Speaking up: Dissent in India
Holding or expressing opinion at variance with those commonly or officially held is the meaning of the word, dissent, in an accessible dictionary. But in India, dissent has many meanings and many unexpected applications — and some forms of dissent appear to be more equal than others. Ruling on the petition of the Speaker of the Rajasthan assembly, the Supreme Court pronounced that the voice of dissent cannot be suppressed in a democracy. The court was reiterating a fundamental principle of the democratic ethos, which draws its sap from varied opinions and approaches, and creates harmony out of diversity. The principle is of extraordinary importance today, when dissent from or criticism of the Narendra Modi-led government’s policies and actions is labelled ‘anti-national’ — earlier it was usually sedition — and the dissenters charged under laws against conspiracy, against incitement through speeches or the instigation of violence. Teachers, writers, lawyers, activists arrested for allegedly inciting the Bhima-Koregaon violence, for links to ultra-Left groups and a conspiracy to assassinate the prime minister have been in jail for two years, while students and young people protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens are still being arrested, often charged with causing the violence in northeast Delhi.
The Speaker of the Rajasthan assembly had petitioned the Supreme Court to stay the order of the Rajasthan High Court that barred the Speaker from disqualifying till the following Friday Sachin Pilot and 18 other rebel Congress members of the legislative assembly. The Supreme Court, however, dismissed the petition. Members of a party have the right to dissent, to criticize their party, felt the court, and not attending a meeting could not be considered anti-party activity. The issue whether there could be judicial intervention before a Speaker had set the disqualification process in motion was presumably considered irrelevant. That the group was incommunicado during an interlude in which the members stayed in a hotel in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Haryana did not seem to be of any relevance either. The Supreme Court’s emphasis on the importance of dissent in a democracy is of overwhelming importance; its full impact, however, can only be appreciated in conditions of neutrality or, rather, under circumstances free of direct political tension and disagreement. The principle loses clarity otherwise.