into the democratic system.

One must begin with the Right to Information. Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and peasant movements initiated the present RTI, which was a life-giving legislation. What Indian democracy needed was the precious add-on called the right to knowledge. A citizen has to grasp metaphysics and methods as a part of everyday knowledge. Mere bytes might be digestible, sufficient for the latest quiz, but knowledge is more complex than information. A right to knowledge as a cosmology and epistemology has to be a part of our citizenship. A citizen needs access to a dialogue of knowledge systems. For example, a dialogue of medical systems adds to the understanding of health and pain, the wisdom of the body, and lets a citizen be an active patient rather than a passive one.

In fact, rights activists have argued that consumerism does not exhaust the citizenship of knowledge. One needs to be craftsman, witness, whistleblower and dissident—to be a citizen in the knowledge society. One needs access to nature and its cosmologies to assess knowledge. It is in this context that many citizens’ movements like Narmada and Bhopal have become battles over knowledge. One thinks particularly of the indigenista movement in Brazil. Shamans leading the movement have been critical of the monocultural understanding of forestry. They also claim that science needs to rework its understanding of diversity. They point out that modern agriculture and forestry have led to the decline of species diversity. It is not surprising that Costa Rica has put its tribes in charge of biosphere reserves to guarantee the diversity of nature.

This diversity is necessary both at the substantive and epistemology level. It was Alfred Wallace who discovered evolution alongside Darwin, who warned us that science in its movement of dominance might become authoritarian. He said it is up to scientists to discover alternative hypotheses to keep science as an imagination alive. Diversity becomes part of the real dynamics of knowledge. It is also an ethical imperative. Diversity has to become both a cognitive and a constitutional responsibility. One has to be careful about what one is suggesting. One is not expecting a hubristic answer where man controls nature but a humility where man faces what he has destroyed. One is not looking for mastery or stewardship of nature but a trusteeship which sustains and cares without claiming ownership.

Sustaining a plural system of knowledge demands a sense of myth and cosmology. One needs a carnival of panchayats to provide a festival of knowledge systems. Modern science has been too subject to the hegemony of the machine to escape it easily. In opening up to a festival of metaphors and language, it brings a new imagination to democracy. Democracy as knowledge guarantees democracy as life.

A citizen seeking to sustain a plural system of knowledge has to create three forms of institutional repair. He first has to seek cognitive justice. This concept proclaims that different systems of knowledge have to live in dialogue with each other as long as they sustain different life worlds and different lifestyles. A tribal, rather than being treated as illiterate and ignorant, is now a repository of botanical knowledge, of trees and plants, helping maintain the diversity.

Beyond cognitive justice, one needs a different sense of nature. Nature has to be a form of life with rights. Thirdly, the linear idea of development has to give way to cyclical and cosmological time. A society that does not understand the rhythm of a carbon and nitrogen cycle is doomed.

One needs to formalise the rights to plurality and knowledge. We have to go back to the proliferating wisdom of communities, to panchayats of knowledge. A knowledge panchayat, where citizens, experts, marginals and nomads discuss the implications of knowledge, is a basic requirement of any democracy. Any policy decision must become subject to critical scrutiny. Imagine how the fate of democracy would’ve been different if knowledge panchayats were in existence before the state opted for the Narmada dam. Our dams have created more refugees than all the wars we fought, making development a cognitive war against our own people. Our rubber-stamping of knowledge systems turns democracy into an empty consumerist exercise. We need debate and dialogue and thought experiments to sustain the democratisation of knowledge today. The mere tyranny of the State and the State hiding behind it can only be challenged through the dialogues of knowledge.

A knowledge panchayat consolidates the right to information as data with the right to knowledge as a philosophy. This makes the quality of life much better. With the knowledge panchayat, we can challenge the forced obsolescence of the people. When Covid declares old people as disposable, we can question it openly. Through knowledge panchayats, we can enter the epic debates on biotechnology, artificial intelligence, quantum physics and cybernetics. One celebrates the playfulness of knowledge and citizenship in recreating democracy. A knowledge panchayat adds to a sense of dreaming and opens a heuristic for the future of democracy. Knowledge panchayats sustain plurality, ethics and play, adding to democracy a sense of the poetry of the epic every day.

(The writer is a Social scientist associated with THE COMPOST HEAP, a group researching alternative imaginations)

(courtesy: The New Indian Express)