Reverse Swing: Imagining a Democracy of Designated Dissent
Dissent, obviously, is not a Meccano set that can be assembled according to guidelines and instruction manuals. There is a theatricality to dissent which inevitably overpowers its logistics and generates an abundant spill-over. Bereft of this, the idea of dissent translates as tame disagreement.
Dissent from designated spaces. In keeping with the line and length being maintained by it for some time now, the Supreme Court bowled one more ‘doosara’ on October 7, while ruling on the Shaheen Bagh protests. Justices Sanjay Kishen Kaul, Aniruddha Bose and Krishna Murari pronounced, “Democracy and dissent go hand in hand, but then the demonstrations expressing dissent have to be in designated places alone”.
This has turned out to be a philosophical contortion of tortuous proportions which has left many-a commentator puzzled. It is like ruling that any batter hitting a sixer can perforce do it only from standing within the crease. Or like drawing the good old patriarchal ‘Lakshman rekha’ that sought to restrain Sita within her designated space. The sheer banality of it has the feel of currency from ATMs or milk from automated dispensers. But, like with currency, there are other sources for milk too. And a subversive like Kabir pointed it out 500 years ago in his conundrum:
Sahaj mila so dudh sam, maanga mila so paani |
Kah Kabir woh rakt sam, jaame aencha-taani ||
[What is free in nature is milk, what needs transaction is water |
Says Kabir it’s like blood, where there’s argument or conflict || ]
You can suck milk directly from the teats of wandering goats and cows. But access to water depends on your caste and who you ask. This is part of the designated order of our social circumstance. Any transgression of these assigned boundaries leads to violence and bloodshed. Kabir was clear that dissent can happen only outside ‘designated’ spaces and paradigms and values – and that its consequences are brutal. Otherwise, demarcated, designated dissent is actually like consent and merely contributes to reinforce the existing regimes of conformity.
Designated space reminds me of the sheer tyranny of the ‘Kodak Photo Point’ (or ‘Photo Spot’), now known as ‘Nikon Photo Point’, which is that singular marked point from which you can (allegedly) shoot the best picture of, say, the Taj or the Niagara Falls or the Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia. It psyches millions of tourists to these and other ‘ideal’ spots (deemed so by giant multinational camera conglomerates) into believing that there is only a single perspective from which to get the ‘best’ picture, thereby cloning our vision in an almost fascistic way. Photographer/writer Satish Sharma has a sharp analysis of the limitations of this single-point photography.
Leading French semiotician, Roland Barthes, had seen a linguistic parallel in this kind of narrowing. In his inaugural lecture, in 1977, at the instituting of the Chair for Semiology at the College de France in Paris, he made an extraordinary point about the prison-house of language and the terror of its operating within designated meanings. He said: “Language is legislation, speech is its code. We do not see the power which is in speech because we forget that all speech is classification, and that all classifications are oppressive… Language – the performance of a language system – is neither reactionary nor progressive; it is quite simply fascist; for fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech”.
‘Dissent’ from designated spaces is equivalent to such politically coloured compulsion.
There are two equally bizarre conclusions that flow from the Supreme Court’s ruling. One is that, in order to dissent, you need to first assent. In other words, I must be at my best behaviour as I dissent and demonstrate that I actually consent to my containment even if I am seen to be expressing dissent. This can only be described as a specious misreading of the issue. Dissent, obviously, is not a Meccano set that can be assembled according to guidelines and instruction manuals. There is a theatricality to dissent which inevitably overpowers its logistics and generates an abundant spill-over. Bereft of this, the idea of dissent translates as tame disagreement.
Luckily, whenever genuine dissent and protest is confined to sanctioned corners or proscribed, it has a way of turning creative. Artist, designer, photographer Dashrath Patel shot a wonderful series of photographs in the late 1950s, in Prague, where he had gone on a scholarship to study ceramics. It was the peak of the de-Stalinisation years in Czechoslovakia which culminated, a decade later in the ‘Prague Spring’. StB, the dreaded secret police of President Antonin Novotny, was hard on the heels of local dissidents who, if caught, were meted out severe punishments. It was in this atmosphere of fear, attrition and control that young people – and one can imagine a young Vaclav Havel or a Milan Kundera among them – found theatrical ways of expressing dissent, which Dashrath’s camera captured. Groups of 10 to 20 youngsters wearing leather jackets, which was a common attire those days, would walk about randomly in the highly patrolled main market squares. At a whistle from one of them, they would quickly fall in line shoulder-to-shoulder at some prominent spot and lower their jackets. Below they would be wearing a T-shirt with an alphabet printed on the front and back. The alphabets in Czech, would together read ‘Down with dictatorship’ in front and, say, ‘Freedom to dissent’ at the back. The crowded market would get agog with excitement for a few seconds. Another whistle and the jackets would be on again and each of them would melt into the crowd, only to reassemble at another site ten minutes later for a similar flash strike. This was effectively performed over the years and went on to become the signature of the pro-democracy movement in the country. The squeamishness of law and authority was not enough to contain or corral the dissent.
Another curious line in the October 7, SC judgement reads: “We cannot accept the plea of the applicants that an indeterminable number of people can assemble whenever they choose to protest”. What did their lordships mean here? Were they a wee bit bereft of references? Does Spartacus and the ‘slave rebellion’ mean anything to them? Or the sexual revolt of Lysistrata? Or the barricading of the city during the Paris Commune? Or the Tebhaga or Punnapra-Vayalar revolts of 1946? Or the student uprisings of May ’68? Or the enormous mobilizations of the national railway strike of 1974 or of the JP movement? These are epic moments of human passion against inequity and injustice. They were not waiting for permissions or authorisations. The anti CAA/NRC protests at Shaheen Bagh and many other venues across the country might have been smaller in numbers, but possessed an intensity that would not enable them to be marshalled into ‘designated’ niches and be designed to fit into the administration’s scheme of things. It is surprising the SC chose to gloss over the international or even the national history of resistance while drafting their ruling and omitted pointing out that dissent is neither custom-built nor a hothouse plant in a pretty pot.
The second bizarre consequence of the SC ruling is the seemingly implied corollary that if you do dissent from a ‘designated’ space (since it is your much tom-tommed democratic right), the SC will invariably support it and uphold it as your legitimate expression, the very cornerstone of your citizenship. That this remains largely in the realm of wishful thinking is suggested by the contemporary disinterest our courts have shown to issues of fundamental rights in case after case of writers, poets, academics, activists. The number of media persons doing their jobs from ‘designated spaces’ who have failed to get relief from courts in recent years disabuses us of the idea of any overarching and redeeming logic in it.
That Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul is one of the authors of this unsatisfactory judgement has come as a disappointment. This is the same judge who authored two landmark judgements in cases pertaining to the fundamental rights of artist M.F. Husain (2008) and author Perumal Murugan (2016). In 2017, he was also part of the bench which upheld the right to privacy. One has got habituated to a different kind of position and articulation from him. For example, in the Perumal Murugan ruling – jointly authored with Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana – he says (para 93), “…The judge has to first place himself in the position of the author in order to appreciate what the author really wishes to convey… and then arrive at a dispassionate conclusion”. This exercise of placing himself at the heart of the protesters was, perhaps, called for in the Shaheen Bagh case too?
In both the Husain and Murugan rulings, he repeatedly says the test of public offence should be evaluated from the standard of “reasonable, strong-minded and courageous men and not those of weak and vacillating minds, nor of those who scent danger in every hostile point of view”. The Shaheen Bagh ruling seems to have bypassed this test.
In Murugan (96), he says, “Our commitment to freedom of expression demands that it cannot be suppressed unless the situation created by allowing the freedom are pressing and the community interest is endangered. The anticipated danger should not be remote, conjectural or far-fetched”. Obviously, the freedom of expression of women at Shaheen Bagh did not seem to need such protection.
Later in Murugan (154), he says, “It is a matter of concern that as an evolving society, our tolerance level seems to be on the decline. Any contra view or social thinking is met at times with threats or violent behaviour”. Also, (172), “Constitution of India itself provides a democratic space to express one’s views unacceptable to others, but because it is unacceptable cannot be reason for itself to prevent it from being so expressed”. Well!
The most dramatic of all is the para in Husain: “Democracy has wider moral implications than mere majoritarianism. A crude view of democracy gives a distorted picture. A real democracy is one in which the exercise of the power of the many is conditional on respect for the rights of the few. Pluralism is the soul of democracy. The right to dissent is the hallmark of democracy. In real democracy the dissenter must feel at home and ought not to be nervously looking over his shoulder fearing captivity or bodily harm or economic and social sanctions for his unconventional critical views. There should be freedom for the thought we hate. Freedom of speech has no meaning if there is no freedom after speech. The reality of democracy is to be measured by the extent of freedom and the accommodation it extends”.
These judgements might, perhaps, come to be taught in law schools. But those who penned them seem to have already put it behind them. Which is why, unable to imagine a democracy of designated dissent, I herewith express my dissent against the October 7 ruling. Quite appropriately and timidly, though, in the designated space of my column.