CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx

Media And Polities


RIGHT TO DISSENT: THE BEDROCK OF INDIAN DEMOCRACY


Democracy and Dissent

A democracy, with a government by the people, for the people and of the people, but, without a dissenter in it, is impossible. Dissent does not merely mean disaffection or opposition based on aversion or self-interest, but, implies a position on principle. Democracy, always coupled with freedom leads to free thought with its inevitable manifestation in free speech. No matter how objectionable the thought, or its manner of expression, a democracy will tolerate it, since that is the very fabric of its being. Only totalitarian regimes suppress dissent and dissidents.

The history of modern India is characterized by oppressive rulers denying rights to the people for their self interests. Drawing from this experience, on the arrival of political freedom, the makers of the Constitution resolved to form a state that would be governed by the people for furthering the ideals and interests of all those living within it. Such a state was to be branded by freedom and guided by equality; therefore, the Constitution enshrined the principles of equality and liberty. Hence, Constitution did not merely form basic governance rules for the state, but, enshrined the ideal of right to freedom of speech and expression, in light of its role in the success of democracies like United States of America and United Kingdom. This right has been put at a high footing by its inclusion as a Fundamental Right under Article 19(1) (a) with only those restrictions curtailing it as mentioned under Article 19(2).

Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression vis a vis the Right to Dissent

The Apex Court has time and again held that the right to freedom of speech and expression is not merely an aspiration, but, is "a cardinal value that is of paramount significance to the constitutional scheme".[1]  The court has observed that the restrictions on the freedom of speech must be couched in the narrowest possible terms and that the restrictions on it have to be 'reasonable' and cannot be arbitrary, excessive or disproportionate. A limitation on the restrictions expresses its significance and its position in the Constitution.  

With reference to the right to free speech, the US Supreme Court has held that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable, thus including the right to dissent under freedom of speech.[2] It has also gone as far as stating that 'so long as the means are peaceful, the communication need not meet standards of acceptability'. [3] The Queen's Bench of England has held that free speech included not only the inoffensive but also the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative as long as such speech did not tend to provoke violence.[4] The Indian Courts as well have time and again urged the society to be tolerant in order to prevent the weakening of free speech in India.[5] In the case of Anant Karandikar,[6] the Court ruled that 'it is implicit in the freedom of press that every one ought to have the privilege of expressing opinions which are unpopular or distasteful.    

Moreover, in a country like India that takes pride in its diversity, it is to be understood that cultural, linguistic, geographical diversity brings with it plurality of thoughts, ideas, affiliations with conflicting interests. The acceptance and co-existence of the same has been the bedrock of the Indian democracy for decades. Right to dissent is the very essence of democracy. Conformity to accepted norms and belief has always been the enemy of freedom of thought.'  

In light of the importance of dissent in a democracy and its inclusion in the right to freedom of speech and expression, people not only have a right to dissent but under certain circumstances, it is their duty to dissent in order to maintain the integrity and virtues of a democracy.  

The Current Scenario  

Recently, India has seen innumerable attacks on an individual's right to freedom of speech and expression, college students right to participate in free discussions with their peers or to protest at JNU, a person's right to eat beef in his own home to name a few. The intolerance in the society has gone to the extent of radicalisation and violence causing the murder of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M. M. Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh, and, Santanu Bhowmik.  

Narendra Dabholkar  

Narendra Dabholkar was trained to be a medical doctor but was known as the foremost anti-superstition activist. He has authored more than twelve books and also worked as the editor to the weekly magazine known as 'Sadhana' for sixteen years. He established and organization known as the 'Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti' and trained teachers to inculcate scientific thinking amongst students for the eradication of superstition. He also prepared a draft Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Bill which was finally promulgated by the Maharashtra state government four days after his murder.

Govind Pansare  

Born in poverty, Govind Pansare sold newspapers and worked as a clerk at the Municipality in order to be able to complete his education of law and then pursued a career in the labour court attempting to fight for the rights of workers. He is also a known author, especially for his book, 'Shivaji Kon Hota' (Who was Shivaji?) which attempted to retell the history Shivaji as a secular leader, contrary to his glorification as a Hindu king by right wing organizations like Shiv Sena. He also served as a member of the Communist Party of India. He supported inter-caste and inter-religious marriages and opposed 'putrakameshti yajna', a Hindu ritual that is believed to result in a male child.     

M.M. Kalburgi

M.M. Kalburgi was a teacher by profession and served as a Vice Chancellor to the Hampi Kannada University. He was also a Sahitya Academy Award winning author. He often argued against superstition and idol worship. Through his books and writings, he often attempted to retell the history that was misused by right wing organizations to further their agenda.

Gauri Lankesh  

Gauri Lankesh was a journalist and an activist working from Bangalore, Karnataka and worked as the editor in 'Lankesh Patrike'. She was opposed to the caste system and was vocal about the same through her writings. She was known for advocating free press.  

Shantanu Bhowmik  

Shantanu Bhowmik was a young journalist from Agartala, Tripura who worked for a news channel 'Dinrat'. He also ran a primary school in his home known as 'Manobik' (Humanity)  

The deaths of these journalists and activists are comparable to those of Joan of Arc who was burned alive, Socrates who was sentenced to death after a trial that held him guilty of impiety and corruption of the youth of Athens, and the beheading of Sir Thomas More. The cause of all these was their resolve to stand by their principles despite them being opposed to the rulers of the time.  

These activists were not rich in terms of their assets or holdings, had no ambition for power or political position and did not have personal enmity with anyone. The cause of their murder was their resolve for standing for what was right and moral which seemed like a threat to the radical ideology due to the power of their reasoning and their courage to not scare away in the wake of threats. In light of these circumstances, the 2017 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders ranks India at 136 out of 180 countries

  These murders were not designed to silence inconvenient revelations, but, were ideological assassinations designed to punish intellectual dissent. This shows utter distaste of the current regime for contrarianism and dissent. The worst part about these murders is its justification to further the agenda of a 'Hindu Rashtra'. This makes the existence of misogyny, hate and communalism apparent in the present times. These events also make it evident that although democracy exists as a political system, the spirit of democracy is missing.  

Media and Dissent  

Media, the fourth pillar of democracy has the responsibility of forming an informed electorate that is capable of taking informed decisions with respect to their government and policies. When this pillar misuses its power or, as is the current situation, when this power is in the hands those who are merely driven by their own interests and ambition, democratic system is shaken to its core.

  The recent trend shows that media houses have turned into big businesses which are a result of big business groups buying huge stakes in the media; and politicians, political parties and individuals with political affiliations owning and controlling increasing sections of the press and, media owners entering politics. An example of the same is the takeover of Network 18 by Reliance Industries Limited. Thus, media has turned into a big business and big business is in the media. This threatens the way in which the Indian electorate is informed about government and its policies. Moreover, despite having a diverse media, linguistically and geographically, the information disseminated by them is similar, which is the impact of the increasing concentration of media ownership in the hands of large corporate groups. Since much of the media is privately owned and driven by profit motives, commercial compulsions distort the free and fair dissemination of information. These ambitions lead to the curbing of dissent for their profits and corporate expansions, consequentially leaving no room for the dissemination of dissenting opinions through the mainstream media.  

Conclusion

  It is this intolerance towards the minorities, may it be religious, linguistic, political or otherwise, that has seen a sudden rise with often claiming the minority to be anti-national at an instance, without realising that our nation, with its ideals enshrined in the Constitution states that the nation has been constituted by 'We the People of India', including within its ambit, all, including the minorities with fraternity being a guiding principles and liberty of thought, expression, belief , faith and worship, the cornerstone.  

Hence, exclusion of a few for the appeasement of the many without giving those few an equal right to free speech or an equal opportunity to express themselves will mark the beginning dismantling of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution and quiver the very foundation of the Indian Democracy. Therefore, in order to make the foundation of democracy robust, India needs more than tolerance towards dissent, it requires acceptance of dissent. In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, what a democratic state needs is, "liberty not to those who agree with us; but, freedom to the idea that we hate".

References  


A. G. Noorani, Free Speech and Provocation, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 34, No. 41, Oct. 9-15, 1999  

Charles Maechling, Right To Dissent in a Free Society, American Bar Association Journal, Vol. 55, No. 9, September 1969

Pushpa M. Bhargava, The Importance of Dissent in a Democracy, The Hindu, 18th June, 2014, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/The-importance-of-dissent-in-democracy/article11640706.ece

Soli J. Sorabjee, Protect the Dissenter, Indian Express, 9th September, 2017, http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/protect-the-dissenter-gauri-lankesh-murder-tolerance-freedom-of-expression-4834875/  

Vice President's Address At The First Ram Manohar Lohia Memorial National Lecture At Gwalior, 25th September, 2015, http://pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=127132  

Zoya Hasan, Manufacturing Dissent: The Media and the 2014 Indian Election, 2nd April, 2014, http://www.thehinducentre.com/verdict/commentary/article5843621.ece    

[1] Shriya Singhal v Union of India, AIR 2015 SC 1523

[2] Texas v. Johnson 491 US 397 (1989)

[3] Cohen v California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971)

[4]  Redmond Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions, (1999) EWHC Admin 133

[5] Maqbool Fida Hussain v. Rajkumar Pandey, 2008 CriLj 4107

[6] Anant Karandikar v State, 1967 CriLJ 28