Let Us Define ‘Dissent’

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 01 Sep 2018 11:25:00

“Dissent is a safety valve of democracy. If it is not allowed, the pressure cooker will burst.”

                               - Mr. Justice Dhananjay Chandrachud,
               Honourable Judge of the Supreme Court of India.

FOR this statement, we must remain grateful to Mr. Justice Chandrachud. Let alone the details of the case that he was handling when he made the deep observation, the statement by itself enshrines one of the definitions of a democratic polity where every voice is expected to have its own value. This belief has made a lot of difference to global democratic discourse for ages.

In Indian context, the statement, however, needs to be considered with certain qualifications. For, as is the general experience with our public discourse, in the name of dissent, a lot of nonsense, too, is dished out, adding to the already existing chaos and confusion between philosophy and ideology. What is being pushed in our public discourse is less of philosophy and more of ideology with obvious political overtones. In most cases, everybody takes resort to the word ‘dissent’ to justify another opinion or contrary view-point. Even though the democratic platform allows dissent as a legitimate activity, and also states with a lot of pride that ‘we agree to disagree’, the whole discourse tends to become cantankerous. It is this dimension that actually defies the concept of dissent.

In the Leftist context, which is in issue as regard detention of some Maoist ideologues, the word ‘dissent’ has unfortunately assumed a dirty dimension. Dissent is okay, but the nation will have to decide if it may mean waging a war against the lawfully formed Government of a constitutionally established State of India. The nation will have to decide if this definition is acceptable in constitution, in law and in public mind.

The bane of Leftism in India is that it has come far away from its original ideals in which dissent was based on values and principles. In Indian political arena, however, things started degenerating very fast as the Leftists formed Governments through ballot. Even though they did so, they not just allowed but also nursed some voices that aimed at unseating the lawfully formed Government on the strength of bullet. This philosophy also reflected itself when the Leftist Governments in the country started encouraging hooliganism through their cadres to put down ‘dissent’, that is the contrary opinion. Those who agreed with the Government were allowed a free reign of lawlessness, and those who did not were made victims of lawlessness. This happened in West Bengal and this also happened in Kerala.

The Left Wing Extremism (LWE), that is now on the run for life, offered many elements an open license to say anything in the name of dissent. These elements -- mostly the pseudo-intellectuals with strong leftist leaning and open sympathies with LWE that indulged in wanton killing of innocent civilians in the name of ideology of Maoism -- felt free to say anything, do anything, approach the courts with innocent-looking, good-worded arguments that flaunted words like ‘dissent’ and ‘democracy’ and still got away with all that.

This scenario emerges menacingly in the mind as we take a dispassionate look at what is being allowed in the name of dissent. That makes a strong case for us to decide if we are going to allow such arguments to dominate our national discourse. There is never any doubt that dissent, often, acts as a safety valve which should be allowed to operate. In a civil society -- a phrase that Leftist intellectuals use so often -- however, even dissent has to be circumscribed by certain values of larger public good, of larger national interest. The question is if the shape leftism is assuming serves those goals of public good.

India’s contemporary political history has one bad example of how we mishandled a public uprising when the judiciary beat down the great concept of Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh. Even though the common tribals of Central India’s hinterland rose against the Maoist oppression, that activity was not treated as dissent and was banned through judicial orders. Was that not dissent -- of its own kind? This is where the question arises about the definition of “dissent”.

For, if this is happening as regards LWE, something similar and equally sinister is happening in Kashmir where separatists often get what they want because of the wrong definitions we have held close to our chest. By those definitions, if the crowd of thousands of stone-pelters encircles security forces and kills them, it is okay. It is also okay if the protesters use children as a human shield, but if a Major Gogoi ties a man to the front of his jeep as a human shield, there is a public hue and cry. It is this point that necessitates a reconsideration of our definitions. For, if we allow our public discourse to be affected and afflicted by wrong definitions and temporary emotional responses to patently wrong stimuli, then our nation will not take much time to be doomed.

One of the worst things to happen to our nation in the past three decades is the rise of Left Wing Extremism in which criminals keep killing innocent civilians and government servants in various capacities with a justification that they are doing all that because they want benefits for the tribals. However, the issue of development cannot be decided in such a lop-sided manner when lack of development leads to gun-running.

Let us understand the situation in a different context: West Bengal is a terribly backward state. So is Kerala, let alone the Gulf Money flooding in. Then, why do these Maoists not go there to unleash wanton killing as a tool to development?