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Defending the voice of dissent

Dissent is today being labelled as anti-national. The essence of freedom and democracy is dissent. In countries that say there is no dissent, there is no freedom. In a democratic society, the need to accept difference of opinion is an essential ingredient of plurality. Dissent as a right has been accepted by the Supreme Court under right of the freedom of speech. In 1950, the People of India gave themselves a Constitution that promised to secure to all citizens, inter alia, “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.” This was given a concrete shape by the specific rights guaranteed by Articles 19 and 25 and the associated framework ensuring their implementation. The past six-and-a-half decades have witnessed the manner, and the extent, of their actualisation.
The quest for correctives often found expression through assertions relating to freedom of expression and its concomitant, the concept of dissent. It is concept that contains within it the democratic right to object, oppose, protest and even resist. Cumulatively it can be defined as the unwillingness in an individual or group to cooperate with an established authority, social, cultural or governmental. In that sense, it is associated with critical thinking since, as Albert Einstein put it, “blind faith in authority is the greatest enemy of truth”.
In a democratic society, the need to accept difference of opinion is an essential ingredient of plurality. In that sense, the right of dissent also becomes the duty of dissent since tactics to suppress dissent tend to diminish the democratic essence. In a wider sense, the expression of dissent can and does play a role in preventing serious mistakes arising out of what has been called “social cascades” and “group polarisation,” which act as deterrents on free expression of views or sharing of information.
In the globalising world of today and in most countries having a democratic fabric, the role of civil society in the articulation of dissent has been and continues to be comprehensively recognized. Nothing is more fatal for disagreements and dissent than the idea that all of it can be reduced to hidden external agendas. The idea that anyone who disagrees with my views must be the carrier of someone else’s subversive agenda is, in some ways, deeply anti-democratic. It does away with the possibility of genuinely good faith disagreement. It denies equal respect to citizens because it absolves you of taking their ideas seriously.
“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, then the pressure cooker may burst.” These words by Justice D Y Chandrachud, part of a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, which last week ordered that five human rights activists arrested by Pune police on charges of involvement in the Bhima-Koregaon violence, be kept under house arrest, have gained big importance at a time when protests and voices against the establishment are heard in increased decibels across the country.
The order stayed the police’s attempts to move them to Pune amid growing protests. The apex court also issued notices to the Union and Maharashtra governments, seeking their replies and observed that those arrested are prominent rights activists, professors and lawyers. The SC ordered the five activists to be kept under house arrest till 6 September. Till now, no credible evidence has come to light that these HR activists intended to either engage in or incite violence-provisos integral to a charge of sedition. It is her case that they only reiterated what millions of downtrodden and suppressed people have been demanding.
The fact is that over the last two decades the market-friendly policies have come to dominate the Indian ruling class concerns, and the expression of any views whatsoever inimical to those policies or their consequences for the vast mass of Indians has been tended to be seen as anti-national activity. Recently, over 100 military veterans in an open letter to the powers that be, said, “Dissent is not treason. In fact, it’s the essence of democracy.” In an attempt to speak against the “clamp down on free speech and the all-pervasive climate of fear, intimidation, hate, and suspicion”, nearly 114 veterans wrote a letter to Prime Minister Modi stating their dismay at the divisiveness and current state of affairs of our country.
“We can no longer look away. We would be doing a disservice to our country if we do not stand up and speak for the liberal and secular values that our Constitution espouses. Our diversity is our greatest strength,” they said.