Given political discourse has been pivoted towards a “with us or against us” binary by political leaders across mainline parties, dissent is being equated with treason by governments.
All political parties need to think hard about what Supreme Court judge Justice DY Chandrachud said on dissent and democracy last week, in his lecture at the Gujarat High Court. Terming dissent the “safety valve” of a democracy, Chandrachud said that “blanket labelling of dissent as ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-democratic’ strikes at the heart of … the promotion of a deliberative democracy… Democratically elected governments can never claim a monopoly over the values and identities that define our plural society”. Given political discourse has been pivoted towards a “with us or against us” binary by political leaders across mainline parties, dissent is being equated with treason by governments. This is evident from the trigger-happy manner in which various governments have charged people with sedition and other draconian charges like those under NSA. And, before it was struck down, Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act was used to make arrests without, in many cases, just cause.
A professor was arrested in West Bengal for “defaming” chief minister Mamata Banerjee by circulating a cartoon making fun of her in 2012. Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested for his work supporting the Anna Hazare movement and charged with, if you please, sedition in 2012. Two girls were arrested in Mumbai for questioning, on Facebook, why Mumbai was shut down after Balasaheb Thackeray’s death in 2012. A Puducherry businessman was arrested for posting a tweet about Karti Chidambaram the same year. Poet Kanwal Bharti was arrested in 2013 for posting a message on Facebook that criticised the Uttar Pradesh government for suspending IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal, who had cracked down on the sand mafia. Parties that now decry the sedition law have been quick to use it when in power.
This has now been taken to another level with the demonisation of the anti-CAA protestors (indeed, the protest itself), and students in major central universities by members of the central government. This is especially worrying since, if every protestor is to be labelled anti-national, what does this say about our democratic values? And, when this is combined with the police failing to make arrests in the case of the violence at JNU—where the police was felt to have done nothing to stop the violence—the problem gets compounded many times over. Cases recorded as offences against the state (Indian Penal Code and Special & Local Laws included) in the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB’s) Crime in India Statistics report 2018—such offences were separately recorded by the NCRB report for the first time in 2014—jumped from 512 in 2014 to 8,356 in 2018. In 2018, over 13,000 people were arrested for various offences against the state; 56 were arrested for sedition, but only 2 have been convicted while 21 have been acquitted.
To be sure, there is a need to ensure that the cover of dissent is not used by to wage a proxy war on the state by enemy interests. That will need sound intelligence, and some degree of inescapable profiling—perhaps even technology-aided, though the use of facial recognition technology is nowhere as foolproof as hoped, at least right now. However, the ready branding of critics of the government, and even those opposing majoritarian ideological positions, as “anti-national” simply erodes trust in the government and whether it is targeting genuine anti-nationals or just those opposing its views. Chandrachud warns that “the destruction of spaces for questioning and dissent destroys the basis of all growth—political, economic, cultural and social”. India’s political parties, irrespective of underpinning ideologies, should pay heed.