DEMOCRACY & DISSENT

EXPLAINING DISSENT

Dissent is an opinion, philosophy or sentiment of non-agreement or opposition to a prevailing idea or policy enforced under the authority of a government, political party or other entity or individual.  Political dissent is a dissatisfaction with or opposition to the policies of a governing body. Expressions of dissent may take forms from vocal disagreement to civil disobedience to the use of violence. In some political systems, dissent may be formally expressed by way of opposition politics, while politically repressive regimes may prohibit any form of dissent, leading to suppression of dissent and the encouragement of social or political activism. Individuals who do not conform or support the policies of certain states are known as “dissidents”. Several thinkers have argued that a healthy society needs not only to protect, but also to encourage dissent.

CONSTITUTION AND DISSENT

The Preamble to the Constitution of India promises liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship. Clauses (a) to (c) of Article 19(1) promise: –

  1. freedom of speech and expression;
  2. Freedom to assemble peaceably and without arms;
  3. And the freedom to form associations or unions;

These three freedoms are vehicles through which dissent can be expressed. The right of freedom of opinion and the right of freedom of conscience by themselves include the extremely important right to disagree. The right to disagree, the right to dissent and the right to take another point of view would inhere inherently in each and every citizen of the country. When we view all these together, it is more than obvious that the right to dissent is the biggest right and, in my opinion, the most important right granted by the Constitution. Dissent is essential in a democracy. If a country has to grow in a holistic manner where not only the economic rights but also the civil rights of the citizen are to be protected, dissent and disagreement have to be permitted, and in fact, should be encouraged.

DISSENT; A PART OF THE FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS

The Indian constitution consists of fundamental rights which are also known as the magna carta of the constitution of India under Part III. Fundamental Rights are basic and foremost rights which are given to every individual who is a citizen as well as a non-citizen residing in India. Fundamental rights define the seraphic character of any constitution as these rights ensure that there is no discrimination is happening based on race, caste, colour, religion etc. These rights further aid the provision of fundamental freedoms under article 19. Article 19 consists of several sub-clauses which reads as;

[1]Article 19 of the Indian Constitution prescribes and protects the following kinds of freedoms to all citizens of India –

a) Freedom of speech and expression.

b) Freedom to assemble peacefully and without arms.

c) Freedom to form associations or unions.

d) Freedom to move freely throughout the territory of India.

e) Freedom to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India.

f) Freedom to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade, or business.

The first sub-clause saying freedom of speech and expression says it all about India and its ethos. India is a country where there are number of religions and numerous castes, furthermore, India has a feature of multi-party system therefore, there number of political parties present in India and in such a situation conflict of opinions and occurring differences amongst one another is common. There are 8 recognized National Political Parties in India, the most prominent and contemporary of which are the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party which are considered to be the staunch opponent of each other. Therefore, the constitutional makers of India incorporated the fundamental freedoms enshrined in Article 19 to give the right to dissent and form opinions against one another provided it is withing the purview of constitutional provisions explained thereunder. Freedom of speech is an indispensable element of any democratic country. It is the basis of civilization, and without it, liberty of thought would shrivel. Freedom of speech and expression provides the right to express one’s opinion freely without any fear through any medium. The word “Press” is also included under this provision. Therefore, for any democracy to thrive and survive freedom of speech is essential.

Every freedom comes with restrictions, without which there would be complete chaos in the society. Similarly, Article 19 also provides for ‘reasonable restrictions’ on these freedoms. Therefore, these rights are conditional. The State has the authority to reasonably limit or takes away these six rights on the following grounds –

Freedom of Speech and Expression

Sovereignty and Integrity of India.

Security of the State.

Friendly relations with foreign States.

Public order.

Decency.

Morality.

Contempt of court.

Defamation.

Incitement to an offense.

CENTERAL GOVERNMENT ON DISSENT

There have been several instances where the current NDA regime led by Narender Modi has been accused of suppressing dissent through force or through inflicting false cases against the dissenters. The Press who is considered to be the one of the pillars of democracy has been accused of suppressing the dissenting opinions of the opposition political parties by not showing what they are saying and asking for. In its consultative paper on sedition, the Law Commission of India said dissent and criticism of the government are essential ingredients of a robust public debate in a vibrant democracy.

[2]The Commission, which is the central government’s apex body on laws, headed by former

Supreme Court judge, Justice B.S. Chauhan, suggested it was time to rethink or even repeal Section 124A.

The Commission has invited public opinion on the prospect of either redefining or doing

away with Section 124A in the “largest democracy of the world, considering that right to free speech and expression is an essential ingredient of democracy”.

Why should India retain sedition when the British, who introduced sedition to oppress Indians, have themselves abolished the law in their country, the Commission asked.

Sedition attracts imprisonment from three years to life. In his book Republic of Rhetoric, Abhinav Chandrachud argues that the Constitution of India has made “little or no substantive difference to the right to free speech in India”.

Prior to India’s independence, there were four exceptions to the right to free speech. Sedition (and hate speech), obscenity, contempt of court and defamation. And they remain virtually unchanged in the Constitution.

The book argues that prosecutions for sedition relentlessly launched against leaders of freedom struggle like Bal Gangadhar Tilak continue to be used to silence voices today.

As K.T. Shah pithily explained free speech and its exceptions in the Constituent Assembly,

“What is given by one right hand seems to be taken away by three or four or five left hands”.

DISSENT AND NEW RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

The response of the BJP government to people’s movements indicates that it is no longer a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”. Instead, citizens are manipulated to work for it. India’s present political leadership has tried very hard to promote the martial past of the subcontinent, marked by the rise and fall of successive dynasties. But despite such efforts even as it ignores integration of the Mughals and centuries of colonization, the sub-continent has actually had a rich history of peace and peaceful protests.

The phrase ‘Ahimsa Paramo Dharma’ (non-violence is the highest virtue) is ironically repeated many times in the Mahabharata. Peaceful existence remains a core tenet of both Jainism and Buddhism. There are instances of non-violent protests even before the Gandhian freedom struggle. In 1730, 363 Bishnoi’s (a tribe in the Indian state of Rajasthan) were massacred by the King while peacefully protecting their sacred trees from being felled. These aberrations, when rules of engagement were violated, have now become the norm. Post-independence, there have been examples of people coming together to demand change or stand up to the government. Launched in 1951, Acharya Vinobha Bhave’s Bhoodaan movement – was instrumental in persuading landowners to gift land for redistribution to sharecroppers is one example. There have also been non-political movements led by individuals. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) movement against the construction of dams along the river Narmada shook up India and made international headlines. Both remained peaceful people’s movements. The Ram Janma Bhoomi movement in 1990, though launched as a peaceful movement, ended in violence. The partly religious but wholly political movement was led by right wing Hindu organizations, and politicians like LK Advani – one of the leading lights of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jan Sangh. It culminated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid and was followed by riots, murder and mayhem. Not wanting to appear anti-Hindu the central and state governments were in a quandary on how to deal with Advani’s Rath Yatra. Nor did successive governments accede to the demands of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Though non-violent protests remain part of India’s socio-political discourse, there has been a marked change in how it is perceived. The right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has rewritten the books of engagement with the express purpose of projecting an image of a strong leadership unquestioningly supported by the citizenry.

[3]Unlike earlier governments, the current dispensation has more than just laws to deal with protestors. The brute Parliamentary majority allowed it o amend the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) empowering it to label individuals as terrorists and detain them without trial. Thus, the proclivity of the BJP government to brand all dissent and dissenters as anti-national has grown. Many who critiqued government policies and action found themselves charged under UAPA, NSA and sedition laws. The present government has also not been shy of using religion to malign those who stand up to them. For example, during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, the government, including Prime Minister Modi, instigated the majority by alluding that the protestors were Muslims and hence, by implication, suspect. In the ongoing farmers’ protests, the government falsely claimed that the protestors were Khalistani separatists. Public discourse on the arrest and incarceration of young climate activist Disha Ravi, who was charged with sedition for supporting the farmers’ protest, was steered to ask whether she was Christian. This government has also handled the media differently from its predecessors. Past governments did try to muzzle the media and succeeded for temporary periods. But the BJP government has instead corralled the media and controlled the narrative. In fact, a recent central government committee made up of cabinet ministers, right wing ideologues and pro-government journalists came up with elaborate recommendations on how to control the media and neutralize the anti-government media. Blocking access to the Internet and crackdown on social media have also been part of the government’s strategy. In Kashmir the government blocked internet access for 17 months and 4-G internet services were restored just before Prime Minister Modi and President Joe Biden spoke. The five-month long Farmers’ protests demanding the revocation of the three farm laws is another experiment for the government to perfect its warped methods of dealing with dissent. It is bringing together tried and tested methods and coming up with new ones. In the handling of the Farmers Movement, the world is now witnessing the coalescing of lessons learnt. The government’s ability to let its supporters do the talking while ignoring the repercussions of its diktat, use of religion to garner support and accentuate divides, manufacturing Machiavellian narratives to justify the abuse of authority and having the media amplify them, and denying protesting farmers access to internet have been evident. It has also been successful in preventing news of the protests flooding social media by targeting social media companies. In PD James book ‘The Children of Men’ Rawlings a member of the State Security Police says “It’s taken governments a long time to realize that you don’t need to manipulate unwelcome news. Just don’t show it.”, something which the BJP government has perfected. Unfortunately, the government is impotent when it comes to controlling the narrative abroad. Tweets from Rihanna and Greta Thunberg had the government in a tizzy. Heads of state like Canada’s Justin Trudeau commented in support of the protests. International media have been ruthless in criticizing the government’s mishandling of the pandemic. The response of the BJP government to people’s movements indicates that the ideals of a government ‘of the people, by the people and working for the people’ is mutating into citizens ‘of the government and patronized by the government’, working for the government’.

REMARKS BY SUPREME COURT, POLITICIANS AND INDEPENDENT MEDIA AND JOURNALISTS

SUPREME COURT; Dissent is not sedition

[4]The Supreme Court of India deserves unreserved praise for its decision to dismiss a sedition petition against former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah with a fine of Rs 50,000. The Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Hemant Gupta has laid down a much-needed norm when it ordered that dissent is not sedition. Unfortunately, the colonial-era law, which says that ‘whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation or otherwise brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government shall be punished with imprisonment for life’, still remains as Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code. None of the founding fathers or the subsequent liberal governments found this vague and draconian provision distasteful enough to get it removed from the statute book. Hence, the constitutional court’s order assumes the status of a touchstone for the legality of the application of 124. That the order came the very same day a Washington-based think tank, Freedom House, downgraded India’s status from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ points to two conflicting facets of India’s present-day predicament.

CONGRESS LEADER SALMAN KHURSHID

[5]Senior Congress veteran and Advocate said that ‘an atmosphere imposing restrictions on dissent’ is enveloping the country. The former minister asserted that voices of those who criticize the central government are being curbed. “Rahul Gandhi and scores of other people who believe in freedom of expression have repeatedly raised their voices against stifling voices of dissent,” said Mr Khurshid.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government has to ensure that law is observed, but it should also be observed while people are expressing their views against the government,” he added.

Another Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi also echoed similar sentiments and said, “I hope and trust that full due process and law has been followed during the arrest and I also hope that authorities have proper material evidence against the people who were arrested. We must wait for few days to get the correct facts in order to react properly.”

Apart from Mr Gandhi, Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury also condemned the arrests, saying that it was a “blatant attack on democratic rights in the country,” and that it was worse than the declaration of the Emerge.

OTHER VOICES

The Narender Modi led NDA government has been accused to have been targeted the independent media houses through government agency Enforcement directorate. Based on recent reports The [6]Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) unequivocally condemns the Enforcement Directorate (ED) raids on the New Delhi office of Newsclick and the homes of its senior journalists and officials, including owner Prabir Purkayastha and editor Pranjal, purportedly to find evidence of alleged financial irregularities.

The NWMI sees the raids as yet another example of intensifying attempts to intimidate and silence independent media that have consistently reported rights violations and growing dissent across the country. NWMI finds it reprehensible that the latest raids, which began on the morning of February 9, continued for over 36 hours, clearly betraying a motive to harass and intimidate the journalists at Newsclick who have been courageously covering issues that have remained largely untouched by the “mainstream” media. According to a statement issued by Newsclick on the raids: “Media reports have quoted from what appears to be the official narrative that alleges that *Newsclick* was involved in “money laundering” by channeling funds received from abroad. During the raid, *Newsclick* has cooperated with the officials and will continue to do so. If the ED and the government are truthful and follow the course of law, no wrong doing will be found and this unfortunate event will be closed. *Newsclick* has nothing to hide. It has become a routine practice with the present government to deploy government-controlled agencies to deal with all those who disagree with and criticise the government. In the past, the income tax department, the ED, various Central investigative agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation and National Investigation Agency, have been selectively used in this manner against a range of people – from journalists to political leaders, to even farmers’ leaders.”

NWMI notes with concern the continuous targeting of independent media houses and journalists as well as other individuals who have challenged the official narrative. The recent raids clearly establish a pattern of vindictive action against independent voices speaking out on vital issues, including the ongoing farmers’ protests. That the government is proactively seeking to muzzle dissent is evident from many incidents, including the slapping of cases on various grounds, including sedition, on prominent journalists and media organisations and the deactivation of the social media accounts of vocal individuals.

The relentless clamping down on critical opinions was also witnessed during the anti-CAA/NRC protests in 2019-20, when the government had warned the media against broadcasting images from the protests.

NWMI points out that the slapping of cases of defamation, sedition and unlawful activities against media organisations like The Caravan and Frontier Manipur, among others, amounts to (mis)use of the law as an instrument of harassment. Likewise, the arrest of independent journalist Mandeep Punia from the Singhu border, one of the vibrant sites of the farmers’ agitation, and the intimidation and incarceration of journalists like Siddique Kappan, who continues to be in jail for trying to cover the Hathras gangrape case, are part of a larger agenda that seeks to stifle independent voices. The government’s deployment of various government agencies to persecute those who criticise its policies and actions amounts to gross misuse of government machinery and does not augur well for democracy. Free speech is in peril when stand-up comedians like Munawar Faruqui can be slapped with absurd charges and jailed for a joke he had not yet cracked. Faruqui spent a month behind bars, while five of his colleagues, thrown into jail along with him, continue to be denied bail. NWMI asserts the fundamental right to freedom of expression and stands in solidarity with Newsclick and all independent media seeking to cover events and issues of concern to ordinary citizens. We urge the government to desist from hounding critical voices. NWMI would like to remind those in power that right to dissent is a right guaranteed under the Constitution of India.

PEGASUS; MEANS TO SUPRESS DISSENT

WHAT IS PEGASUS?

The Pegasus Spyware, created by the Israeli cyber intelligence firm NSO Group, is also designed to hack the computers or mobile devices to gain access to the device and retrieve the data from it without the user’s consent and then deliver it to the third party who is actually spying on you. However, the parent organization of this Pegasus Spyware claims that it is intended to help government authorities to be used against terrorists and criminals by spying on them. Pegasus is not your average, casual NSA-level surveillance; it is highly invasive and acts as an effectual end to privacy for anyone targeted. Once installed on a device, Pegasus spyware can view and copy your text messages and emails, making end-to-end encrypted messaging like WhatsApp useless. It can harvest your photos, record your phone calls, and access your GPS. It can even activate your camera or your microphone and secretly record you and your conversations all whilst remaining virtually undetectable. And the reach of Pegasus is global: government clients include India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Hungary and many more.

The leaked phone numbers, which Forbidden Stories and its collaborators analyzed over several months, reveal that a large number of people who appeared on the surveillance list had nothing to do with criminal activity or terrorism. This is despite NSO Group’s repeated claims that its technology exclusively targeted terrorists. The investigation uncovered that nearly 200 journalists around the world were subject to Pegasus surveillance, as well as 85 human-rights activists and many politicians, including French president Emmanuel Macron, Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, and Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi. Not even the Tibetan leader Dalai Lama was safe, with the phone numbers of the spiritual figure’s senior advisors showing up on the list of possibly compromised devices.

A Threat to Freedom and Dissent

[7]While the hacking of politicians’ and diplomats’ phones has serious consequences for international relations, this technology poses a direct threat to journalists, activists, dissidents, or anyone who dares to speak out against their governments. Investigations by the Pegasus Project are already revealing that the Pegasus software has likely been used to facilitate the arrests and murders of journalists and activists around the world.

Cecilio Pineda Birto, a Mexican journalist, was selected as a potential Pegasus target just weeks before his assassination in 2017. Indian student activist Umar Khalid’s data was also in the leak. He was arrested in September 2020 on charges of sedition with evidence obtained by ambiguous methods from his phone. The list is extensive, but most notably, traces of NSO Group’s spyware was found in the phones of murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi’s friends and family members, with hacks apparently having occurred in the days before and after the journalist’s murder in 2018. This particular revelation came after NSO Group’s assured denial of its software’s involvement in the assassination.

The specific targeting of journalists, political opponents, and human rights defenders is indicative of a global effort to stifle truth and freedom. While the countries listed on NSO Group’s client list may differ in cultures and governmental systems, there seems to be one thing they can all agree on: the suppression of dissent. In a video explainer for the Pegasus Project, investigative reporter for The Guardian David Pegg describes just how much of a threat Pegasus poses to global freedom.

“The most serious implications of something like Pegasus is that is makes it much more unlikely that a dictatorial regime would become a democracy, because those are already regimes and systems that are obsessive about trying to monitor their populations so that they can control them and prevent them from rising up and overthrowing them. And this technology exponentially increases your capacity to do that.”

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, emphasized the increasing danger NSO Group’s software poses to global democracy and particularly the United States in an instalment of an investigation of The Pegasus Project:

“Reporting has shown that NSO is trying to sell to local police in the United States … I think that we need to be extremely concerned … Although today it may affect people who may not look like you or speak the same language as you, tomorrow it may very well be you. Or it may be somebody who a local police department decides is making unpopular points.”

In the U.S., journalists and activists have been resisting the surveillance architecture that was put into place under the Obama administration. With the exposé on Pegasus, surveillance has taken a on new form, putting thousands of journalists, human rights defenders, and private citizens at risk. Will Cathcart, who heads the encrypted messaging platform WhatsApp, recently said in an interview that technology companies need to raise their voices against spyware.

Edward Snowden, who famously blew the whistle on the NSA’s mass surveillance programs in 2013, commented in an interview with The Guardian on the necessity for an international moratorium on the sale of spyware technology. “There are certain industries, certain sectors, from which there is no protection, and that’s why we try to limit the proliferation of these technologies. We don’t allow a commercial market in nuclear weapons.” The pressure for an international ban on spyware technology must come from the mainstream media. It is the duty of the media to inform the public about global threats to individual privacy and security. Predatory states will not enact change without first facing calls for action from the people, and the people must be informed about the dangers posed by malware companies like NSO Group before that can happen.

CONCLUSION

Dissent necessarily needs an ethics, even if it is one that evolves in the course of a (dissenting) movement, and it also needs to point towards alternatives to the position, or positions, to which it does not give consent. This is what makes dissent so threatening to established authority. In course of time, dissenters may even be co-opted into the pantheon of the establishment (think of how the Buddha was made into an avatar of Vishnu). In our own times, dissent is either bought off or sought to be minimized and dismissed as mere difference of opinion. When neither of these tactics is successful, you simply lock up the dissenter and throw away the key. But in doing so, you miss out on the opportunity of engaging in dialogue, which is perhaps the only way in which a true, working democracy can sustain and renew itself.


[1] legodesk.com

[2] theprint.in

[3] www.nationalheraldindia.com

[4] www.tribuneindia.com

[5] www.ndtv.com

[6] www.nwmindia.org

[7] www.parkindymedia.org 

Aishwarya Says:

I have always been against Glorifying Over Work and therefore, in the year 2021, I have decided to launch this campaign “Balancing Life”and talk about this wrong practice, that we have been following since last few years. I will be talking to and interviewing around 1 lakh people in the coming 2021 and publish their interview regarding their opinion on glamourising Over Work.

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