On the Freedom to Dissent

Nadia Ahmed

Examining India’s commitment to accepting and tolerating dissent

India has a rich history of nonconformity and yet the concept of dissent today is gravely misunderstood. This history has ranged from the famous debate between Gargi and Yajnavalkya, when she questioned the origin of all existence, to disagreement with the scriptures being the basis of Buddhism and Jainism, to Chanakya’s dissent which led to the creation of the mighty Mauryan empire, to when Krishna questioned the imposition of restraints due to societal norms and finally, to Shivaji’s dissent against the mighty Mughals.

“The spark ignited by the rebellious soldiers of Meerut was carried on by the brave Rani Laxmi Bai, Mangal Pandey, the Lal Bal Pal trio, Nehru and Gandhi, and resulted in complete Swaraj (independence)”

The tradition did not stop there, dissent was the basis of more than a hundred years of struggle for India’s independence from the British Empire. The spark ignited by the rebellious soldiers of Meerut was carried on by the brave Rani Laxmi Bai, Mangal Pandey, the Lal Bal Pal trio, Nehru and Gandhi, and resulted in complete Swaraj (independence). Debates held over three years during its formulation are the reason why India’s constitution is lauded for being all-encompassing and for granting its citizens liberty of thought, expression, speech, faith, and worship.

In 1975, during the Emergency many activists were suppressed, the freedom of the press curtailed, opponents of the regime jailed and all forms of dissent crushed with an iron fist. This period witnessed an unsurpassed number of human rights violations and atrocities such as forced mass sterilization and illegal detention. 

However, even in that bleak period of personal liberty, dissent as a tool was kept alive by Jayprakash Narayan, who led a movement against Indira Gandhi’s autocratic rule and Hans Raj Khanna, the dissenting judge who upheld civil liberties over government orders.

Dissent was also the driving force behind the success of the Anna Hazare movement and the subsequent push for anti-corruption which led to the Lok Pal Act (Anti corruption Act) in 2013. Another example is the harshening of penalties by lawmakers in rape cases as a result of nationwide protests after the Nirbhaya case in 2012.

Thus, it is surprising that a country that has historically relied on dissent and disagreement to strive for progression is today projecting intolerance to it.

“New ideas generally arise when established norms and truths are questioned and yet, dissent is not only discouraged but also censored”

Starting from the smallest unit of society, the family. The act of questioning has been proven to help develop cognitive abilities, but it is often seen as a mark of disrespect rather than a learning opportunity. Households often tend to negate the fact that a family, which does not authoritatively dismiss dissent, is a harmonious one. This dismissal leads to forced obedience and compliance, which are subsequently seen as socially acceptable traits. An individual’s loyalty is questioned when they dissent as seen in sedition charges against activists. New ideas generally arise when established norms and truths are questioned and yet, dissent is not only discouraged but also censored.

Despite freedom of speech being enshrined in the constitution as a fundamental right, India has a catena of speech-related offences that remain on the book.

“Every book offending any sect of any society is readily removed from the shelves, any post on social media showing dissent lands you in jail”

Every film screened has to go through the watchful eyes of the Central Board of Film Certification. Every book offending any sect of any society is readily removed from the shelves, any post on social media showing dissent lands you in jail. This shows broad regulatory control over the modern modalities of expression.

All too often, in the guise of national interest, Indian authorities and citizens have tried to curb many opposing views and interests. Examples include the harassment of M.F. Husain for alleged obscenity, the ban of Sulman Rushdie from Jaipur Literature Festival due to opposing views on his book The Satanic Verses, and the ban on films such as Fire, The Da Vinci Code, Jodhaa Akbar, Fanaa, Padmaavat, a criminal complaint filed against forty-nine people for writing an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing their concerns over hate crimes targeting minority communities, the list is endless.

Many are murdered for expressing their dissent, such as Narendra Dabholkar who proposed an Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Bill, Govind Pasare who was at the forefront of anti-road toll agitation and journalist Gauri Lankesh who spoke against right-wing Hindu extremism.

The Indian government has displayed its especially intolerant behavior towards all acts of dissent by using stringent and archaic laws. Hundreds were arbitrarily detained in Kashmir to prevent protests after stripping the state of its status by abolishing Article 370, it further prohibited several Kashmiri activists such as Shah Faisal and Gowhar Geelani from leaving the country and detained major political leaders such as Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah using the controversial Public Safety Act. 

“It is shameful that such colonial-era laws which were aimed to keep an eye on Indian subjects so that they do not express disloyalty, still have relevance and are weaponised in the legal system.”

Many Activists and peaceful protesters such as Hiren Goham, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Meeran Haider, Gulfisha Fatima, Safoora Zargar, Shifa-ur-Rehman, Asif Iqbal, Akhil Gogoi, Khafeel Khan, Umar Khalid, have been branded ‘urban Naxals’ for speaking against the government’s policies, booked under counter-terrorism laws (Unlawful Activities  (Prevention) Act and National Security Act) or charged with sedition and detained on flimsy grounds. It is shameful that such colonial-era laws which were aimed to keep an eye on Indian subjects so that they do not express disloyalty, still have relevance and are weaponised in the legal system.

The press, which is considered as an indicator of freedom of speech is censored and curtailed as reflected in India’s rank at number 142 out of all countries in the World Press Freedom Index. According to the report, “there have been constant press freedom violations, including police violence against journalists, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.”

“Indian courts have repeatedly held that the right to free speech ‘necessarily includes the right to criticize and dissent’”

Indian courts have repeatedly held that the right to free speech “necessarily includes the right to criticize and dissent.” Calling dissent the “safety valve” of democracy, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud has said that its curbing goes against the country’s commitment to protecting constitutional values. The importance of dissent has been highlighted in various reports and observations and thus, its suppression is direct harm to a citizen’s freedom.

There is a wave of dissent being witnessed across the globe, from the Tahrir Square in Iraq to the protests in Chile against President Pinera, to the opposition of military rule in Sudan, to Hong Kong standing up against Chinese Laws and to Black Lives Matter in the United States of America. It goes to show that only through dissent does humanity strive to perfect itself. 

India, a country which has always been at the forefront in taking pride in its pluralism and diversity, should openly embrace dissent rather than try and silence its citizens. “Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high, into that heaven of freedom my father, let my country awake” this poem by the Bard of Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore, should resonate more powerfully now more than ever.

Nadia is a Political Science graduate who is pursuing Law and hopes that the world will become an unprejudiced and tolerant place

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