Once during a friendly discussion on ‘reservations for certain sections of the society’, I was amazed by a reply which came my way asserting that reservations are against the principle of equality. It struck me as a revelation that often the terms that we use loosely in our everyday conversations are divorced from the nuances that they denote. The principle of justice which was first attempted to be defined by Aristotle more than two thousand years ago makes it apparent that “equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally”. He went on to state that “the worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal”. Clearly, my friend, privileged as he is, failed to conceptualise equality in the sense that it is used in political philosophy, jurisprudence or democracy.
On August 29, 2018, Justice DY Chandrachud hearing the petition by eminent individuals, seeking the intervention of the apex court to stay the arrests of five social activists across the country, observed that dissent is the safety valve of democracy; if it is crushed, the pressure will make it burst. While the matter is sub judice and all contentions are kept open by the court till the next hearing, the purpose of this article is to explore the SC’s assertion on a very fundamental principle of democracy- dissent. Irrespective of the fate of this case, the principle is of more value for citizens and the governments alike, discerning which will go a long way in furthering the process of democracy.
There is an antagonism that exists between the individual and the society. All forms of state, ethics, social institutions and agencies try to harmonise this friction. An individual by nature demands subjective space and freedom which is challenged by the fact that one interacts in a society. Therefore, the state is conceptualised as an ‘ethical entity’ that is to ensure the possibility of growth of an individual potential to its actuality and make it up for the restrictions that the whole asserts on the particulars.
Justice is the foundational basis for this ideal state. The ideal is a perfected standard which can be understood as a utopia envisaged in all constitutions. Utopia means anything but wishful thinking. It is sufficiently within reach of human competence to be attainable to a significant degree. Therefore, they act as a standard, a norm based on which the state attempts to harmonise itself. To me, the end of an ideal realm that utopia is, is of lesser importance as it is bereft of change and imperfections whereas the movement towards the ideal, that is to say, the journey is of greater significance. This expedition challenges the status-quo from time to time and is a constant churning of ideas that together form the core values of democracy.
Various thinkers view democracy with suspicion. The common criticism is its inherent nature to incline in favour of the majority. This majoritarianism that subjects the specialised intellectualism to threat and blackmail in the hands of the mob has in today’s world, more than ever, brought the nightmare of democracy – its degradation to demagoguery – to life. At a certain level, every individual is a minority. Thus, the justice demands that the rights of individuals be protected as natural, moral as well as fundamental right. The fundamental duties of an individual, however, are a subservient one. This arrangement presupposes and rightly so, the ontological reality of individuals whereas the whole whether in the form of a society, nation or state is only a conceptual reality.
To this raging debate, we may add that it is through mass education and democratisation of the polity aided by the revolution in information technology, which has set the expectation of re-establishing the ideals and standards of India as a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic. To many, it may strike as a shock that the basic ideas that have been so conclusively settled long back in history are being debated again after so many years. Interestingly, only a minority of enlightened individuals who deliberated on these matters. Today, within this cacophony, there is an opportunity for ‘this generation’ which Jefferson, the American statesman called to be considered as ‘a distinct nation’, to further the debate of the 19th-century modernity. It is not such a bad thing and would only deepen the democratic values, not discounting or disputing the apprehensions that lay if discrimination between the state apparatus on one side and the voices of dissent on the other is eroded or blurred.
Democracy means by all definition the people. Besides people there exists within a democracy, an idea of the nation as a geo-cultural unit governed by an organised government of representatives. This ‘idea of state’ is a necessary evil. A culture that has a long history of civilisation organised in largely monarchial and feudal set-up faces difficulty in transitioning to a democratic form of state. The obedience that the state demands is thus habitually rendered by a great body of inhabitants.
We must not ignore that the ideal state as envisioned in ancient India, based on the evidence from the Jatakas (Buddhist literature) and the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, is that of an ‘Arajaka (non-ruler state)’. Arajaka did not mean anarchy rather a harmonious state having no individual as the ruler – the basis of the state being the mutual consent of the citizens. This we may say is very close to the ideal state in the image of Tolstoy, who was one of the major influences on Gandhi.
The view that democracy is about elections, political parties, the rule of law, allies and enemies, discipline (as recently pronounced by the Prime Minister) and so on is the State’s perspective of democracy. Althusser expands this perspective as manifesting in the repressive state apparatus and ideological state apparatus. Repressive state apparatus is the executive, police, army and various other agencies that repress the people to follow the rules that are imposed. Ideological apparatus does not use violence but uses the private domain to keep the rule of the dominant power. This narrative can be progressed through education, culture, religion, media etc.
Identifying this narrative and marking its limits is crucial in the contemporary digital age and an era of corporatised journalism, where this is being organised and progressed with unparalleled penetration and efficiency. These apparatuses are exerted intending to establish the idea of the state as equivalent to that of the nation, as pointed out by many scholars, with its right to demand subservience in thought and action to the state or even worse the ruler.
There is another view of democracy as a brouhaha or organised chaos. For the society which is mostly undemocratic and where the constitutional safeguards and institutions are within reach of a limited few; resistance, dissent, disobedience and non-cooperation are the contending forces of civil society. As long as these forces are non-violent and constitutional, they are well within their fundamental right in challenging the state or merely entertaining this idea. Even if the resistance questions the fundamental stances of the state, reasonably, there can be no justification to trample on it. If a society is robbed of the opportunity to confront such disturbances and challenges to the popularly held beliefs and opinions, there is every possibility of the intellectual and moral decadence of the society into an abyss of dogmatic slumber.
Dissent might appear as a futile disruption, but this view is incredibly myopic and parochial. Dissent has been historically the creative force of progress of humankind. Every change and discovery can be traced to the heterodox views. Likewise, in a polity also, informed and reasoned dissent enables the development of the state towards realising its ideal. As long as the wheels of democracy are lubricated by resistance there is hope of individual emancipation within the boundaries of a civilised society. This free space of non-conformity in thought and action is provided for in democracy to ease the tension and pressure of subjugation by the dominant force and might of the state. This allows the hope to be alive, in the constitutional means which if violently repressed may lead to resentment, bloody methods of revolution, civil war and anarchy. Dissent, thus, even more, allows justice or order to prevail in a democracy by challenging the authority.
In this regard, Benjamin Franklin held that “it is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority”. To subordinate oneself to the state apparatus by indoctrination or otherwise is to undermine human values in oneself and others. The most susceptible to such inclination is the so-called, middle class that Jean Dreze says, lives in the social universe of their own. If the majority of citizens start loving power, it is a definite way towards putting democracy in jeopardy and opening the gates of totalitarianism.
An anti-apartheid and human rights activist Desmond Tutu sums the dialogue well for us in these times, when he says, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Originally published for Protesting India