A letter from Seminar

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THE recent spurt of commentary and editorializing occasioned by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan can best be described as disconcerting. More than the analysis of why those who control the war-ravaged country indulged in a wanton act of cultural vandalism was the distressing fact of a very large number of commentators using the occasion to engage in a diatribe about Afghan society, Muslims as a community and Islam as a religion. It is almost as if the many learned tracts produced in the last decade and a half following the mobilization around Ram Janambhoomi and the subsequent destruction of Babri Masjid had not been read. Equally amazing was the equation of these two episodes, this despite the obvious differences in the two contexts.

Take another example. The recent decision of the Delhi University, as a belated response to a constitutional directive so far observed in the breach, to reserve all future academic positions for scheduled castes and tribes till the mandatory quota is filled, was met with howls of protest. Like in the earlier case the comments, be it from those whose potential employment in the university is imperiled or others concerned about the possible demise of merit in an institution set up to provide quality education, seemed innocent of the vigorous public debate following the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations.

It is not difficult to add to such examples. The decade long debate following India’s decision to institute economic reforms has remained as fractious and divided as ever. It is almost as if there is an amnesia marking public discourse. Worse is the tendency of different protagonists not to be appreciative of and accommodate the views of their ‘others’, but only reiterate their strongly held ex-ante positions.

For those of us associated with the venture called Seminar, four plus decades and now 500 issues down the line, it is precisely this tendency marking our culture of public discourse which needs to be challenged. This journal, along with other similar ventures, has upheld the virtues of informed debate as a foundational principle, the belief being that dialogue among differing positions and viewpoints on an issue contributes to an expansion of knowledge and, if conducted with honesty and decorum, should enhance the quality of tolerance in society, aid informed decision-making, and hopefully help construct a consensus. To state it more sharply, we expect informed debate to help narrow differences, not exacerbate them.

The relationship between informed debate as a central feature of public culture and democracy is a complex one. This is not quite the occasion to explore it. It is, however, evident that the mere fact of a multiplicity of forums for differing and dissenting views and imaginations is only a necessary condition for developing a tolerant public culture. As important is the need to engage with the mode and rules for conducting debate. It is towards this end that we hope to take Seminar in the future.

500 issues represents a long journey in the history of a journal, more so one deliberately structured as a cottage industry product. There is justifiable pride that all through (with the exception of a few months during the Emergency in protest against pre-censorship), the journal has reached its readers on the first of the month. To have managed this despite the normal vicissitudes of the market, with minimal resources and a small staff, is testimony as much to the grit of the team at Seminar as all others – our contributors, subscribers and readers, distributors, advertisers – who share our faith in the worthwhileness of the idea. But what really provides satisfaction, even pleasure, is that despite doomsday theorists predicting the demise of the small journal – competition from TV and print glossies, apprehension that the younger generation has little time for serious ‘stuff’ – our experience is to the contrary. The ‘market’ for Seminar has only grown over the years, albeit slowly.

A few issues back (481, The Idea of Seminar) we brought together a range of contributions that talked about the history of the journal, as also explored its foundational principles. On this special occasion we present a selection of previously published essays which continue to enjoy resonance in contemporary times. The intention – to remind ourselves how issues were understood and debated earlier so that today we can go beyond.

As much as any time in the past we are fearful of the resurgence of a climate of intolerance or frivolity. Like all developing societies we too face the myriad challenges of transition. Growing insecurities can and often do drive us into more rigidly holding onto our favoured positions, debilitating thereby the still weak norms of civilized exchange. Seminar, and other similar ventures, remain committed to both widening and deepening the processes of debate and exchange. In this we continue to look forward to the kind of cooperation that we have so far received, and helped us reach this landmark. To everyone, all we can say is a big thank you. Also, that we look forward to reaching you next month.