The Importance of Being a Conscientious Objector Within Systems of Power

At a time alarming instances of repression are on the rise, an anonymous op-ed writer in NYT suggests the importance of diverse forms of dissent, particularly from within power structures.

A recent op-ed anonymously authored by a senior official in the Donald Trump administration and published by the New York Times draws attention to the significant role that individual dissenters play in challenging authoritarian leaders and systems. Though few and far between, such conscientious dissenters act alone, interrogating the very structures of power within which they are located. Importantly, such rebels lack the backing of muscular political parties or well-knit groups. As individual dissenters, they are exposed to acute risks and vulnerabilities – especially in times as troubled as these. Few would dispute claiming the right to dissent is globally fraught today, bringing in its trail risks of harassment, imprisonment, and even a threat to life.

The op-ed, coming as it does in the midst of an active, if not fractious, debate between dissenters and the state at home, throws up interesting questions about dissent and dissenters. The words nudge us into reflecting on the different forms of dissent one can leverage. Does dissent always have to articulate itself through formal channels of collective protest where numbers are meant to impress those you challenge? Or is marking out your space as an individual dissenter – however small that may be – an equally important part in promoting the culture? Does protest need to manifest itself in collective gatherings in streets or can there be innovative, if riskier, ways to express dissent?

Following the appointments of Donald Trump and Narendra Modi as president and prime minister in the US and India respectively, the right to dissent has become a sphere of sharp contestation in both countries. Sharing disturbing similarities, both India and the US have taken a turn towards right-wing politics and culture. At home, the rightward shift has set off attacks on minorities and Dalits, spurred hyperbolic nationalism, institutionalised mob culture and ramped up random violence. Muzzling dissenters, in turn, has created an ambience of fear and self-censorship. The US, for its part, has seen increasing clampdowns on immigrants leading even to the separation of children from their parents, assertion of white supremacist groups and individuals, move towards outlawing abortion and so on.

The similarities notwithstanding, the cultures of dissent in the US and India stand apart. Unlike India, the US arguably, has had a rich historic legacy of individual dissension. Some among these dissenters have chosen the cover of anonymity while others have gone public. The name of Edward Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contractor, who blew the whistle on National Security Agency (NSA)-sponsored mass surveillance in 2013 comes immediately to mind.

Snowden did not appear in a vacuum. He was a legatee of a long line of individual dissenters who called the system out from within the structures of power they worked in. The list of conscientious objectors includes among others Jeffrey Wigand, a former tobacco company executive who turned the spotlight on his own sector in 1996 by claiming on “60 Minutes” (a popular news magazine on CBS News) that cigarette companies were fully aware of what they were doing – topping up their products with addictive levels of nicotine. Former army soldier Chelsea Manning passed on thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2013. And Daniel Ellsberg, US state department employee, leaked the ‘Pentagon Papers’ related to the Vietnam war in 1971. These are just three names among many.

Whistleblower Chelsea Manning was jailed for leaking documents to WikiLeaks. Ritzau Scanpix/Torben Christensen via REUTERS

Dissent in India, on the other hand, has tended to be channelled through organised protests propelled by political parties or civil society groups. The individual dissenter, especially a dissenter from within the system, ready to put her career on line, has been rare to come by.

It is against this backdrop that two recent incidents in India may be worthy of attention. Earlier this month, a 28-year-old woman studying in Canada was arrested in Tuticorin for shouting “fascist BJP government down, down” on board a flight. She was alone when she shouted those words in the presence of Tamil Nadu BJP president Tamilisai Soundararajan. The BJP leader later filed a complaint that sent the “offender” to judicial custody for 15 days.

On the back of this incident, we came across yet another stirring image of a dissenter. The playwright Girish Karnad was caught on camera wearing a placard with the words “Me Too Urban Naxal” prominently written on it. Karnad was sitting in the front row at a gathering in Bengaluru for the Gauri Memorial Trust’s convention earlier this month. It may be worth mentioning that the playwright is among the 34 intellectuals to figure in the ‘hit list’ drawn up by Amol Kale, the suspected mastermind behind Gauri Lankesh’s murder. Not surprisingly, Karnad since has been slapped with a police complaint in which the complainant, the defence lawyer for the accused in Lankesh’s murder, has accused the playwright and his associates of having Maoist links.

The nature of individual dissent, it may be argued, is both deeply political as well as personal. The inspiration behind such acts often comes from a code of personal ethics. Such a code could even be in conflict with popular and formally radical viewpoints. Individual dissenters often find themselves at odds with official brands of resistance politics rooted in normative binaries.

What separates individual dissenters from mass protesters is the scale of the risks they voluntarily undertake in responding to a call of personal ethics. There are no soft options. The glory – even when and if it is acknowledged – comes with the loss of a career, possibility of dislocation in personal life, leaving behind an entire way of life. Not to mention long years in jail. For instance, in his op-ed, the anonymous White House official writes: “To be clear, ours is not the popular ‘resistance’ of the left. We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.” The author identifies the “President’s amorality” as the “root of the problem.” He goes on to say: “Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.”

The radical Left may bristle at the author’s approval of some of the Trump administration’s policies, which the official believes have made “America safer and more prosperous”. Yet, the author is perturbed enough to put himself at risk. The US president has asked his administration to sniff out the dissenter.

A section in particular seems to resonate in our current context. The author writes his “bigger concern” is not “what Trump has done to the presidency but rather what we as a nation have allowed him to do us.” Many in India may share that belief in our own context. The Narendra Modi dispensation has done to India as a nation what Trump has done to America as a nation.

Individual dissenters are not knights in shining armour. Nor are they necessarily people whose politics we will agree with on every count. Their motivations and their faith in government might exceed ours. But at a time when alarming instances of repression are on the rise, seeing individuals within the system articulate criticisms – not matter how flawed or restrictive – is still heartening and important.