Dissent is important in a democracy and India needs to take it seriously

Topics dissent

Powerful nations need to be self-correcting if they are to undo the harm that all nations do to themselves. 

The United States was built on two crimes against humanity. The first was the extermination of the native populations of the regions now known as America. The European invasion wiped out 90 per cent of the original inhabitants. The second was slavery, which kept millions in bondage. Slavery ended after horrific violence in which hundreds of thousands of Americans died.

More American soldiers were killed in their civil war fighting one another than all of India’s dead in all of our wars, all of our insurgencies and all the wars on Her Majesty’s behalf that India’s mercenary army fought.

There was no interest for the winning side, the North, led by Abraham Lincoln, but the cause of humanity and the human rights and freedoms of all Americans, no matter their colour. They were sufficiently invested in these to say they could not look away from the suffering of other humans. The military losses in terms of lives were greater for the North but it prevailed because it was backed. 

India doesn’t have this element of uninterested action taken on behalf of values and humanity. This is observable. The Mumbaikar and the Surti have zero visible interest in what is being done today to Kashmiri children and women in the name of nationalism. And, of course, what is being done to them today by the Indian state has been going on for three decades. 

This is not the sign of a self-correcting nation and there is little pressure on the state in India to stop continuing its practices. The relationship between the Indian citizen and, especially the military arm of the state, is that of a supplicant who must unquestioningly offer devotion and obeisance.

This is unhealthy and it prevents the state from properly weighing its choices. Any form of military action India will take, whether against its own people or others, must be applauded.

Some of the most dogged resistance to the Vietnam War, fought 50 years ago, came from young Americans in universities and the actions of celebrities like the great Muhammad Ali. 

America lost 50,000 of its soldiers in that lost war, which should never have been prosecuted, but it is fair to say that one reason it finally ended was public opposition to it inside America. 

Our history shows that it is difficult for India to exit conflict. Where there is a clean victory (1971) or a clean defeat (1962) it becomes easy to accept or hand out terms. Where there is a draw (1965) the Indian state must depend on external powers to sort out its mess. 

Illustration: Ajay Mohanty

Internal conflicts, which have been going on in some cases for the entire length of independent India’s existence, can continue to drag on because there is no pressure on the state to end the killing of civilians and soldiers. Once the magical mantra of “national interest” has been uttered, we must all cower and surrender to it. 

The question is: How do nations self-correct? It is clear that from within the state there is not much resistance. The Supreme Court, tasked to be the guardian of the Constitution, has been busy in utterly irrelevant things like the national anthem in cinema halls or damaging ones like the National Register of Citizens. It cannot be relied upon to uphold fundamental rights on principle and I am hardly saying something scandalous. This is visible today. The apex court has been co-opted into this “national security/national interest above all” way of thinking. 

There is actually only one way in which nations and especially powerful ones can self-correct. And that is to encourage a diversity of views. The primary reason America can self-correct and India cannot is the first amendment of both nations’ constitutions. Theirs insists on absolute freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly. Our first amendment takes away these freedoms from the citizens and upholds the rights of the state.

If one doesn’t have the freedom to express dissent freely, will that dissent be taken and debated seriously? It will not. This is why we live in a nation where all dissent is treason and where change will continue to be difficult unless externally enforced.

In America, the dissenter is celebrated. He may have his detractors and they might even outnumber his supporters, but he is allowed to speak and to write. We seem to lack the capacity to produce a Noam Chomsky, to promote and publish a Chomsky and to listen to him.

Freethinking gives another advantage to civilised nations and it is economic. Even if one is a hardened and unthinking nationalist, this is one reason to consider being more tolerant.

There is a specific reason India doesn’t invent much and it is that Indians are not allowed to explore ideas. Powerful nations have the capacity to harm their own citizens and their neighbours more than weak states. They require maturity and openness and debate to be able to guide their strength in the right direction. India shows little sign that it is able to do this.


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