A true measure of being democratic is not the cycles of elections — it is the dignity given to disagreement, to dissent. Why must we dignify dissent? There are the arguments that we hear everyday: so that the views of the majority cannot silence the voices of a few; so that no one view or institution may become so dominant as to become authoritarian; and the value of freedom of speech and expression in and of themselves. Any memory of the Emergency in 1975-77 is testimony to why any of these are important. Yet there is a more fundamental reason why dissent is the cornerstone of a democracy: it is the action of a free citizen.
Speech is an action. An action within a democratic framework — an action that simultaneously shows a continuous faith in the polity, the State and the people even as one (often virulently) disagrees with it. An action that keeps a democratic system alive. You dissent as a citizen, in the name of your Constitution. You dissent because you have the freedom to do so — not a freedom you have been ‘given’ but one that you possess because you, as part of the people, are sovereign. This is more important than what we are taught in our textbooks — being able to voice our disagreement is as central as the ability to walk to a ballot box and cast our vote. This is a freedom we give to each other as democratic citizens and that we must protect, especially when we disagree.
There is no more fundamental understanding of what makes and sustains a democracy. Speech and engagement are the antithesis of apathy, of a people that have lost their sensitivity and ethical compass. You don’t have to like what people say — indeed it is when what they say makes your blood boil that you must defend their right to speak even as you exercise your right to vocally and fiercely disagree with them.
Binayak Sen speaks. Through his actions and words, he protests, he engages, he dissents, he disagrees. His weapons are words, ideas, and actions. Everything he does represents a strained, challenged but surviving faith and commitment to non-violent, democratic dissent though everything he sees around him should and must have given him so many reasons to lose that faith. His actions represent what makes India democratic, and his conviction shows the deep fragility of our democracy today. If you wish to protect the nation-State, it is Sen you must protect.
Sen could have remained silent. Like so many of us, he could have been ‘safe’ and not facing a life term in prison today. All he had to do was to shirk his duties as a citizen and an ethical human being and choose the easier way of remaining silent. The rest of us do so everyday in a country that is home to some of the most-entrenched and deepening inequality in the world. In our everyday lives, we stand by multiple exclusions and everyday acts of violence, homelessness, hunger, the removal of social benefits, and a new India that measures its growth by its richest rather than its poorest. Why the poor do not revolt in arms is anyone’s guess. They have no reason not to wage war against the rest of us who tolerate, sanction and reproduce their exclusion. So when those excluded and those that speak in their favour choose still to speak and to engage democratically despite these violent exclusions, there can be nothing more important for our democracy than to listen.
Those who (ab)use sedition often claim that the actions of people like Sen and Arundhati Roy are ‘anti-India’. Let’s agree to this claim for a moment and think in terms of ‘defending India’. When we are silent in the face of rampant press censorship and collusion, when thousands die of hunger though grain rots in granaries, when the country celebrates its miracle growth even as agriculture stagnates and even contracts, when farmers commit suicide, when our own leaders make the word ‘scandal’ an everyday joke, are we not ‘anti-India’? Is our silence not the greatest betrayal of every idea of India worth defending? If sedition is such a crime, is our silence not the greatest enactment of it? Binayak Sen’s conviction represents a crossroads for our democracy. It will no doubt be challenged in court and hopefully overturned but no legal victory can or will be enough. The conviction must be challenged by us as citizens. We must refuse to be silent. We must act — through protests, conversations, petitions, writing, and pushing the government, our elected representatives and the media to take a stand. Whether we agree or disagree with Sen’s world-view or his politics, we must speak up to defend not just his freedom to dissent but, crucially, our own right to be democratic.
Gautam Bhan is a Delhi-based writer and works on urban policy The views expressed by the author are personal.