Popular dissent in India threatens the government's idea of domination

The women of Shaheen Bagh at Delhi and their sisters at innumerable other locations all over India have changed the narrative of dissent... causing utter confusion of thought as well as action at the level of the Indian government, writes Dr Udai Vir Singh for South Asia Monitor

Dr Udai Vir Singh Feb 26, 2020

In most democracies, the right to dissent is afforded constitutional protection. Indian democracy was known for its robust manifestation of dissent before the BJP-led NDA government in 2019 attempted to cloud the same in the post CAA/NRC scenario.

Firstly, the people who didn’t like these non-egalitarian measures weren’t  given permission to protest and, whenever such a permission was granted by police, protesters weren’t allowed to move to planned demonstration sites; they were stopped at barricades and were often dealt with a shower of lathis (canes) and abusive language. Numerous were fired upon and killed in the BJP-ruled states of UP and Karnataka. Jamia Millia Islamia university students in Delhi received a disproportionate share of police brutalities.

The women of Shaheen Bagh at Delhi and their sisters at innumerable other locations all over India have changed the narrative of dissent; they resorted to the Gandhian method of non-violent round the clock sit-ins, peacefully waving the Indian tricolour and shouting nationalistic slogans. This has caused utter confusion of thought as well as action at the level of the Indian government. Compulsions of the Delhi state election that was held on  February 8, 2020 added to the paralysis of the central government’s law and order machinery.

Reacting to several petitions and PILs (public interest litigation) accumulated with it, which questioned the constitutional validity of the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), the Supreme Court of India on February 17 decided to do what the Narendra Modi government didn’t: It initiated talks with the women of Shaheen Bagh through a committee of three prominent citizens, including the former Central Information Commissioner (CIC) Wajahat Habibullah, in addition to two senior lawyers, Sanjay Hegde and Sadhna Ramachandran. They were given a week to talk to the protesting ladies and file a status report.

The bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and K M Joseph initiated the process to hear petitions to evict protesters from Shaheen Bagh and allow a free flow of traffic, saying “It is important to allow people to protest…..The right to protest is recognized world over, more particularly in India. There is a fundamental right to assemble peacefully to protest.”                   

While the Supreme Court of India and the three-member committee appointed by it engaged with the perplexing issue of resolving the Shaheen Bagh agitation, around the same time a Pakistani court took a dig at India’s democracy and freedom to express dissent.

 A headline: ‘This is Pakistan’ not India’: Islamabad judge assures protesters their rights will be protected’ appeared in the Pakistani press. The Pakistani High Court was hearing bail petitions filed by 23 human rights activists, who were arrested at a demonstration a month earlier and charged with sedition. As reported by Dawn, the Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court in Pakistan, taking a jibe at India, said the constitutional rights of protesters in the country would be protected. Chief Justice Athar Minallah was referring to the protests in India against the CAA, that started late last year, and insinuated that India had violated protesters’ rights despite being a democracy. 

In recent months there has been widespread criticism of India about the CAA/NRC (National Register of Citizenship), which are considered discriminatory and unconstitutional, with the Pakistani court’s comment being an added unwelcome commentary in the same direction. While the Pakistani judge’s comments could be ignored on account of unfriendly intentions, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently released a fact sheet on India’s CAA and NRC and problems likely to arise for India’s 200 million Muslim community.

It stated: “There are serious concerns that the CAA serves as a protective measure for non-Muslims in case of exclusion from a nationwide NRC,” adding, “This purpose is evident from BJP politicians’ rhetoric. With the CAA in place, Muslims will primarily bear the punitive consequences of exclusion from the NRC, which could include statelessness, deportation, or prolonged detention.”

Violation of human rights and protests against the same, violent or peaceful, are nothing new;  they have happened throughout  human history, contemporary or ancient. In principle, in the view of the author, human society has been governed, without exception, by the two basic principles underlined, one, ‘The Struggle for Dominance (SFD) and two, ‘The Struggle against Dominance’ (SAD).    

These struggles often operate simultaneously as cause and effect (or action and reaction).

Great wars and also small or localized ones are manifestations of SFD and SAD. Empires arise from an SFD and all of them, in due course, disappear or deteriorate on account of SAD (assisted by other associate reasons). The Mahabharata and the epic battle of Kurukshetra were nothing but a serious manifestation of the SFD and SAD. The current problems in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen are nothing but interplay of SFD and SAD. ISIS and Al-Qaeda too were born of the phenomenon of SFD and SAD.

India’s Partition, that often colours the political interplay during elections, too, was a product of these interactions--and the ever irritating India-Pakistan relationship, too, isn’t free from the unique phenomenon of SFD and SAD.

It is easy to have the right to dissent enshrined in the Constitution but, in practice, rulers always find any manifestation of the same as a challenge to their authority or even as an existential threat. While the BJP government doesn’t tire of claiming that no one shall lose his or her nationality on account of CAA, it has to face the dissent resulting out of its political manipulations and dubious intentions.

(The writer is an agrochemical professional, management consultant and author. He can be contacted at mrudaivirsingh@gmail.com)