There is no denying the fact that Democracy and Dissent have to go together because then only Democracy can be meaningful. It is also equally true that Dissent in Democracy is accompanied by some obligations and being constructive in dissent, in the interest of the nation, is perhaps the most important of such obligations. As a corollary it implies that any dissent for the sake of dissent will invariably be counterproductive. There is also an imperative need for all to understand where dissent ends and subversion begins since no self respecting nation will tolerate the later. It may be worthwhile to recall the words of Richard Perle, an American Political Advisor, who said “We may be so eager to protect the right to dissent that we lose sight of the difference between dissent and subversion.” In India we are certainly passing through a phase where the line between dissent and subversion is getting blurred by the day and this is a matter of concern for a growing nation. While dissent has to be encouraged and allowed, subversion must be curbed with a heavy hand. Let us always remember that while honest dissent is an asset, disloyal subversion is a liability.
It is no secret that Pandit Nehru disliked dissent and invariably got his way. By the time Indira Gandhi came to power, dissent was beginning to raise its head but her autocratic ways ensured that it got snubbed in the bud. She even took the extreme step of dividing the Congress Party to weed out dissenting voices. However ultimately it was dissent led by Jayaprakash Narayan that led to her downfall in 1977. It does appear that Congress learnt its lessons well after that debacle and has ever since made deliberate attempts to cultivate likely dissenting voices in a very successful manner. Be it the media, political adversaries, intellectuals or social activists, successive Congress governments kept most of them on its side by various means available to the government. Be it bungalows in Lutyens area, honorary appointments , deputations abroad, nomination to delegations, conferences or seminars abroad, appointment as members to various committees or councils, were some of the inducements that worked wonders for the Congress governments. The whole approach could be summed up as ‘an inducement a day keeps dissenters away’. Dubious NGOs had a free run as governments of the past were ever willing to look the other way when it came to their sources of funds or some nefarious activities that they invariably carried at the behest of their masters abroad.
When it comes to expressing dissent against the establishment and the government’s ability to accept the same without much ado, India would perhaps score very high and beat most nations. This is also possibly an important reason why democracy has developed deep roots in the country over the last sixty nine years and today one may not be overstating if one were to say that ‘India is democracy and democracy is India’. Not many nations in the world can boast of a vibrant democracy as is practiced in India – a nation full of diversities – be it language, ethnicity, religion, beliefs and a host of other factors. This was so from 1947 to 2014 when the nation had mostly Congress led governments at the centre barring a few years and is true even today when there is a BJP led government. Yet one has seen more discussion in the last two years on the subject of ‘Stifling of Dissent’ than perhaps one saw in more than six decades before the current government came to power.
Where is the dissent coming from today? The common man on the street was neither part of meaningful dissent before nor is he part of it today since his whole life is centred on making a minimal living for himself and his family, a task that continues to be as difficult today as it was a few decades back. It is a known fact that many politicians, intellectuals, social activists and media persons find themselves out of work and out of favour with the establishment these days. They have been shunted out of Lutyens Power Circles that they were accustomed to for decades. Most blame Mr Narendra Modi for their current status – or rather lack of status. This has resulted in their turning anti BJP in general and anti Mr Modi in particular. Following the age old adage of ‘an empty mind is a devil’s workshop’, many of them have found solace in being part of the dissent brigade. Is it any wonder that they invariably take a dissenting stance in whatever the government does? Surely it cannot be true that the present BJP led government does nothing right.
On one hand we have a host of ever increasing dissenting voices across the nation and on the other the government of the day is accused of stifling dissent. Obviously there is a contradiction somewhere. If the government is successfully stifling dissent then number of such voices has to be minimal which is not the case today. If this be true then either government is not stifling dissent or it is totally ineffective in its efforts to do the same. Either way dissent wins, then where is the case for stifling dissent? What is important to note is that there is a change in the manner in which dissent is addressed today. During Congress regimes the volume of dissent, both in terms of numbers and decibels, was low and Congress rarely opposed it or took it head on. It just let things be. However under present government dissent is taken head on which increases its visibility and impact manifold. Just watch any debate on national television today on any subject and it turns out to be a BJP versus everyone else, the subject notwithstanding.
Congress has led governments at the centre for nearly six decades and most people have got accustomed to its ways. Non Congress governments, including Mr Vajpayee’s government, also functioned to a large extent in the same manner. For the first time in the history of independent India today we have a government whose approach is markedly different from that of Congress. It is more vocal, it professes greater nationalism and patriotism openly, it wants the government to be proactive and accountable, it wants to change some things in a hurry and it talks of fast paced growth to take the nation to greater heights. It even wants to debate the future of subjects like ‘Reservation Policies, Uniform Civil Code and Article 370” that have been Holy Cows for many decades. Last but not the least it has no hesitation to talk of the interests of the majority 81% population as opposed to previous governments where any mention of Hindu interests was sufficient to term one as communal. It is this changed approach that irks most and therefore the increased din of dissent from some quarters in the country. This is not to say that all dissent is bad or baseless. One cannot discount the fact that it will be impossible for all aspects of the government’s approach to be right at all times. Therefore there will be pitfalls and shortcomings where dissent will play a pivotal role to make the government mindful of the same for a course correction where required. However to assume that the total approach is wrong, just because it is different, will not only be unjustifiable but also unfair. Based on its different approach the government does expect a lot of dissent. In other words one can safely say that it is extending invitation for greater dissent as opposed to stifling dissent.
It is also apparent that words like ‘nationalism & patriotism’ are in favour today while they had been consigned to some archives prior to 2014. It is another matter that interpretation of these terms can be a cause for dissent and conflict at times. It is also true that some communal fringe elements are trying to seek their two penny worth of fame by espousing causes like cow slaughter, dress code for women and standards of moral behaviour in public under the banner of nationalism or patriotism. These acts are localised and not part of an organised pan India plan by any stretch of imagination. They rightly invite dissent from others in the society. Despite what some intellectuals, social activists and political opponents may want the nation to believe, such actions of the fringe elements are neither government sponsored nor part of governmental policies. Just because some of them may be members of BJP or its affiliated organisations does not mean that everything they do is government sponsored. These insinuations are used by dissenters with vested interests to show the government in bad light.
To say that Nationalism is used to stifle dissent, as purported by Mr Pavan Varma of Janta Dal (U) in his article in Times of India dated 27 August 2016 (Patriots & Nationalists), is just hogwash and baseless. If there is any anti national element in dissent then the government has to come down with a heavy hand else it will be failing in its job. If that seems like nationalism stifling dissent then so be it. The reasonable restrictions attached to Freedom of Speech under Article 19 of the constitution have to be interpreted in the interest of the nation first and individual later. Unfortunately most dissenting voices, Mr Varma included, do it the other way round. One has to be thankful that today we have a government that talks of ‘Nationalism & Patriotism” so that people develop pride in themselves and their nation. Surely there is no argument about the need for this in our country where mediocrity, lack of pride in self and the nation has been the bane of our society for too long.
When the government’s detractors claim that it is stifling dissent, most of the times the reference is either to happenings in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) or in nation’s premier institutions like JNU and other such establishments. A lot has already been written about these and it will be futile to repeat the same. Suffice it to say that any sloganeering seeking breaking up of the nation or eulogising confirmed terrorists or anti national elements can certainly not be passed off as dissent and therefore totally unacceptable. In Kashmir one can question the methodology of how the situation is being tackled by the authorities but to question the very right of Indian sovereignty over the state does amount to being anti national. If any individual propagates that thought among others then it may even amount to sedition since it will spread unrest. If dissent in some parts of Kashmir valley by some locals against Indian sovereignty becomes a cause of concern for many intellectuals and social activists, why do these people not speak up for the cause of bulk of the people of J&K who want to be part of India and have nothing to do with the separatist movement. Why it is that none of these learned people have ever questioned the past governments as to why they never laid claims for the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) which legally is part of J&K that ceded to India? Today when the current government seeks Pakistan’s ouster from POK these individuals call it interference in another nation’s internal affairs – there can be no better example of ‘dissent for the sake of dissent’ than this.
India has been used to dissent from minorities, or on behalf of minorities, for many decades and that became an acceptable norm where sometimes even the will of the minorities was imposed on the majority. It may not be wrong to say that this situation developed more by design than by default due to the appeasement and vote bank politics of vested interests led by Congress. Today, for whatever reasons, the majority too is showing some dissent – sometimes for genuine causes and at times merely to vent out decades of suffocation or frustration of the past. This has obviously ruffled some feathers as many social activists, old school intellectuals, politicians and minority leaders cannot digest the change. For many their very existence and relevance is under threat in the changed scenario. Words of American Philosopher Eric Hoffer explain this very well when he said that “A dissenting minority feels free only when it can impose its will on the majority: what it abominates most is the dissent of the majority.” Unfortunately today the concept of minority will being paramount and overbearing seems to be losing ground and that is the real cause for vested parties to claim that ‘dissent is being stifled’.
Saroj Chadha, an engineering professional, is a successful entrepreneur. Having retired from the Indian Army after having served for over 23 years, he has also been a consultant for leading Indian and Multinational electrical companies. He lives in New Delhi.