A dissenting mind belongs to a thinking person. Great judges have been great dissenters: Justice Frankfurter, Justice Subba Rao, Justice H R Khanna and others.
On the day in 1970 when the Supreme Court struck down the Executive Order withdrawing privy purses given to former rulers of princely states, another young advocate and I ‘joined’ the Youth Congress in Tamil Nadu. We joined by being part of a Youth Congress-organised protest against the judgment near the statue of Lord Munro in Chennai. We were arrested and released shortly afterwards. When privy purses were finally abolished by an amendment to the Constitution, we believed that our protest (and arrest) had led to the amendment and we had been vindicated!
Our protest was a dissent to the judgment of the Supreme Court. There were similar protests at many places in the country. The Supreme Court did not haul us for contempt of court; no one labelled us as anti-national; and no police agency charged us with sedition. Bless them.
The nature of dissent
A dissenting mind belongs to a thinking person. Great judges have been great dissenters: Justice Frankfurter, Justice Subba Rao, Justice H R Khanna and others. The dissenting judge, sometimes joined by other judges on the Bench, writes a minority judgment that was described as “an appeal to the brooding spirit of the law, to the intelligence of a future day”. In the field of sports, dissent is expressed by raising a clenched fist. In a business enterprise, dissent takes the form of work-to-rule or a strike.
In politics and public life, dissent is expressed as a protest. Some protests garner widespread support and become an agitation, sometimes drawing thousands into the agitation. All ‘agitationists’ are passionate about the ‘cause’, many are willing to suffer and make sacrifices, few are selfish, and only a handful formulate the strategy. The last-named are the andolanjeevis, christened as such and denounced by the Prime Minister on February 8 while speaking in the Rajya Sabha.
The Great Agitator
The quintessential andolanjeevi in the first half of the 20th century was, without question, Mahatma Gandhi. He instinctively picked the right causes — indigo cultivation and salt tax. He was a wordsmith and invested words with powerful messages — satyagraha and Quit India. He believed in the power of symbols — a fistful of salt and khadi (hand-spun and hand-woven) clothing. He forged new weapons in the struggle for Independence — indefinite fasting and Dandi Yatra. He used soft power — bhajans and prayer meetings. A lot of thought must have gone into crafting and leading the struggle for Independence. He was the original andolanjeevi; we are proud to call him the Father of the Nation.
Dissent has shaped the history of nations, dissent has given birth to new religions, dissent has liberated millions of people. Lenin revolted against the provisional government installed after Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated, and the first Communist nation was born. Siddhartha Gautama, Martin Luther and Guru Nanak dissented from the religious order in which they were born and founded a new reformist religious order. To them we owe the birth of Buddhism, Protestantism and Sikhism. Martin Luther King Jr’s dissent on the prevailing social order — and the movement that sprung from his dissent — liberated millions of black Americans, something that a civil war could not do. His passionate cry “I have a dream” was an appeal to the conscience of Americans.
There were at least three watershed years in India in the first half of the twentieth century: 1920, 1930 and 1942. Each one of the years was marked by a nationwide agitation that seamlessly became a movement and transformed into a struggle for freedom. The non-cooperation movement evolved into the civil disobedience movement and culminated in the Quit India movement, which was the final blow to the imperial power of Britain. The true meaning of andolan is not ‘agitation’ but ‘movement’.
There are examples of agitations evolving into people’s movements in other countries as well. The anti-Vietnam war protests that exploded on university campuses across the United States (1968) exposed the lies of the US government and, in a few years, the US beat a humiliating retreat from South Vietnam, that led to a united Vietnam. Some movements — the Velvet Revolution and the Romanian Revolution (both 1989) — succeeded in overthrowing longstanding authoritarian regimes (Czechoslovakia, Romania). Some like Arab Spring in Egypt failed (2011). The enduring lesson of these movements is that the human spirit that seeks a change for the better can never be suppressed forever.
Freedom will prevail
There is an interesting correlation between citizens’ political rights/civil liberties and press freedom. A country that ranks higher in terms of citizens’ rights will also have a better press freedom score. The conclusion is logical because it is the media that reflects and amplifies (or distorts and diminishes) the assertion of rights by citizens. Finland and several European countries are on the top in both scorecards. Near the bottom is China. India is somewhere in the middle. The hope is India’s score will rise, the fear is it will slide. Ask the Editors’ Guild or the Press Club of India. Every 15 days or thereabouts they complain bitterly about accusations against or the arrest of a journalist or a raid on a media organisation but, in the end, they meekly surrender or become His Master’s Voice. Ramnath Goenka was the last fearless owner of a newspaper and an andolanjeevi.
Andolanjeevis will ultimately prevail over those who will suppress speech, writing, expression, dissent, protests, agitations or movements.