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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 18 New Delhi April 20, 2019

Dissent is the Fulcrum of a Democracy

Tuesday 23 April 2019

by Saumitra Mohan

Dissent and democracy are often considered synonymous in a liberal-democratic social order. It is through open debate and discussion that the huge range of diversity of opinion in a democracy is captured. It is by means of such continuous conversation on relevant issues and contretemps that the real truth comes out. However, many have questioned the putative usefulness of ‘dissent for the sake of dissent’, as without much import.

It is suggested that motivated and manu-factured 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 out the real issues and airbrush the truth behind a surfeit of information, debate, disagreement and discussion.

The critics have pointed to the meaningless reflexive dissent by Opposition political parties in a democracy. They do so not just to make their presence felt, but also to embarrass and run down the government of the day with a view to earn some brownie points to feather their political nest. But here the question is: how does one recognise which dissent or disagreement is genuine, reasonable and legitimate? The same could be known only through dialogue and debate.

Any proclaimed 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 is on display across the globe today. So, it is definitely never 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 notwithstanding all the falsehood, fabrication, and misinformation advanced to screen the truth via multimedia channels.

A sturdy, liberal democratic body politic has an innate homeostatic 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 too careful before advancing an argument in favour of any curbs on any type of dissent, howsoever disruptive or subversive. Expression of such dissent should, however, be subject to reasonable restraints and within the confines of relevant regulations.

An institutionalised ‘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 penchant for booking and 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 shall never fear any such divergent opinion or criticism. A tradition of healthy debate and constructive criticism are said to be beneficial for any 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 such constructive criticism and dialogues that new ideas and vision come forth, thereby taking the society to a new developmental height. As John Stuart Mill would have said, ‘My right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins.’ Voltaire had similarly said, “I may not like what you say, but I would defend your right to say so till my death.”

In an age of high-speed information and communication, it is well-nigh possible to tweak and twist facts to present the same as truth, thereby compromising the very efficacy of democracy and open discussion. As such, there is definitely a need for being vigilant against falsehood and propaganda in an age of ‘post-truths’ where sentiments and schmaltz are passed as ‘truth’ by the power-peddlers.

The new-age social media has made the situation further murkier. There have been many gruesome incidents and sanguinary episodes resulting in bad blood and loss of lives, just because the vested interests somehow were successful in manipulating information and news through media 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 different media houses have higher chances of manipulating and manoeuvring any information, news or views. Hence, it is more than advisable for having a system of checks and balances in the form of an impartial ombudsman to regulate the means of information and communication in an open democratic society.

It is only through functioning of a vibrant media along with homeostatic checks and balance that a liberal democracy could survive. However, a trend has been noticed across the world for the Rightwing 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 murder of Shujaat Bukhari, Gauri Lankesh, M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar or many others in India and abroad for their candid views are all examples of intolerance to dissent and disagreement. Be it the imposition of the Emergency in the 1970s or the lynching of some people with impunity, we only hurt the cause of democracy by such actions. Notwithstanding all attempts by the British to throttle freedom of expression in pre-independence India, they still could not contain the same at a time when we did not have such sophisticated means of mass communication.

The argument here is very simple. If the negative opinion is within the precincts of law, none has any right to suppress the same unless it finds reflection in unlawful activities. The same has also been concurred by the Supreme Court of India. By prohibiting such free expression, we only make them go underground thereby hurting ourselves more as then it gets difficult to track such individuals and groups who may become more sinister to the larger societal interests.

In fact, a prohibition often has an opposite effect by putting more gloss on the subject. All the attempts to manage and manipulate media by the dominant power groups never have the desired effect because of the inherent strengths of Indian 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 with disastrous consequences.

While violence has always been a tool with those expressing and curbing dissent, its effectiveness is always questionable. It’s because of this that 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 balkanise any society. Hence, there is a need to be alert against any mindless use of violence.

A 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 battle as is already visible.

Dr Saumitra Mohan is an IAS officer, presently working as the Commissioner of School Education, West Bengal. The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of the government.

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