There Is More to Dissent Than We Dream Of

The act of participating in a protest movement that seeks to re-establish the precept of natural justice transforms a citizen from a periodic voter into a political agent conscious of her rights.

In Sophocles’s (495-406 B.C) formidable play, Antigone daughter of Oedipus defies the edict of King Creon of Thebes that her brother’s corpse should not be entombed, and that it should be left for birds and vultures to feast on. When Creon charges her with disobedience of the law, “Thou didst indeed dare to transgress that law.” Antigone replies thus:

“Yes; for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict: not such are the laws set among me by the Justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that the decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of to-day or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth.”

Antigone’s vindication of an act of insubordination established the justification for dissent. In history, individuals ranging from Antigone to Gandhi have encouraged us to disobey ‘immoral laws’. Living as we do in a democracy, however, we are concerned with collective action, simply because collective action unleashes a host of dynamics that hold important implications for our status as citizens.

Collective forms of dissent such as strikes, sit-ins, protest movements, gheraos and demonstrations reiterate time and again Antigone’s immortal justification of dissent: laws passed by men [and some women] simply do not possess the same moral validity or force as the laws of God; or in the language of modern politics, natural justice. In the historical conditions that promote democracy, we divine the laws of natural justice through intuition, or even through simple common sense – certain things must be done for human beings, and certain things must not be done to them. What things should be done for human beings is fairly clear: they should be treated with decency, with respect, they must be provided with the basic preconditions of life itself such as income, food, health and education, and they must have the right to possess rights. And certain things must not be done to human beings: they must not be tortured, or deprived of dignity, and most certainly they must not be discriminated against.

Sebastien Norblin’s painting of Antigone being captured and arrested for the burial of her brother, Polynices. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/VladoubidoOo CC BY SA 3.0

When laws of government discriminate against citizens without any reason, or for reasons that are purely arbitrary, they violate the basic norms of natural justice. Citizens have the right to challenge and even disobey these laws. The proviso is that the issue that provokes dissent must be significant enough to validate this action. Dissent, in other words, must be justifiable. It has to be thought through.

Imagine the processes that must have preceded Antigone’s action in burying her brother’s body with great reverence. She must have pondered over an important question – what do we, the living, owe the dead? Decent societies know that bodies of those who are no more with us have to be treated with respect. If a monarch disobeys this law of natural justice, citizens are entitled to dissent and disobey. More importantly, they must know that they might be punished. They must be ready for this. States can be, and have been, vindictive if citizens disobey laws. Citizens who dissent exercise a moral right to do so, but in full awareness that a particularly vindictive state will heap coals of fire on their heads.

This is precisely what Antigone did. And Creon ordered she be chained to a rock within a cave. She was not the only one who died. Creon’s son, who was in love with her, died, and his mother died of sheer grief. Creon was left bereft. This is the lesson Greek epics tell us: no one wins in the end, everyone suffers. Call no man happy till he is in his grave.

That is another story. The important issue is that Antigone must have gone through a whole host of mental processes: launched a debate with herself, reflected and agonised before she decided—this is not the way the dead should be treated. I, she must have reasoned, have a moral obligation to disobey the monarch. Dissent, it follows, is only justifiable if enough thought is given to why we dissent and why the state should be challenged. Above all, the dissenter and the civil disobedient should be ready for punishment.

Also Read: Supreme Court’s Shaheen Bagh Judgment Will Lead to Fresh Curbs on Right of Peaceful Protest

Period of reflection

The need for a period of reflection on why laws should be disobeyed, and why it was the moral duty of a citizen to challenge laws that violate codes of natural justice was made explicit by Gandhi. Before he launched a satyagraha, Gandhi laid down stringent conditions for satyagrahis. Prospective satyagrahis must engage in processes of reasoning and judgment that allow them to single out an issue as a moral one. Satyagraha cannot be launched for each and every cause, the legitimacy of civil disobedience has to be established in the public domain. Therefore the satyagrahi will have to evaluate the law, or the regulation, or state action in the light of several competing moral considerations. She will have to identify the issue as one that demands collective action.

For Gandhi, public actions have to be preceded by austerity in personal behaviour. An action can be defended in the public sphere only when the satyagrahi has shown herself worthy of taking up a cause. Therefore, in the days preceding the launch of the satyagraha, satyagrahis had to subject themselves to rigorous codes of self-discipline, denial and forswearing of any kind of temptation. It is only the course of self-abnegation that will enable the satyagrahi to concentrate on the proposed course of action, and stay away from distractions. The process of articulation of dissent has to be carefully reflected upon and justified.

Gandhi leads the famous Salt Satyagraha. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

It is, perhaps not necessary that every individual who sets out to protest must undergo a sustained period of reflection; it is enough that a few moral exemplars who lead the civil disobedience movement do so. It is enough that they establish the cause as worthy of mass dissent. The rest will be inspired, they will be encouraged to translate their own uncertainties over a law or state action into an act of dissent. They will thereby be enthused to join the movement. What we call spontaneous mobilisation is not entirely spontaneous. Any thinking citizen has the political competence to judge and decide on a proposed law or regulation. Any citizen who thinks about what her society is about, and what it should be, knows instinctively whether she should defy the law. Our aspirant dissenter is, of course, encouraged when a movement is sparked off, and people whose credentials are above question are associated with the process.

At the exact time, a politically charged movement undertakes attempts to change laws or uphold existing constitutional morality, we see the emergence of new forms of citizenship, of new ways of expressing solidarity, and new modes of dissent. The articulation of dissent is not the product of conspiracies. It is the product of some thought, a great deal of intuition that a precept of natural law is violated, and great courage and conviction. In a world where the civil disobedient has to be ready to withstand the ferocity of intolerant and vindictive state power, participants must be convinced of the rightness of their cause. It is this conviction that distinguishes a protest movement from mobocracy.

The act of participating in a protest movement that seeks to re-establish the precept of natural justice transforms a citizen from a periodic voter into a political agent conscious of her right to be consulted in the decision making processes that affect her and her fellow citizens. If she is not consulted, she has the right to say no. We know from the feminist movement that the right to say no is to speak back to power. The act of protest sparks off and realises agency. It converts subjects from inert consumers of power-laden decisions to citizens who can evaluate what an elected government has done for them, or what it has done to them.

Above all, collective action fosters solidarity among people whose connection with each other might be remote at best and non-existent at worst. From an atom in a bunch of individuals, the protestor becomes someone who speaks for her fellow citizens. In the process, a virtue called solidarity is invented and reinforced.

What does being a citizen of India mean?

Consider the massive protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act from December 2019 to February 2020. The protests threw up an issue worth reflecting on. What does being a citizen of India mean? Citizenship gives us the authorisation to demand and benefit from the security and the services offered by the state—passports, education, health, housing, post-retirement benefits, the right to travel, the right to employment and above all, the right to vote. The last is of enormous significance for a democracy because the right to vote gives us the capacity to hold those in power accountable. Citizenship embodies a democratic relationship between the state and its citizens.

But there is more to citizenship. Citizens of a political community owe each other obligations of justice and solidarity against state repression. Citizenship, our young people at the turn of this year reminded us, is not only about our status as a holder of rights, it is about membership of a political community. Citizenship is a relational concept that establishes a bond based not on blood, but on belonging to a civic community defined by a constitution. It is precisely solidarity that large sections of Indians expressed towards their fellow citizens when they supported the latter’s protest against a draconian law.

Women at the sit-in protest at Lucknow’s Clock Tower. Photo: PTI

The challenge to the political order was not about the demand for new rights. Protestors demanded the recovery of and the reinstatement of constitutional morality. New spaces of political possibility were opened up because solidarities were reaffirmed in a world that had returned to the days of colonialism: that of mapping populations according to religion. This is what dissent does to the body politic, it opens up and exposes the notion of consensus, challenges the idea that nations are defined by religion, reasserts the importance of the constitution, and brings citizens together on the conviction that we owe each other.

Also Read: Civil Disobedience Alone Can Defend India’s Soul in Such Times

Through such means, the protest movement gave to us an alternative view of how things should be. The political moment when dissent subjects the notion of consensus to scrutiny, is noteworthy in itself irrespective of whether or not the movement leads to change. The moment is politically significant because it provides a different perspective by citizens that were considered by the government as invisible. Dissent makes them visible. This is the argument put forth by Jacques Ranciere in his book Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. We see the making of a new public sphere and the emergence of a new citizen’s body. 

Finally, when a firm ‘no’ challenges state power and delegitimises it, we witness the birth of a political miracle. We should also focus on what the act does for those who translate individuated disenchantment and disillusionment with state decisions into a public act along with others. Dissent in a democracy is always performative, it is public and it is collective. We have come a long way since Antigone articulated the basis for her right to dissent. We do not face arrogant monarchs but power-hungry machines we call the state. We do not rely upon God but upon the codes of natural justice. And we have transformed the act of dissent for a personal reason into a collective movement that sparks off imaginations how a people who belong to different regions, subscribe to different belief systems and ways of life, and speak different languages should live together. The answer is solidarity, the right to say ‘no’, the right to hold governments responsible, and the right to transform ourselves from passive citizens into thinking, reflective, evaluative and charged citizens who exercise our political competence to judge both laws and men who are in power.

What else can affect this transformation except for the act of dissent?

Neera Chandhoke is former professor of political science, Delhi University.