Dissent is the salt of democracy

By Aditya Sinha | Mumbai

Dissent is not just a safety valve but the saving grace of a country where yes-men don't care that we're chasing regress, not progress

A policeman stops lawyers in Bengaluru during a protest against the ongoing confinement of activists by Pune police on Friday. Pic/PTI

Why are there photos of Phule and Ambedkar in your house, but no photos of gods?" A policeman densely asked this Orwellian question of K Pavana, daughter of Varavara Rao, one of the five persons placed under house arrest by the Pune Police as part of the case into the violence during the Elgaar Parishad of December 31, 2017. The other four suspects: Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai; Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad; and Gautam Navlakha in Delhi. Not arrested: Sambhaji Bhide's gang that, by all accounts, began the violence. Possibly because their houses contain photos of gods, and not of Dalit icons.

Newspapers became a word-image dichotomy of sinister descriptions of the accused's alleged steering of a Maoist conspiracy to overthrow the State, contrasted with news photos of the five most physically non-threatening Indians you could possibly imagine. These five middle-class uncles and aunties are said to be the top of a pyramid of left-wing extremism. Cretinous news anchors imagined this pyramid's apex's "deep connections" to insurgents in Jammu and Kashmir, proving their unfamiliarity with either Jharkhand or J&K. Ironically, the right-wing Internet is filled with vitriol for Sudha Bharadwaj et al. She is their opposite, having given up a cushy life in America to work for society's marginalised, unlike those who worship H1-B more than they worship photos of gods.

Pune's police, who have trained not in Mussoorie or Hyderabad but in a David Dhawan slapstick caper, say that their case is built on the cement-solid foundation of letters that in essence say, "catch me, I'm guilty". No wonder wherever you go in India, the police inspires the least confidence. One letter Sudha Bharadwaj wrote to a shadowy "Comrade Prakash" advised him to use social media to highlight human rights abuses. Far from seditious, this letter highlights the individual rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India: social media under "freedom of expression", exposing human rights abuses under "freedom to life and liberty".

The letter was in any case an absurdist concoction. A newspaper's revealing headline quoted the police accusation against the five of forming an "anti-fascist front" against the government, thereby implying that the government was fascist, according to the police itself. Furthermore, the letter and the arrests only further distracted public attention from the role of the Sanatan Sanstha, who have neither been raided, arrested, nor had their letters read. Perhaps that's what the Great Leader intended. Some say he was keen on distracting attention from the Reserve Bank of India's (RBI) report which in effect said that the November 2016 demonetisation was a failure.

The Supreme Court weighed in: "dissent is the safety valve of democracy," it said, "if it is not allowed, the pressure cooker will burst". We in India have come to such a sorry state that this observation made us sigh deeply in relief. Demonstrating the government's intellectual bankruptcy, however, its home minister could only counter that it would not "compress the pressure cooker" — whatever that means. He added the nullifying caveat that no one would be allowed to destabilise the country or create violence.

More sinisterly, he claimed left-wing extremism had declined from 126 districts to "around 10", and that it had moved to the cities. In other words, the threat was now from "urban naxals", a term first used by the Great Leader against Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal during the 2015 Assembly election. The "urban naxal", a pseudo-profound empty phrase worthy more of Deepak Chopra than an administrator, is to today's India what the Jew was to the Third Reich.

The Supreme Court employs a metaphor I would not have chosen. Dissent is much more than a safety valve. Dissent is a legitimate political expression that is as valid in a democracy, if not more, as the government's tendency to homogenise the population into a mindless, Aadhaar-numbered, book-spurning monolith. Dissent is not a safety valve of democracy but one of the vital ingredients in that pressure cooker.

Practically speaking, if a society chooses one path then dissent provides it an alternative path, in case the one chosen turns out to be wrong or perilous. Look at the Soviet Union and what it did with its dissidents; and how many precious decades were lost by the USSR because it entertained no alternative vision of society.

India is already stuck in half a "lost decade" thanks to demonetisation, and the Great Leader's focus on bogeys like the 'urban naxal' rather than on economic management. His core supporters don't mind if another decade is lost, so long as the agenda is served. Those outside the agenda will have their homes searched, particularly if they've replaced upper-caste gods with their own icons. They will be arrested, imprisoned, and stamped out. Hardly a recipe for a pressure cooker.
Clearly, dissent is not just a safety valve but a saviour for democracy.

Aditya Sinha's latest book, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, co-written with AS Dulat and Asad Durrani, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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