Popular dissent: Its relevance and a few aspects of its conduct in India


By Rosemary Isaac

Tempting though it may be to ignore harsh realities and live under pleasant illusions, this escapism merely results in forfeiture of the future good for a transient present comfort. Permitting any outrage to pass unremarked by a nation choosing to look the other way spawns widening ripples that engulf everyone. The relatively rare cruelties of today transform into the standard practice of tomorrow, if left unchecked. Inevitably, passive acceptance yields societal instability and insecurity, not peace and law abidance as it would seem. Who will speak fearlessly for those who jeopardized themselves by advocating for the downtrodden and now need help themselves? The wider society must take a stand to assure the vulnerable socio-economic sections of protections which they are entitled to. Charismatic leaders have emerged throughout history to guide people to change their adverse conditions bloodlessly. Gandhi with his Satyagraha – non-violent civil disobedience – is a case in point. It is not merely the efforts of a few great leaders, however, but the popular united voice against injustice that is decisive in remedying a disturbing state of affairs.

The arrest of aged tribal rights activist Fr. Stan Swami, a Jesuit priest, extends endlessly with no forthcoming resolution. A man dedicated to the advancement and protection of the most helpless for four decades, is now punished for his compassion and courage at the age of 83. The globally recognized protest by our farmers against laws they feel have been promulgated and implemented detrimentally to their welfare continues with no imminent resolution. A disillusioned populace almost numbed by spiralling atrocities has been horrified by the disgraceful detention of the young activist Disha Ravi, an outspoken and courageous woman. We hope that reason will triumph with the end of the prolonged incarceration of the minority-community priest who objected to the wrongful detention of young tribal people and the suppression of the rights guaranteed to them under the constitution. We hope that the farmers driven to desperation will be heard and granted their just demands. Or so one hopes – a hope that is not likely to crystallize into reality, unless people fight together, peacefully, for justice.

Being a democracy with a purportedly independent judiciary, one could reasonably expect that justice would prevail in India under such circumstances until recently. Alarmingly, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that justice will not triumph easily in the current political scenario. Fear of reprisal, a gagged media, and a heightened politician-law enforcement nexus quell protest almost completely. According to a recent report in The Washington Post, a digital forensic firm examining the laptop of social worker Rona Wilson at the behest of his lawyers says that malware was used to plant incriminating evidence against him. In such a daunting atmosphere of relentless deceit, dissent voiced by the few unsupported brave hearts is bound to be suppressed. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” The firmly articulated support given by the masses to torchbearers of humanitarian causes is vital to their endurance and eventual victory.

It is encouraging to note that diverse voices have been raised against the arrest of Stan Swami, including those of Jesuit authorities, the Malayali Christian community, and one of the few veteran writers and politicians, Shri Shashi Tharoor, who has always had the courage to speak out and who himself has faced the threat of imminent arrest for his unequivocal support of human-rights activists. The US lawyers have written to President Biden on the farmers’ protest, thereby providing informed and weighty support to their campaign, joining international celebrities and others. The people of Bangalore, a largely peaceful and enlightened city, acted together to create awareness of Disha Ravi’s plight and obtain her release. These noble endeavours to highlight crucial issues gain strength as the public become increasingly vocal, undeterred by the might and menace of the forces they have to contend with.

The youth of the country, being unbiased and informed enough to break free from negative conditioning, seem largely to think and judge for themselves. It is they, a more evolved generation, who possess the conviction to stem the dark tide and recover the peaceful and secular India that nurtured all people. Humane and thinking youngsters of all creeds perceive the need for intervention through franchise and media publicity to regain and preserve a society conforming to the progressive values that the founders of the constitution envisaged. They too, however, are restrained by pervasive, repressive political tactics, and need stronger reassurance of solidarity from their elders.

While public protest in the form of legal, nondisruptive marches and rallies were, and still are, powerful means of expressing popular dissent, the simplification of the formation and dissemination of opinion by cybertechnology has extended the battle arena, allowing all sides easy access into the fray. The urgent need to protest audibly and unitedly against blatant injustice and the increasing erosion of democracy is also served by the use of a fast-evolving communication technology. Social media, probably the most powerful platform to gather and mobilize opinion, bringing global attention to fundamental issues erupting at local levels, is increasingly used to, instead, intimidate and vilify opposition. This fire is being fought with fire. Countering vitriolic attacks and consolidating the views of the freethinking population by intelligent exploitation of the still fair and free social media is, hearteningly, proving to be an effective strategy.

In a country avowing freedom of speech, opinions can be proclaimed publicly regardless of how controversial they may be. Curbing this fundamental right merely drives simmering resentment underground, causing greater instability. As Benjamin Franklin states, “Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom – and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.” The way convictions and thoughts are expressed, however, should, as recent major campaigns have largely been, proceed tranquilly and conform to reasonable rules for public demonstrations. Violent public protest in the form of riots and coups are relatively rare and extreme events that will not serve their purpose in the long run, as has been repeatedly shown by history. Open and reasonably expressed popular dissent, whether public protest or individually voiced opinions, dominates in a progressive society to preserve a robust welfare state.

No nation can afford to continue in a state of inertia until the need for self-protection eventually drives its people, as conditions worsen, out of a deluded, complacent existence into action to halt the insidious advance of anarchy. It may then be too late to fight oppression, leaving the populace victims of their own callousness and blindness. We need to realize that the situation is unlikely to improve but will rather deteriorate until it becomes even more dangerous. We need to understand that silence is tacit compliance, that we need to act, most effectively by speaking out or merely visibly supporting those who have the conviction and courage it to do, so that it might finally trigger a rude but vital awakening. Worse dangers threaten if the people of India, a country that has for centuries boasted a tradition of harmony and tolerance, does not act in loud unison. It is not too late. The voice of the people can still be heard amidst the chaos.

The fruit of dissent may be retribution, but inaction in the face of inequity invites even greater danger. The dissenters can be protected by extended and vociferous support.   Widespread law-abiding counteraction of institutionalised victimization through campaigns based on independent opinion is crucial to the recovery of a nation’s stability. Fortunately, the tenacity and commitment of the bright new generation combined with easily accessible, ever-evolving methods of instant information dissemination offer vast scope for informed and objective mass action. Ultimately, the pen, or rather, the keyboard is mightier than the sword, endowing crusaders with the decisive weapons of peaceful combat to rescue those scorched and protect those still unscorched by the heat of tyranny before all succumb.

Rosemary Isaac has been a language editor, copyediting manager, and mentor to professional writers for over two decades. With a Master’s degree in Economics from M.G. University, Kerala, she has been associated with various publishers such as the Oxford University Press, Taylor and Francis, the Royal Society of Chemistry, Scientific Publishing Services, etc. on subjects ranging from Physics to Metaphysics. She has also published articles on diverse topics and edited a number of novels. Hailing from a family of writers and having grown up surrounded by books, Rosemary loves reading, particularly the classics, interspersed with a healthy dose of Giovanni Guareschi and Wodehouse. She is currently working on compiling a number of short stories from her late father’s popular blog into a book.


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