Many of us interpret the constitutionally protected right to dissent as the right to speak, write and publish our personal opinions.The right to speak, assemble and the explicit right to express our grievances to the government collectively form the right to “dissent” granted by the constitution to every Indian citizen. Beyond written or spoken words, the right to dissent is also the right of citizens to organize them, to associate and make themselves heard in order to achieve political and social change and oppose government policies without fear of impediment or reprisal.

Despite these clear guidelines, the government has not always lived up to its constitutionally required mandate to protect our right to dissent. This has been going on since ancient times and it is true even today. Often, the government tries to suppress dissent through surveillance, infiltration and penalties. Most of these repressive efforts have ultimately backfired, but not before plenty of people were jailed and often not until the effects of the claimed ‘emergency’ that purportedly justified the restrictions had dissipated. When dissent is expressed within the law, then there is no need to justify it. A disapproving party or a person has the right to political participation and dissent as per constitutional guidelines. 

But does an individual in reality have a right to rebellion (or at least the attempt to resist the state)?A new debate has been sparked in India following the government’s crackdown on students and universities under the garb of protecting “nationalist sentiments”. In May 2014, the right wing nationalist party, BJP came to power with an absolute majority. After coming into power, the party came up with a development oriented growth agenda. While the government and its leadership started working on implementing this agenda,BJP’s parent body RSS and its student wing ABVP decided it was time to “fix” the social and moral fabric of the nation. They launched a campaign against everything that did not fit within their “Hindutva” ideology leading to many face offs between the liberals and “Sanghis”. This turned nasty when a lower caste doctoral student Rohith Vemula committed suicide after being expelled from the University for an alleged attack against an ABVP leader.

JNU, one of the most respected Indian universities which is known as the bastion of free speech and radical debatingalso couldn’t save itself.While India has been a victim of terrorism, it has also indulged in the same in the name of combating terrorism. One of these incidents was the hanging of Afzal Guru, who was convicted and subsequently hanged forthe 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament. Many political commentators argued that the hanging didn’t follow the proper process, an allegation that a senior minister from the previous government acknowledged. Since Afzal’s case has been shrouded in mystery, he is not accepted as a ‘terrorist’ by some sections of the Indian society. Instead,he is seen as an embodiment of state sanctioned injustices meted out in the name of fighting terror. JNU’s protest against Afzal’s hanging unleashed the demons to such an extent that the voice of dissent got marooned and the JNUSU president along with his associates were booked for sedition.  

The assaults made and the criminalization of dissent, fromthe monitoring of debatesto labeling of activists as ‘terrorists’ hack away the core right considered essential to meaningful democracy. Understanding the evisceration of this right is a first step towards regaining our lost liberties. Free speech is the very basic principle of a successful nation. The constitution framers believed that open and unfettered discussion would promote better thinking and decision making, which is particularly important when it comes to government policies.

This “unfettered exchange of ideas” on public issues, according to Sullivan, must be uninhibited, robust and wide openand it may well include vehement and sometimes unpleasant sharp attacks on thegovernment and public officials.


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