President Pranab Mukherjee said on Thursday that there should always be room for the "argumentative Indian" but not the "intolerant Indian", emphasising discussion and dissension as crucial for decision-making in the country.
"Our Constitution is a testament to the accommodation of our differences within the framework of an overarching idea of India," Mukherjee said, delivering the first Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture.
He said India's pluralism and its social, cultural, linguistic and racial diversity have been the bedrock of Indian civilisation.
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"That's why we need to be sensitive to dominant narratives, of those who make the loudest noise, drowning out those who disagree.
"That's why social media and broadcast news have seen angry, aggressive posturing by state and non-state players literally hounding out contrarian opinions," the President said.
President Mukherjee said Indian civilisation has always celebrated plurality and promoted tolerance.
"As I have said before, discussion, dissension are crucial to public debate for decision-making in a vibrant, healthy democracy such as India's. There should always be room for the argumentative Indian but not for the intolerant Indian. "That would be contrary to the spirit of the Constitution of India, to the very idea of India," Mukherjee said.
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Mukherjee said people here and globally are living in challenging times.
"Even as the youth look to the future, there has been considerable questioning of the past in the public discourse over the last few years. Each generation has the right to look back and reassess the strengths and weaknesses of the past. Let the brave new India draw its own conclusions," the President said.
Mukherjee said the spirit of tolerance and accommodation towards each other and those who differ from us is "what makes us Indians".
Talking about the role of the media, he said the press will be failing in its duty if it does not pose questions to the powers that be and it will have to simultaneously judge the frivolous from the factual and publicity from reportage.
Mukherjee said the news organisations need to ask themselves how they can find sustainable economic models that will allow them to resist all kinds of pressures and let them perform their role with honesty and transparency.
"However, such inquiry should not be blinkered by biases or resisted with a closed mind. Indian history and centuries' old civilisation is replete with examples of a willingness of the people to, as I have said, 'doubt, disagree and dispute intellectually'. "This is the bedrock of our nation, our Constitution is a testament to the accommodation of our differences within the framework of an overarching idea of India," the President said.
For centuries, India has witnessed a clash of civilisations and philosophies and survived it all to grow into the world's largest functioning democracy, he said.
"The question that faces all of us including the media is whether we will choose to define ourselves as a nation enriched by the diversity of views or allow partisan views to dominate our national narrative?" Mukherjee asked.
He said if the media believes in the freedom of expression, a free and a fearless independent media, it must choose to reflect a plurality of opinions for that is what breathes life into our democracy and has defined us as Indians.
"It must always remember that its fundamental task is to stand up and ask questions with honesty and fairness. That's the sacred compact it has with citizens in a democracy," the president said.
The President said that there is a need to question those in power as it is fundamental to preserving the nation and a truly democratic society. He also underscored the need for greater accomodation in public discourse as democracy will be the "loser" if people refused to hear voices other than their own.
Mukherjee said all stakeholders in a democratic system, from parties to business leaders, citizens to institutions, have to realise that asking questions is good and healthy.
Mukherjee said people in power, across the spectrum of politics, business or civil society, by virtue of the position they enjoy, tend to dominate the discourse and influence its direction.
He said this role of asking questions has been traditionally played by the media.
"It (media) must raise and create awareness about issues concerning public welfare, hold public or private institutions and their representatives accountable for their actions or indeed, their inaction.
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"In particular, the media has a duty to give space to the millions who still face the injustices of deprivation, gender discrimination, caste and social bias," Mukherjee said. He said media must learn the art of "withstanding pulls and pressures" without sacrificing its commitment to free and fair reportage, and always remain on guard against conformity. "The question that faces all of us including the media is whether we will choose to define ourselves as a nation enriched by the diversity of views or allow partisan views to dominate our national narrative? "We ought to remember that democracy will be the loser when and if we cease to hear voices other than our own," the President said.
Mukherjee also raised concern over the danger of paid news and asked news organisations to restore objectivity to regain public trust. "There is the ever present danger of 'paid news'. Ownership of media, concentration of ownership and distribution platforms in a few hands, and the personal beliefs of individual journalists can and do create conflicts of interest.
"They also reduce the plurality and diversity of the media. Objectivity has to be restored to regain public trust," he said. Mukherjee said media houses needed to ask themselves how they can find sustainable economic models that will allow them to resist all kinds of pressures and let them perform their role with honesty and transparency.