In a rather cerebral dissection of the scope of dissent in a democracy at the recent Statesman rural reporting awards, the dialogue understandably veered around violent forms of dissent that were clearly frowned upon by most of the panelists. It took an academic, Hari Sankar Vasudevan, to point out that democracy does allow space for even violent forms of dissent, a thought that should have merited deeper exploration given that the Indian democracy, for instance, was essentially about imposing democratic norms on a society that was to a large measure fundamentally feudal and stratified both on basis of Manu and money.

Democracy is flawed not only in India but elsewhere in the world; in America, for instance, where the elected President had in the past made a crude public disclosure about his assaults on women. This brag was recorded on tape and a not so-bragged-about incident repeats itself in the ongoing Kavanaugh controversy. The physically, financially and numerically weak have always been the underdogs even in democracies and that should be the fundamental premise on which every analysis should be based on.

What would also follow in such a landscape ~ despite the Independence movement’s massively egalitarian influence ~ was that large swathes of the population, now rendered virtually irrelevant for purposes of”nation-building” because they lacked the education or other skills to participate in”development”, even though they dramatically added numbers to the already formidable columns of Indians battling for freedom ~ peacefully,  a la the Dandi March ~ to virtually lose their voice.

Thus, universal adult suffrage or not, India winning the 21st century or not; vast numbers of Indians continue to languish with no credible means to demand their share of the Indian pie; while the empowered segments of society largely accept status quo, possibly clucking at the sight of a child and a dog go into a scrum for food at the same dump. To believe that such masses of dispossessed would have the ability to challenge this status quo would be beguiling oneself from facing the grim realities that India represents.

The emergence of the Bhim Sena that, amongst its many purposes, wants to”protect the Indian citizens from economic, social, educational, political exploitation” is a natural denouement in this grim drama where the affluent society has been callous vis-à-vis what comprises entitlements for all Indians, smugly enjoying the privileges of being Indian; and most politicians and bureaucrats helping themselves to the loaves and fishes of office without conceding that the other Indian’s entitlements are being violated. It helps that the violated has often been bludgeoned into passivity.

Questions around violent dissent and democratic forms of protest trouble the intelligentsia only when the passive show signs of revolting. Yet, what ails Indian democracy is that the passive do not choose to show dissent more often and when they do, like the farmers of Mandsaur, the outcome is even more tragic than the tragedy that set off the unrest to begin with; to wit a region that had recorded a farm suicide every five hours in 2016-17, thanks to an abject failure of the administration to address the root causes of farm-sector stress.

Mandsaur epitomizes that dilemma of the’violated passive’ that cannot be expected to protest through acceptable means of expressing dissent, which fall upon deaf ears to begin with.

Violation of basic rights ~ access to government ~ has been a way of life for them; further worsened by violence, physical and emotional. Cases of the indebted farmer’s photograph appearing at the local administrative headquarters or even the thana along with other criminals are dime a dozen in rural India even when the Reserve Bank of India tells Indian banks that”A lending institution can consider publication of the photographs of only those borrowers, including proprietors/ partners /directors / guarantors of borrower firms/ companies, who have been declared as willful defaulters following the mechanism set out in the RBI instructions…”.

The poor farmer ~ who represents the violated community across the land  ~ is not to be extended such courtesies. If that be the emotional violence perpetrated on the farmer, who has been overpowered by circumstances, often natural calamities, the Mandsaur farmer was treated to worse. He was silenced with the police opening fire. Five dead. No discussion on the violent dissent in a democracy can demand legitimacy unless preceded by an admission that the violence was in response to immediate or prolonged violence on basic human rights.

When the state is the first agent of violence, there is no room for such civilized channelling of dissent into what are deemed as accepted forms of dissent for, surely, the state cannot claim monopoly over what it will deem as legitimate violence, as the Mandsaur killing was made out to be. There is equally specious logic masquerading as valid reason for the pervasive lawlessness; much of it under seeming state protection, under the benign cloak of permitted dissent.

Truth to tell, it is the intelligentsia and the silent majority that affords legitimacy to such unquestioned beliefs that creates the breeding ground for ferocity of response to perceived wrongs. Such perceptions, even convictions, may be founded in the fact of one’s religion being different from another’s or that the other’s caste is inferior to one’s own.  It is thus important to distinguish between genuine wrong and a perceived wrong when assessing the validity of a violent expression of dissent.

The son of a self-immolating farmer striking the officer who refused to refinance a loan that had not crossed a limit needs to be distinguished from the lynchers of Akhlaq (who kept meat in his refrigerator), even while conceding that violence is never the solution. Indeed, it is almost always counterproductive.

The latter act of brutality was either sheer villainy or a response to a perceived wrong by a manipulated mind that, for instance, can easily transfer the genuine source of wrong to something or someone entirely unrelated. To wit, the frustrations of a life without opportunities or other dissatisfactions converted to a hatred for those who have found some means of livelihood or possess land to eke out one. The poor tribals in India or the native American in the USA for instance.

To then proclaim that dissent of a violent nature has no place in a democracy would amount to double standards. By definition, democracy affords space for grievances to be redressed. Any space where dialogue between the governor and the governed has ceased relinquishes the right to be called a democracy; analyzing the nature of dissent then becomes a futile exercise.


The writer is a former Assistant Editor, The Statesman