“Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth”
Dissent and defiance are often mistaken to be synonymous. In reality, they stand poles apart. While dissent can mean an open and constructive disagreement or counter opinion, defiance means refusal to abide by the law and may come under the purview of a punishable wrong committed in a society.
How do we then draw a line between rightful dissent and unlawful defiance? To our dismay, it appears to be drawn already by the government of India.
The Indian Constitution declares the nation as a democratic republic. Naturally, it implies the inclusion of diverse thoughts, ideas, beliefs and excludes arbitrary rule by the sovereign, like a monarchy. However, we experience disillusionment when the curtain is lifted, and India is stripped off its stature as a free country.
We come to realise that the spectacle called India is run largely at the hands of a whimsical ringmaster, desperate to showcase its citizens enjoying basic rights for the eyes of the foreign spectators. However, a closer glance reveals them being compelled to propriety owing to the threat of a whip called sanction.
People are expressing dissent all over the world. Be it the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the United States, or the Anti-CAA protests back home, we witness voices attempting to awaken an unresponsive government.
I would say that this practice of peaceful protests is a right of every individual who is tired of the lackadaisical attitude of the law makers and those responsible for maintaining order.
Unfortunately, the Indian government seems to differ.
The present government has always silenced those who are not satisfied with maintaining the status quo. These people range from journalists and activists to young students, and everyone else who is tired of a totalitarian regime. Any form of dissent by the public is met with a retaliatory legal action by the executive. What fuels the government to punish citizens and advance a narrow view on dissent?
Unjust Laws - Accessories of the Government
The legislature provides for various laws that allow the government to curb dissent and freedom of speech. One such law is the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA). Primarily an anti-terrorism law aimed to protect the sovereignty of India, the UAPA has taken a swift turn to target advocates of free speech.
Be it Masrat Zahra, a photojournalist who was detained under the draconian law for voicing concerns of the people of Kashmir, or Safoora Zargar, the pregnant student charged with ‘unlawful activity’ within the meaning of Section 2(o) of the UAPA, the government has often resorted to arbitrary detention as a response to a person’s exercise of right to free speech.
Another law stifling voices is Sedition, as defined under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Dhaval Patel, a Gujarat-based journalist was booked for sedition by the Gujarat government for merely criticizing the State's Chief Minister.
Similarly, 19 year old Amulya Leona was capriciously charged with sedition for shouting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ in a public forum. The Supreme Court in Balwant Singh v. State of Punjab (1995) 3 SCC 214 held that mere sloganeering cannot amount to sedition. Further, in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India (2015) 5 SCC 1, it stated that one had to differentiate between “advocacy” and “incitement”, and that only “incitement” was punishable.
However, the government clearly seems to have given a cold shoulder to the Supreme Court.
In this day and age of technological advancement where social and mainstream media have expedited information dissemination to uphold the right of the people to know and be informed, what allows the government to sanction our right to free speech?
Government’s Alleged Power to Curb Freedom of Press
The Supreme Court in Secretary, Ministry of I & B v. Cricket Association of Bengal (1995) 2 SCC 161 held that the Government has no monopoly over electronic media and a citizen has a right to broadcast and disseminate information even of critical nature, as long as it does not violate Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
Further, In Brij Bhusan v. State of Delhi AIR 1950 SC 129, the court observed, “Freedom of the Press is essential to political liberty. When men cannot freely convey their thoughts, no freedom is secured. Free expression is, therefore, unique among liberties”.
What we note here is that while law allows the free flow of criticism, the government wants us to believe that any opposition to governmental action would amount to straddling the line between dissent and defiance.
The dynamics between ‘free speech’ and ‘sanction’ have existed for years, where any exercise of the former is met with accusations of sedition. As early as 1942, in Niharendra v. Emperor AIR 1942 FC 22, the Court held that mere criticism or even ridicule of the government is no offence as long as it doesn’t make people cease to obey the government or the law in order to “unleash anarchy”.
Although overruled, this implies that there were times when freedom of speech and press were treated with utmost regard, and not made to bow before the government almighty.
The question that follows is, what changed?
The Government’s Filter on Dissent
The growing trend of dissent being termed ‘anti-national’ has finally solidified in the heart of the nation. The false and aggressive ideas of nationalism and patriotism have been ingrained so deeply into our minds that we now scrutinize dissent through the microscope of jingoism.
Today, journalism is considered synonymous to chauvinism, where any idea that begins to find faults in the government is met with hostility and resistance.
As stated by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud,
“The blanket labelling of dissent as anti-national or anti-democratic strikes at the heart of our commitment to protect constitutional values and the promotion of deliberative democracy”.
When Courts in India have expressly held that protestors and citizens who exercise their right to dissent cannot be termed as traitors, I fail to understand the inaction against those in power, who regrettably have a license to chant inflammatory slogans like “shoot the traitors”.
When the government itself overlooks judicial guidelines, what must one do to get justice?
Setting a New Stage
We must acknowledge the crucial role of dissent in realising social influence and its ability to criticize the status quo. Dissent may be disruptive, but it contributes to the texture of democracy: it enables self-governance, civic participation and promotes diversity and tolerance.
A defining feature of political culture has hardly been accepted in the first instance. Each previously unrepresented or marginalized voice has only gained recognition after meeting with ideological and political resistance. Be it women demanding the right to vote, or the LGBTQ community demanding their right to be heard and identified, dissent has always played a vital role in shaping the ideals of society.
The government of India must understand that dissent is not induced in ordinary minds by an external agency, but born in the conscience of its subjects after being exposed to abuse and tyranny. The new India, currently in the shackles of an unruly government, is rightly on the path of dissent.
While the authorities pose an obstruction and desperately attempt to transform our ‘dissent’ into ‘defiance’, we must not allow them to muffle our voices and strive to rid this country of all evils that plague its territory.
For if our democracy is to flourish, it must have criticism; if our government is to function, it must have dissent.
[The author is Sambhav Sharma, a 4th year B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) student at Amity Law School, Delhi (GGSIPU). Views are personal]