Let dissenters have their say
I grew up in the 60s and the 70s in a vaguely Lefty family. This was a time when the phrase ‘the ugly American’ was in common use, when the US was involved in unpopular exercises of its power (in Vietnam, for instance) and when the CIA was actively interfering in Indian politics (just because we exaggerated its influence, do not believe that the Agency was idle). For many Indians, the ultimate betrayal, not just of India but of humanity itself, was when Washington backed the genocidal regime of Yahya Khan against the aspirations of the Bengalis of East Pakistan. Clearly, all that mattered to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1971 was that Islamabad could be a useful ally. Genocide was a small irrelevance.
And yet, through it all, most educated Indians never lost their respect for the American way of life. Even though the Soviet Union was a better friend to New Delhi, few of us had any respect for the Russian system or the way in which it treated its citizens. One reason why we admired Washington was because of its tradition of freedom of speech.
Most of us opposed the war in Vietnam. But we were surprised to learn that within America, there were those who opposed their own country with much greater vigour. We heard popular singers attack the US military. We saw Country Joe McDonald give his government the finger in the Woodstock movie. We read about Jane Fonda’s trip to Vietnam, where she openly backed the North Vietnamese army against her own country’s forces. We admired the freedom of Americans to abuse such Presidents as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. And our respect for the American media sky-rocketed when the New York Times first exposed the massacre of Vietnamese civilians by the US army at My Lai and then printed secret government documents to show how successive US administrations had lied to their people about the country’s role in Vietnam.
Even though we did not approve of America’s foreign policy or the way in which it spread its influence all over the globe, we had to concede: this was a free society that tolerated dissent.
I mention the American parallel because, in recent weeks, I have been perturbed by an increasing tide of intolerance within India. It is no secret that our country faces crises that require firm action. It is as clear that this action will inevitably lead to the deaths of many of our own people.
In the circumstances, it is entirely fitting – and perhaps even necessary – that we should debate the wisdom of government action thoroughly. This debate will throw up voices that seem far removed from the national mainstream. Even as the country is discussing military action against the Maoists, there will be those who argue that the rebels have the right to fight an oppressive state. There will also be those who claim that India’s occupation of Kashmir is illegal and immoral. Further, they will assert that this occupation is sustained only by murdering civilians and denying them their human rights.
Many of us will disagree profoundly with these views. Some of us will find them deeply offensive. We will argue that the people who make such statements do not know what they are talking about. In our anger, we may call them traitors and accuse them of sapping the nation’s will to fight threats to its integrity.
None of this is surprising. When such radical views that attack a mainstream national consensus are propounded, they are certain to draw forth strong reactions from the majority. What’s more, many of us will believe that these views are illogical, one-sided and based on nothing more than misguided emotion.
The problem arises when we go beyond public indignation. If Arundhati Roy believes that the Indian state is oppressing its people, then she has a perfect right to hold this opinion just as you and I have the right to argue that she is being silly. That’s the essence of debate and of dissent.
But when the government begins to frown on such dissent, then it is time to get worried. There is something wrong with the home ministry if it seems obsessed with the views of human rights activists. There is something worrying about the BJP if its leaders and spokesmen want those who question the role of the security forces to be arrested. The truth is that Arundhati Roy has as much right to her opinions as P Chidambaram or Ravi Shankar Prasad. That right flows from their status as citizens of India. And in this regard at least, all three are equal.
The intolerance is now being reflected in the pronouncements of television anchors and of journalists. I do not agree with people who believe that the Parliament attack was a conspiracy hatched by the dark forces of the Indian state itself. I do not agree that the Maoists have a moral right to conduct their insurgency. I do not believe that the 26/11 Bombay attack was a reflection of India’s mistreatment of its Muslim minority. I do not believe that the Kashmiris face a reign of terror.
But I do believe that anyone who disagrees with me on any of these issues has every right to be heard.
One reason why America is the world’s greatest democracy is because dissent has always broken through. Public opinion has shifted on such issues as the Vietnam war (from strongly for to strongly against) only because the dissenters have been granted the right to be heard. There were many in America who said that it was treason to oppose your own country’s army at a time when soldiers were being killed by the enemy (which is certainly the view we would take in India even today) but because America did not stifle the dissent it has emerged as a stronger nation from the crises of the 60s and the 70s.
India is on the verge of becoming a major power. We have nothing to be insecure about and much to take pride in. We may be annoyed – angered even – by the dissenters. But there is no harm in letting them have their say. It is their dissent that makes Indian democracy seem vibrant and strong.
Stifle that dissent, confuse criticism with treason and blame critics for the government’s own failure and suddenly, we will begin to seem like every other tin-pot dictatorship. We are already the world’s largest democracy. Now, let’s try and keep pace with the greatest.