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What SC Meant When It Said “Dissent Is The Safety Valve Of Democracy”

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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

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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