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“Dissent Is Nothing But A Difference Of Opinion”

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The right to dissent is not just a right but it’s a spirit, a faith, and a belief in the system to accommodate the right to speak against untruth and criticise popular opinions.

If the freedom of speech has been given to us so we can express; the freedom to religion has been given to us so we can exercise it; and the freedom to live with dignity and liberty is ours, then no wonder that the right to dissent has also been given to us.

Representational image.

If Article 19 (1)(a) (right to freedom of speech), Article 14 (right to equality) and Article 21 (right to life) are at the heart of a citzens’ rights, then the “right to dissent” is the soul of each right of a citizen… To pump their hearts and keep them rejuvenated, so that all the pillars of democracy will not vacillate.

However, today it is a ramshackle. I quote here the words of justice DY Chandrachud from his judgment on the right to dissent, “Blanket labelling of dissent as anti-national hurts ethos of democracy”. He stated that:

“Dissent and democracy are often considered synonyms in a liberal democratic social order.”

We Ought To Agree To Disagree

Justice Deepak Gupta has also offered his words of wisdom on dissent, saying that:

“The bar room is the most unholy place where nothing is sacred, no reputation so unimpeachable that it cannot be blown to smithereens, no personality so towering that it cannot be brought crashing down, no characters so pure that it cannot be torn to shreds, no idea so holy, that it cannot be disagreed with. That is the essence of dissent. If anything, the bar is a shrine for dissent.”

The line stated above provides a broader picture to the spectators to perceive, discern and mull. Today, is dissent is boon or bane? The right to dissent is not to instigate.

However, the term  “dissent” is unfairly associated with other words like hate, sedition, unpatriotic, apathetic, and defamation.

Pause for a moment and observe this term. Think about your constitution with an impartial mind and unprejudiced heart. The essence and the meaning of this term is black and white.

However, we still need to gain clarity by re-reading, re-understanding, re-thinking, and re-visiting the ethos, principles, and spirit of the Indian constitution.

The right to dissent is just another: opinion of a person, perspective of a leader, theory by an educationalist, criticism of a party, principle of an organisation, and idea of a student.

What is wrong with this ideology? Is it against our constitution? The answer is simple. However, classification is difficult because dissent is present when our views don’t accord with each others’. But, one can set aside their ego, vanity, and superiority.

Hence, we have to simply disagree to agreeing. We need to adopt a tolerant behavioural approach towards dissenters.

Without a doubt, dissent is radical. If we go down in history, one can find names of radical thinkers, who raised questions against accepted norms and thereby, raised the voice of dissent.

Whether it is Mahatma Gandhi, Karl Marx, Martin Luther, Jesus Christ, Buddha or, Ram Mohan Roy—they were all dissenters.

The Meaning Of Dissent

The nature of dissent transmutes. It is dynamic.

For instance: in the family, dissent would mean to disagree to not disrespect. In educational spaces, it would mean to disagree not to criticize. At the workplace, dissent would be to disagree to be not too impolite.

In the political arena, dissent would be to disagree not too snide. In movements and protests, dissent would disagree not to rebel.

Dissent is a multifaceted prism. But, the bottom line is that dissent is not a crime, just a difference of opinion. Dissent is important to bring forward multiple sides and give people the room to express, speak and show another side of the coin.

This is essential to understand this term. Let us try to understand the rationale behind dissent with an illustration. There is a tree with leaves. We have a bale of leaves of opinions, ideas and thought. We have a leaf of dissent, too.

And sometimes, only just because of the majoritarianism, we miss the the leaf of dissent on the tree.

Globally, dissent is recognised. Article 7 of the UN’s declaration on human rights defenders, explicitly recognizes that:

“Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to develop and discuss new human ideas and principle and to advocate their acceptance.”

However, the truth is bitter and egregious. Nowadays, dissenters have to pay the price for dissenting. They have to face trial, arrest, and backlash. And, this is a downright violation of their rights. It sabotages the image of the dissenter into someone who is delinquent and notorious.

The lines of Rabindranath Tagore is sufficient for dissenters:

Open thy mind, walk alone. We are not afraid, [to] walk alone.”

Dissent And The Rule Of Law

As a principle of governance, the rule of law, like democracy and the separation of powers, is an integral part of our body politic. It is the golden thread that runs through our constitution.

Anywhere, anytime, when ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is this: “Freedom, not tyranny; democracy not dictatorship; the rule of law, not the rule of men.”

The rule of law was coined by Albert Dicey. According to this prominent concept, the rule of law consists of the following: equality before law, transparency of law, independence of the judiciary, and accessible, legal remedies.

The role of dissent in the rule of law is to bring truth, sanctity, lucidity, and tranquility. To dissent is to confront, let new ideas emerge, criticise and make the other side visible.

Why can’t dissenters and supporters come on the same page with dignity, liberty, and fraternity; rather than lampooning each other for being wrong. It’s better to concur with each other and accede with both opinions, in terms of “less true” and “more true”.

Rulings of Indian courts on dissent:

  1. Shreya Singhal v Union of India – In this case, justice Rohinton Nariman said “protected and innocent speech” cannot be curtailed on vague grounds like it was “grossly offensive” or “causes annoyance or inconvenience”. What offends, annoys or inconveniences one, may not have the same effect on another.
  2. Toolkit case – The Supreme Court observed that, “Citizens are conscience keepers of government.” In any democratic nation, they cannot be put behind bars simply because they choose to disagree with state policies.

What Does Data Have To Say About Dissent?

The right to dissent has received a spotlight from 2014. Some major developments have occurred, especially in the past couple of years.

Disha Ravi, a young, environmental rights activist from Bengaluru was charged with sedition for merely creating a toolkit to do with the farmers’ protest. Representational image. Photo credit: @disha_ravi, Twitter, via Indian Express.

According to the latest report by the globally-acclaimed organisation, Freedom House, India has been downgraded from “free” to “partially free” for the first time in the history. It ranks countries based on democracy and freedom.

Likewise, in the “Global Democracy Index”, we have declined from rank 51 to 53 in the last year.

All these indices stated above clearly show that the central government is downplaying the situation. It also indicates that our political and civil liberty rights are blemished. “Dissent” is being portrayed as a bad word and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

To quote the Vikings:

Take care with your speech; it can be the catalyst for many needless problems. You never know who could lend an ear to your ramblings.”

But, resistance, consistency, and assertions can change the cycle of history. So, we MUST speak radically so that we can change.

The Vikings also rightly said: “What will be etched into history about your life? What legend will be left long after you’re gone? How have you made this world better? Ponder on these questions.”

Dissent is crucial not just for the present, but to shape our future. We must speak up about what we believe in and invariably, the change we wish to see in our society.

The right to dissent is part of our constitution and we must exercise our rights without any dread. We are humans and there will always be two (or more) sides to everything.

In a nutshell, I would like to ask the question: do we have the platform to dissent if we don’t agree with someone? It is important to ask this question because dissent is just a second opinion.

REFERENCES

Justice Deepak Gupta, The Right to Dissent is the Most Important Right Granted by the Constitution, The Wire.

Sudha Menon, No right to dissent? India’s democratic space is declining, The News Minute.

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