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The dissenter is alone, but not the State

"The strongest man," says Dr Stockmann in Ibsen’s immortal play An Enemy of the People, “is the one who stands alone”.

columns Updated: Mar 20, 2015 22:50 IST
Gandhi,dissent,freedom of speech

"The strongest man," says Dr Stockmann in Ibsen’s immortal play An Enemy of the People, “is the one who stands alone”.

He has shown, earlier in the play, that the city’s public baths have become “a pestiferous hole”, that they are polluting everything that the city’s commons use, the city’s people and those who visit it need and depend on.

He is disbelieved, decried, and all but demolished by the people for whom the filthy and now dangerous baths provide legitimacy.

They want its patronage, prestige. They want the power it confers. And they hate Dr Stockmann for speaking about its polluting sickness, its threat to human life.

They are out to get him by a manipulation of public opinion, by pandering to a false sense of ‘pride’ in the city, in ‘the larger picture’ of the city’s future. Our baths, dirty? How dare he? Dr Stockmann persists in his belief, in the broadcasting of his belief. And they do get him. He is exiled, his house’s windows smashed, his daughter at school victimised. He is strong, he stands alone. He is the classic dissenter.

Ibsen was Norwegian. He could have been Indian. Ibsen wrote for dissent everywhere, anytime.

Four hundred years before Christ, another dissenter, in a city-state, Athens, warned his fellow citizens against dictatorship within a democracy, against the collective belief that might makes right.

He challenges the status quo and then did the unthinkable — he praised Athens’ great rival, Sparta. He was tried by a jury of 500 Athenians, found guilty by a majority of 280 against a minority of 220. The crime was “corrupting the minds of youth” and “impiety”, that is, of “not believing in the gods of the state”.

He was asked, “What punishment would you want?”

Impious or not, Socrates was irreverent.

“Punishment?” he rejoined. “I should be rewarded — wages and free dinners for the rest of my life.”

He was strong, he drank his hemlock.

What happened to Christ himself we know, we know well.

“Are you the King of the Jews, the Messiah?” he was asked.

According to Luke, Jesus replied: “You say that I am.”

He was found guilty of blasphemy, ordered to be crucified.

And it was the turn of the barbaric State, this time, to be irreverent. On the block above the nailed man’s head, was carved what is perhaps the first written instance in the world of a taunt: INRI — “Jesus of Nazareth King of Jews”.

He was strong, he was hung.

Sixteen hundred years later, in our part of the world, in this very city of Delhi, another man born into a Jewish home but a convert to Islam, Sarmad, wandered about its streets, a naked faqir. His Persian quatrains spoke wisdoms, not popular or dictated refrains. Sarmad became a spiritual guide to the eclectic and other-worldly Prince Dara Shukoh.

After the newly-installed Emperor Aurangzeb had murdered his elder brother Dara, he turned the royal gaze to Sarmad.

Aurangzeb may have had blood on his hands, murder in his thoughts but, befittingly to his throne, he decreed that ‘due process’ be observed. “What is this man’s crime?” he asked.

“Most High, this man wanders around naked, a sin in the eyes of the Shari’a.”

“Hmmm,” the emperor is said to have wondered, “Anything else?”

“Most High, he entered this court not just naked and accusing your majesty of injustice to Prince Dara but denying the Prophet’s miraj, declaimed ‘the mullah says that Ahmad went to the heavens; Sarmad says the heavens were inside Ahmad’.”

The emperor’s sense of due process was not quite satisfied. This was not crime enough.

“Anything else?” he asked again. “Yes, Jahanpanah … the man is an atheist, when asked to recite the Kalima, he did not do so in its entirety and instead of saying La ilahailla’llah — there is no God except Allah — he said only the first part ‘La ilaha’ (there is no god) without the ‘illa’llah’ (except Allah). How dare you, we asked him, how dare you leave out the second part? He replied, Jahanpanah, that he was in a negative, nihilist mood, and so felt like saying only what was not rather than what was, and if he were to say something that is positivist, or affirmative, like ‘Only Allah Is’, he would be lying, and lying is wrong. He is a heretic, Most High.”

That clinched it. Heresy stood established, death by beheading was ordered. Sarmad recited his own, no one else’s quatrains, as the blade, more naked than he was, fell on his neck at Jama Masjid.

About three centuries after Sarmad’s execution, with the Mughal empire long since demised, another faqir, not quite naked, but nearly there, was disliked, despised, for saying Ishvar Allah tere naam, for saying those two names in the same breath, within the same tala, the same laya, and for his temerity — unthinkable! — in not howling imprecations at our Sparta — Pakistan — but actually wishing the enemy well.

What happened to ‘the half-naked faqir’ as he walked to his prayers we know. Blood is blood, whether spilt by the falling blade or the piercing bullet.

The dissenter is alone, but not the State.

The powers of the day wield the power of might. And that ‘might’ is not just the musculature of the State but a genome of manipulated frenzy, which the ‘throne’ feeds and is fed by.

Behind the orders passed in a Scandinavian town against Dr Stockmann, in Athens against Socrates, in Judaea against Jesus or in Delhi against Sarmad, the procedures, or due process followed, enjoyed a surface sanction, a paper legitimacy, a technical credence that sealed the ‘guilt’. But they also had the assurance that a certain body of opinion, influential and powerful, would stand by those orders.

Why? Because those ‘orders’ of execution were also orders of protection, of patronage, of preferment.

And sometimes, as in the Delhi of 1948, that frenzy acts on its own.

It is when the State and the frenzy act in concert that dissent faces its greatest challenge. And that is when dissent also faces its greatest chance to create an all-time example, make an all-time impact, on behalf of free thought, free speech, freedom.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is senior fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Mar 20, 2015 22:47 IST