Delhi Matters: Carving Spaces for Dissent

The test of democracy – of real democracy, not autocracy masquerading as democracy – is the measure of freedom it affords to dissent.

Except for the Johnnies who arrived lately on the political scene, forever ready to declare every murmur of disagreement as an anti-national activity, all others, even half way decent upstarts in politics, will agree that the right to differ, to disagree and to vocalise that disagreement forms the core of democracy.

Democracy encompasses within its fold a plethora of diverse opinion. A few have large-scale acceptance but there are many more that do not enjoy the same kind of mass support – but democracy has a space for all these opinions.

The test of democracy – of real democracy, not autocracy masquerading as democracy – is the measure of freedom it affords to dissent, even to anti-democratic dissent.

Just as a ruler has not only to be just, she/he has to be seen to be just, similarly a democracy not only has to recognise the very fundamental, the definitional, need to not only allow and tolerate but to celebrate dissent.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall the biographer of Voltaire, writing in Friends of Voltaire, her second book about Voltaire, wrote a sentence to highlight Voltaire’s firm belief in democracy, that is popularly and erroneously ascribed to Voltaire. The sentence runs thus:  

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Readers of this column might be wondering as to why has this space has suddenly turned into a class on the essence of democracy.

The explanation, dear reader, is rather simple. We are raising this issue primarily to foreground the absolute and crucial need for providing legitimacy to dissent in a democracy.

We are raising this issue in the context of the constantly shrinking physical space for dissent in the capital city of this “largest democracy in the world”.

Let us go back a bit in time. The decision to shift the capital of colonial India from Calcutta to Delhi was taken in 1911 and the capital shifted to makeshift accommodation for the viceroy and his secretariat to an area north of Kashmiri Gate – the present day offices of the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University and the Delhi assembly.

Also read: Fellow Citizens, India Is in Peril. We Must Rise to the Occasion.

During the 1920s and even the early 1930s, while the contours of the new city were slowly emerging, all major protests were held in whatever open spaces existed with in Shahjahanabad, and among them were the Queen’s Gardens, earlier known as Company Bagh and originally known as the Bibi Ka Bagh, the garden laid out around the Bibi ki Sarai by Jahan Ara Begum, the daughter of Shahjahan when she got the main markets built along the central arterial road connecting the Lahore Darwaza of Red Fort to the Fatehpuri Masjid. That large space, that was the most popular site for public meetings, has now been fenced in and cut up into four little spaces.

It was at this site, then known as the Queen’s park that meetings in support of the Salt Satyagrah were organised in 1930 and Kasturba Gandhi asked people to take a pledge to join the struggle for freedom after Mahatma Gandhi was arrested.

It was these open spaces, like the Urdu Maidan, opposite the Jama Masjid, the Parade Grounds opposite the Red Fort and adjacent to the Jain Mandir and the Ram Lila Maidan, outside the Turkman Gate that had continued to be the sites of political mobilisation well into the 1970s, even as Vijay chowk, at the intersection of Rafi Marg and Janpath was added to the venues, where democratic dissent was articulated, in the streets.

One must, however, make a distinction between the nature of political actions in the pre-Independence period and the political mobilisations that began to occur in the period after the first general elections that concluded in February 1952.

The pre-independence mobilisation was against an alien occupier. The British had colonised us, they were not our representatives. Except for the initial period of the struggle when the then leaders of the movement were acting more like supplicants, the latter phase saw an increase in belligerence and demands of freedom from foreign rule.

Whatever, democratic rights the people of India had been able to wrest from the colonialists were won after protracted struggle and the colonialists tried their level best to suspend them whenever the situation seemed to be getting out of hand.

As opposed to our colonial past, the fundamental rights that the citizens of India enjoy by virtue of being citizens are theirs by right of birth and enshrined in the constitution. These rights include the rights to equality, to freedom, against exploitation, to freedom of religion, cultural and educational rights and right to constitutional remedies. The right to freedom includes freedom of speech and expression, assembly, association, movement, residence, and profession or occupation.

Take these rights as articles of faith, as laws that not only define our citizenship but also foreground the fact that these are the pillars upon which rises the edifice of democracy and then note the gradual eclipse of the most fundamental of our fundamental rights, our rights to freedom of speech and expression and of assembly, association and movement.

It was in the exercise of these rights that the people of this country began to arrive at the capital to raise their voice in defence of these rights, to protest against their encroachments and to demand their restoration whenever the ruling party used the state machinery to ride rough shod on these rights.

One of the major protest that old timers remembered was organised by the then undivided communist party to protest the dismissal of the E.M.S. Nampoodripad government in 1959 within 16 months of its coming to power. This was the first use of Article 356. Several central governments have used this draconian law to dismiss state governments that do not toe the line of the central government and this is one of the biggest attacks on the right to disagree.

Also read: India Must Stop Stifling Dissent in the Name of Sedition

There were other remarkable mobilisations in defence of the right to dissent and to support a view point that presented an alternative to the ruling dispensation. Aside from the rallies addressed by JP at the Ramlila Maidan in 1975 and then in 1977, there was the rally addressed by Chaudhry Charan Singh in December 1977 at the Boat Club and the rally organised by the united front of trade unions in October 1978 against the Industrial relations bill introduced by the Janata Party government.

In all these years the rally organised by Chaudhry Mahinder Singh Tikait in 1988, that turned violent when the police tried to evict the protestors leading to clashes between the police and angry peasants and the blatantly communal rhetoric of the VHP as evidenced in their April 1991 rally at Boat Club were the only demonstrations that would not fit into a democratic discourse.

Chaudhry Mahinder Singh Tikait’s October 1988 rally.

The fact remains that instead of being better prepared to handle such situations, the state chose to use these two instances to muzzle all manner of dissent.

The net result is that the only place where there is any possibility of democratic dissent being noticed is the narrow strip of road opposite the 18th century astronomical instruments at Jantar Mantar, off Parliament Street. It is shameful that this is all the space that the Indian State can afford to give for democratic dissent.

Is it any wonder that undemocratic and anti-democratic forces continue to grow?

It is time that all those constantly talking of India being the largest democracy stop boasting and think. In Paris, the Yellow Shirts took over the Champs de Elysees; in the UK, protestors march to Trafalgar Square and in the US, protestors walk all the way up on the Capitol Hill. It is the same in all democratic nations.

Unless the protestors are back at the Boat Club Lawns, our claims of being a democracy will continue to sound hollow.