Dissent in a Democracy keeps hope alive

A government that denies people space to state their point of view, or to listen to dissent betrays its commitments to constitutional governance

Photo by Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Photo by Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Aruna Roy

There seems to be a global malaise of governments cracking down on dissent. Democratically elected governments in India or the US, Philippines or Hungary, people elected by the ballot chosen to rule, are suddenly turning oppressors.

I was a student of English literature and one of my favourite poets was William Butler Yeats, whom I continue to read off and on. However I met an Irishman who told me that Yeats had fascist tendencies , this came to me as a surprise. His poetry of struggle for Irish liberation entitled him in my mind to a place in the list of revolutionary poets. No matter where we put him, the following lines remain some of the most oft quoted: the lines written by him in the poem called the Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

These last two lines describe the state of public politics in India so well. The majority of the sensible are forced into silence or lack the courage to speak; and the worst are full of ‘passionate intensity’. The loudness of illogical and threatening arguments put forth by aggressive self styled protectors of “Indian nationalism” , declares the limits of public discourse and threatens violent action on all dissent, opposition or alternative. Yeats after the first stanza does not want to leave the reader in despair. He says:

“Surely some revelation is at hand.”

The poet and politician in Yeats wanted to leave us with hope. The loss of hope after all is the final defeat. Hope is important because it keeps activists struggling fighting all odds, keeps politicians going looking at the possibilities of power, keeps researchers carrying on, hoping to discover and unravel; keeps the world going with endless promises of a better world – “acche din” notwithstanding. The end of hope is the end of life. We all need to believe in the possibilities of a better world.

A decade or two ago , dissent was part of democratic practice . It was both discussed and to a great extent practiced. For the people on the margin, and on the outer edge of the margins, dissent and protest were political rights to freedom of expression, guaranteed within a democratic framework. The street is the parliament of the people , and protests its demand for changes and corrections to the polity.

The public debate, even 10 years ago permitted dissent. Take for instance the arguments and counter-arguments when the MGNREGA the public works programme was in process. Media and other platforms carried differing vices - furious argument between economists and sociologists, activists and neo liberal supporters etc. The most fundamental dilemmas found space , whether 4 per cent of the GDP on work for the unemployed in rural India would lift the country into a decade of development or pitch it down the spiral. The economic neo-liberal debate was against empowerment for the poor, but there were enough prominent economists who argued otherwise. Since the print and electronic media gave space for presenting differences to the listeners and readers , the discussion on poverty and employment was in the centre of public discourse in India for many years. The importance of work and employment and its centrality to the debate on poverty became part of the national discourse. The accusation that the MGNREGA would and has , brought the economy down, reached a crescendo in 2014 when the current PM made a statement in parliament that he would keep the MGNREGA alive as a monument of the previous government’s failure to frame effective policy.

Similarly the demand for the Right to Information, its movement drew support from a cross section of Indians. The draft bills , which defined transparency and proactive disclosure began to unravel the intricacies of government functioning, the mystery of the file and permissions. The mystified “Sarkar” became visible. The poor needed to know what was happening in the offices of the government, corruption and graft, the arbitrary use of power, as it directly affected their livelihood and life. The myth that poor and the very poor could not or were incapable of applying their minds to bigger issues was slowly but steadily set aside. The RTI received more public acceptance as almost everybody was affected by corruption and mis-governance. For those who dreaded transparency , afraid of losing the space to pilfer and steal, it was politically incorrect and electorally dangerous to oppose it ! There was an accusation made in 2014 that the RTI was the reason behind the UPA’s policy paralysis – blaming all the rights based legislation and accusing them as a bunch of bringing down efficiency of government and development. If one examines the accusation against growth figures and the numbers of scams exposed in the last 10 years the accusation fails scrutiny.

From 2004-2013 seven rights-based legislations were passed empowering the disadvantaged; to fill the governance gap between constitutional promise and delivery, including the Forest Rights Act, the Domestic Violence act, Right to Education Act, Right to Food, Employment Guarantee Act etc – rights that should have ben guaranteed with freedom from colonial rule.

Contemporary figures tell us that the Right to Information Act is used by six to eight million users in the country today and the work rights law (MGREGA) is used by 100 million workers every year. Even the current dispensation , the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi who declared them structures of failure couldn’t quite set the clock back. They have had to make truce to some extent.

Perhaps the most powerful mandate came from the involvement of people, fashioning the process of participatory democracy. The evolution of these acts came from a process of listening and taking responses seriously – through hundreds of street corner meetings, discussions with a variety of groups, debate, discussion, critique, protests, engaging with and demanding platforms for dialogue with the government , and speaking extensively in the public domain. Today this process stands threatened with the exclusive nature of governance. The PM believes in one way communication and sound substantive discussions have got reduced to one liners and TV debates . The rule of law stands threatened and free expressions is met with intimidation and violence. Laws are passed in parliament without pre-legislative consultation and parliament itself is not using systems and mechanisms for discussion within.

The instilling of fear, recalls Orwell’s 1984, which in my youth was a fantasy of totalitarianism and fascism. That India is rapidly becoming fascist is evident when the state disallows freedoms to its people, above all freedom of expression. Many prominent and less well known Indians are under scrutiny and many phones are tapped. Restrictions on spaces for protest has shrunk the voices of dissent and disagreement further. Every city and small town is following the example of the federal government to deny access to public space for protests. In Delhi for instance there is one street, Jantar Mantar, which has been reserved for protests representing more than a billion citizens. It is impossible to state one’s opinions as the blare of loud speakers tears ear drums – it has become a fish market. Now, even to protest there has become difficult as permissions are denied . Government feels we should be pushed to the corners of the city, and probably not be seen and of course not heard.

The Indian dream for a democratic system that ensures liberty, equality and fraternity, now threatens to become a nightmare. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Indians took constitutional promises quite seriously. We really believed the Indian constitution had promised us these rights. And our strength as citizens lay - no matter which the government - to make it work to deliver our right to speak , to express, protest to express difference and dissent.

Universities in India used to be open centres for debate, for disagreements, for expressing opinions. Rohith Vemula from Hyderabad University committing suicide, as a result of persecution and injustice . He left a letter behind which illustrated why young people with principles had to resort to suicide when all their attempts were blocked . Hyderabad University became a war zone when students protested against the arbitrariness and injustice of the management, and the police was invited in – mobiles were taken away, all internet facilities were suspended, food wasn’t cooked. The media was blocked off, to break the back of student dissent and with it the right to question, dissent and disagree. What education do we then offer our young ? In the case of Kanhaiya Kumar and his friends in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the right to have differing opinions on Kashmir was equated with sedition, when they raised the question of the rights of the Kashmiris. Any discussion on Kashmir, is polarised immediately . They raised slogans for freedom including Kashmir and were jailed for sedition.

Adivasis who question mining are called Maoists, students who question democracy and democratic principles are called terrorists. India has deviated from its own constitutional principles and increasingly and self-styled protectors of vested interest ( proclaiming protection of the law and majoritarian sensitivities as their mandate) have become vigilantes promoting a lawless society in many parts. Violence seems to get public approval more easily than non-violence , and nationalism is used as a stick to beat difference and dissent.

The marginalised denied entry into the hallowed institutional spaces of democracy, have always expressed themselves in the open glare of public action and appealed to fellow citizens. Streets and open spaces have been their seminar rooms, their convention halls and their parliament. It has been their space to use for expression of their opinions. It is through a series of such public protests that the demands for Right to Information Act , the MGNREGA Act , Right to Food and the Forest Rights Act were shaped into coherent demands for legislation and policy.

The systematic denial of public space to protest by democratically elected governments is the beginning of fascist and totalitarian control. People who are victims of injustice and violation of promises for economic and social equality, have protected and fought for these values. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Citizens have been on the watch for keeping the system aware of its deviations from constitutional promises . Governments rarely remember the French Revolution and the preamble to our constitution. The words Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are the three pillars of the Indian Constitution, and protest is a constant reminder of these principles and promises.

The current leadership in India is dismissive of the past - years of nation building and the principles on which the nation emerged from colonial rule. There are loud murmurs that the Constitution has outlived its worth. Violent action springs up to support these new definitions of nationalism- a theory that secularism is pseudo, that left intellectualism is anti-national . And when social policing turns violent and a government committed to the rule of law keeps quiet, government as a protector of legal rights is a diminishing concept.

Cow-Vigilantism has become India’s new Taliban, killing and creating terror, as a silent majority watches it perform . Dalits for centuries were forced to flay animals ; a “dirty” job no one would do. When they were performing the caste mandate, they were attacked and beaten in Una . Those who operate without the backing of reason or the law run amok, not only democracy but governance has taken more than a back seat. In this rampage, the right to freedom of expression and justice are denied. The institutions of democracy have in their silence become party to it. The biggest victims are rationality, reason, constitutional rights, validity of democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Those who want to deny India’s plurality , its constitutional integrity, and reduce it to a fascist entity, want a single narrative to dominate. Disagreement with that narrative is tantamount to sedition- the modern heresy. Twisting religion, politics, and history for its ends of power, dominance and intolerance need a single narrative which brooks no variation, kills scientific inquiry, freedom of expression, all the rights under the constitution that guarantee right to religion, free expression, to form fraternal groups. Can a country with multiple identities, religions, languages, cultures and races ever have a single narrative?

Disagreement, difference and dissent are principles as well as tools to assert democratic rights. There is an illusion which persists in popular understanding that controls and restrictions over freedoms exist only in a totalitarian state, and that all such states are Communist. Communism , Socialism , Capitalism are ideologies. Totalitarian is a kind of governance and it can be grafted to ideologies right, centre, left, or any other. In India we are edging towards a totalitarian government, which is right wing.

BR Ambedkar had said on the day he gave us the Constitution,

“On the 26th of January, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value.
In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value.”

How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

The struggle for equality and justice have pushed peoples movements to demand equality in “our social and economic structure”. Ultimately governance and structures translate those constitutional promises into deliverable units. The Right to information and all other rights based laws have shown that it is possible for people to walk along with the political and other establishments to improve theory with lessons from democratic practice . One of the slogans of the RTI campaign was, “yeh desh hamare aapka, nahin kisike baapka”, (this country is yours and mine; it is not the feudal property of a few).

We began with Yeats and end with Subhramania Bharati. Subramania Bharati, a great Tamil poet and an important part of the National Movement for independence composed this poem in the 1930s when India was fighting British colonialism. A woman dying from hunger and malnutrition says :

I’m dying of hunger and I need a bowl of gruel/But more important than my getting that bowl of gruel is my need to say I need a bowl of gruel

The right to differ, dissent and disagree is the spirit of all freedoms and a defining principle of democracy.

Edited extract from a public lecture delivered in CEU Budapest in May 2017

Aruna Roy is an Indian social activist who co-founded the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana

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Published: 11 Jul 2017, 1:55 PM