No dissent, no democracy

No government, whatever be the circumstances, has the right to take away our freedoms, justice and equality

April 20, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 01:04 am IST

This newspaper carried a powerful editorial, “Perverse zeal” (February 17), on paediatrician Dr. Kafeel Khan’s arrest. As the novel coronavirus is taking its deadly toll on lives and economies across the world, one would imagine that the focus of the government would be on containing the spread of the virus and coming up with ameliorative measures to reduce the burden on the people. But the dominant mood seems to be to hand out punitive punishments to dissenters. To make matters worse, the courts are not at the forefront of defending rights and limiting excesses.

Fate of dissenters

On the birth anniversary of the framer of the Indian Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar, civil rights campaigner Gautam Navlakha and scholar and activist Anand Teltumbde were forced to surrender to the National Investigation Agency for their alleged involvement in the Bhima-Koregaon riots of 2018. The Uttar Pradesh government has filed a case against the founding editor of the news portal The Wire , Siddharth Varadarajan, for allegedly spreading fake news against Chief Minister Adityanath and making an “objectionable comment” about him. Scholars who condemned the excess of the U.P. government said: “A medical emergency should not serve as the pretext for the imposition of a de facto political emergency.” In India, dissenters seem to either be killed, as we saw in the case of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh, or are subject to an unfair judicial process, as is happening to Dr. Khan, Mr. Navlakha, Mr. Teltumbde and Mr. Varadarajan. And comedians risk being on the no-fly list.

While the courts over the past decade may not have delivered on protecting crucial rights as enshrined in the Constitution, there is a fine display of scholarship documenting India’s glorious history of individuals and groups questioning, censuring and debating authority for over 3,000 years. India Dissents is an anthology that documents some of the sharp arguments, doubts and expressions of differences over three millennia. From the Charavaks and Gautama Buddha to contemporary public intellectuals like Romila Thapar and Amartya Sen, the anthology speaks of the many defining texts by these writers that enabled people to question and hold those in power accountable. Ashok Vajpeyi, who established the Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, and is a well-known administrator of cultural institutions, has not only edited this volume but has also written a very moving introduction. It is my earnest desire that all our elected representatives, learned judges, journalists and others read this anthology to understand the crucial role of dissent in a democracy. They need to move away from the comfort of patronage and return to the core calling of their respective vocations.

A couple of excerpts

I am sharing only excerpts from a couple of texts mentioned in the anthology as the paucity of space here prevents me from exploring the book in its entirety. At this time of rampant engineered social fissures, let us first look at a poem from Purananuru , a Sangam period Tamil anthology, written by Kovoor Kilar and translated by A.K. Ramanujan. It is a clarion call to warring clansmen Netunkilli and Nalankilli to stop fratricidal war:

“Your enemy is not the kind who wears

the white leaf of the tall palmyra

nor the kind who wears garlands

from the black-branched neem trees.

Your chaplets are made of laburnum

your enemies are made of laburnum too.

When one of you loses

the family loses,

and it is not possible

for both to win

Your ways show no sense of family:

they will serve only to thrill

alien kings

whose chariots are bannered

like your own.”

The second is an excerpt from a letter written by Jayaprakash Narayan from prison during the Emergency to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi: “Having muzzled the press and every kind of public dissent, you continue with your distortions and untruth without fear of criticism or contradiction. If you think that in this way you will be able to justify yourself in the public eye and damn the Opposition to political perdition, you are sadly mistaken.”

What the anthology teaches us is that no government, whatever be the circumstances, has the right to take away our freedoms, creative impulses, justice, dignity and equality.

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