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Democratic dissent

It is not advisable to indulge in the misadventure of restraining the dissenting behaviour or voices.

Saumitra Mohan | New Delhi |

Dissent and democracy are often considered synonymous in a liberal- democratic social order. It is through open debate and discussion that the diversity of perceptions in a democracy gets exposed.

Through continuous interactions on critical issues and contretemps that the real truth is known. However, many have questioned the putative usefulness of ‘dissent for the sake of dissent’, as being without much import. It has been suggested that motivated and manufactured dissent can do more harm than good in an ‘open society’.

The critics point out that too much of dissension actually thwarts and frustrates a meaningful discourse. This is because a conscious attempt is usually made to drown the real issues and airbrush the truth behind a surfeit of information, debate, disagreement and discussion. Critics have referred to the meaningless and reflexive dissent by Opposition parties in a democracy.

They do so merely to make their presence felt, and run down the Government and thus earn some brownie points to feather their political nest. But how does one know which dissent or disagreement is genuine, reasonable and legitimate? It can be known only through dialogue and debate. The perceived right to justify the suppression of such discord in the garb of curbing socially insidious opposition could later be misused to stifle even rightful and lawful dissent, as evident across the world today.

So, it is not advisable to indulge in the misadventure of restraining the dissenting behaviour or voices. The truth is always strong enough to come out stronger through the rough and tumble of democratic discourse. This happens despite all the falsehood, fabrication, and misinformation advanced to screen the truth via multimedia channels.

A sturdy, liberal democratic body politic has an inbuilt system to ensure a balance in favour of truth and justice. Freedom of expression is the much elusive ‘Holy Grail’ which is the real fulcrum of a functioning democracy. So, the so-called critics of reflexive dissent should be careful before advancing an argument in favour of curbs on any type of dissent, howsoever disruptive or subversive.

Expression of such dissent should, however, be subject to reasonable restraints and within the ambit of relevant regulations. An institutionalized ‘rule of law’ cushions a democracy against possible abuse of the right to dissent and disagree. The alleged misuse of some of the legal provisions in our fledgling democracy, including those relating to defamation and sedition, has been noted with concern by many. The practice of arresting people for their anti-establishment vitriol is definitely not a very encouraging development and should be restrained.

The USA, as the world’s oldest democracy, does provide a shining example of allowing any criticism or censure of the Government and its policies, howsoever disparaging to American values and ethos. An open society ought not to be afraid of divergent opinion or criticism. A tradition of healthy debate and constructive criticism can benefit a progressive and vibrant polity.

A society without any tradition of debate and dialogue starts stinking like the waters of a stagnant pool. It is through constructive criticism and dialogue that new ideas come up, thus taking the society to a new trajectory of development. As John Stuart Mill said, ‘My right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins’. Echoing similar sentiments, Voltaire had said, “I may not like what you say, but I will defend your right to say so till my death”.

In an age of fast communication, it is virtually impossible to tweak and twist facts and present the same as truth, thereby compromising the very efficacy of democracy and open discussion. As such, it is imperative to be vigilant against falsehood and propaganda in an age of ‘post-truths’ where sentiments are passed as ‘truth’ by the power peddlers. The new-age social media has made the situation murkier. There have been many gruesome incidents resulting in bad blood and loss of lives, just because the vested interests somehow were successful in manipulating information and news through conventional and social media for advancing their selfish interests. It has been proven beyond doubt as to how the entire presidential election of the USA was influenced by another country with a view to ensure the victory of a particular candidate.

As control of the mammon decides the information outreach, those with deeper pockets and influence over media houses have higher chances of manipulating and manoeuvring any information, news or views. Hence, it is more than advisable to have a system of checks and balance in the form of an impartial ombudsman to regulate the means of information and communication in an open democratic society. It is only through the functioning of a vibrant media with checks and balance that a liberal democracy can survive.

However, a trend has been noticed across the world for the right-wing revisionist forces to do everything possible in their might to be intolerant to any uncomfortable opinion as may prejudice their vested interests. Such orthodox and reactionary forces not only misuse the media to manufacture convenient opinion, they also actively discourage any free expression of opinion and disagreement. The killings of Shujaat Bukhari, Gauri Lankesh, MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and many others in India and abroad for their candid views are examples of intolerance to dissent and disagreement.

Be it the imposition of the Emergency in 1975 or the lynching of some people, we end up hurting the cause of democracy by such actions. If the negative opinion is within the law, none has any right to suppress the same unless the activities are unlawful. This has also been reaffirmed by the Supreme Court. By prohibiting such free expression, we only make them go underground thereby hurting ourselves even more. It becomes difficult to track such individuals and groups who may become more sinister. A blanket ban is counterproductive.

The attempts to manage and manipulate the media never had the desired effect because of the inherent strength of India’s democracy. As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘You can fool some of the people for some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time’. All autocrats have attempted to control the media and the consequences have been disastrous. While violence has always been a tool with those expressing and curbing dissent, its effectiveness is always questionable.

Mahatma Gandhi never recommended the same for a just cause. The use of violence as an alternative to a meaningful dialogue is dangerous and has the potential to balkanize society. Hence, there is need to be alert against any mindless use of violence. Constructive criticism and meaningful dialogue is the hallmark of a democracy. But before we can expect that to happen, we need to have a more educated and informed society.

One only hopes that amid all the attempts to impose fetters on freedom of expression and package lies and post-truths as truths shall come apart in a country as diverse as ours. India and its institutions shall emerge stronger as a more educated civil society comes forward to fight its battles, as is already palpable.

(The writer is an IAS officer, presently posted as the Commissioner of School Education, West Bengal. The views are personal and don‘t reflect those of the Government.)