VOICES OF DEMOCRACY: LESSONS FROM THE RECENT DISSENTS – Ann Terin Saji

Dissent and democracy

Andre Beteille, a Professor Emeritus of Sociology, in a lecture delivered on ‘democracy of our time’ organized by Azim Premji university, asserts the important feature of democracy. He states: “existence of dissent and opposition and their acceptance as legitimate is the indispensable feature democracy”. Dissent is democracy. The definition of democracy has often been limited to the ideas of elections, votes and political parties. There certainly is a need to direct our attention towards other nuances that are equally important for sustaining democracy. In today’s time, those who practice their constitutional right to dissent are timely targeted, termed anti-nationals or unnecessarily slapped with sedition charges. Any criticism against the state is considered as an act of deviance or a left propaganda by those who consider the leaders of the ruling regime to be their ‘heroes’ and are regularly worshiped. Therefore, a voice against the government becomes a threat and thus an attempt is made to expunge and discredit these voices whatsoever. This creates certain difficulties. Aruna Roy, a prominent social and political activist, talking on dissent in a healthy democracy, articulates the importance of dissent. She states: “when difficulties to dissent occur, the democracy of the country becomes unhealthy. Since they (government} are not ready to listen to the voices of people who are non- violent and not raising any arm and want to say something they perceive as wrong with their own society”. As Ambedkar puts it “Bhakti n religion may be road to salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”.  We must fathom the usefulness of reason and rationality that dissent reminds the citizens to hold while interpreting laws and policies brought in by the government.

India is a country with huge diversity. This diversity calls for different narratives. Dissent that helps in recognizing the different narratives against the imposition of one single narratives becomes significant to democracy. Sundar Sarukkai, a professor of philosophy at national institute of Advanced studies, Bengaluru, in his article published by The Hindu, attaches an ethical principle to the act of dissent. he consider these principles to be fundamental and proposes to his audience two ethical principal. First, the relation it shares with non-violence and second, dissent is a way of protecting those who are at other end of society. It voices the oppressed and marginalized of the people. dissent is thus a means through which the oppressed educate, organize and agitate. Ambedkar predicts a social reality that seems very true. He states: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril”.  Dissent votes for change. Change requires a relentless struggle. A struggle that is the most Indian thing one can do. We owe our independence to dissent.

In recent times, despite systematic crackdown on those dissenting, the constitutional right to protest still blooms in the garden of constitutional democracy. I intend to examine the two major vociferous movement of Anti CAA and NRC protest that in itself is a movement and the present farmers agitation against the new farm laws (black laws as termed by the protesting farmers) we been part to. Through content analysis, I analysis how protest have asserted equality and a site where the oppressed fought against laws that are exploitative as well as unconstitutional with greater participation of women, elderly, students and children. How protest has been a site of hospitality. A symbol of unity and solidarity, a site built with creativity and love. A site that dedicated itself to truth and knowledge.

Constitutional rights are for all

very recently the honourable chief justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde asked a question associated with present farmers agitation that certainly raises a lot of concerns. He asked; “why are women and elders kept in the protest?”. And later asked advocate H.S Phoolka to persuade the women and elders to leave the protest site and turn back home.

Looking deep into this question, we find a sense of a social reality. A reality that is embedded in patriarchy and ignorance. A sad reality based on certain stereotypes and problematic assumptions. From beginning of Indian democracy, women (literate or illiterate) were provided with basic right to vote. women have always been at the vanguard of every movement. Women’s life is based on dissent. What comes easy to men in this patriarchal world, women had to fight for it and are still fighting to bring about a change. Participation of women in dissent is crucial for the country. The question asked by CJI forces us to question whether this right to dissent is only for men. Satarupa Chakraborty, a member of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) articulates in an article published by Wire. She believes this statement made by CJI, “endorses infantilization of labour by women.” women’s contribution in farming is as crucial as that of the men, their contribution remains equal to that of their male counterparts. Thus, their right to protest against the ‘black’ laws remains important. There has been an ‘invisiblisation’ of their labour. A People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) report found that nearly two-thirds of the female workforce is engaged in agriculture, “either as cultivators or agricultural labourers”. (Chakraborty. Wire, 2021). Invisiblisation of women’s labour is not a new phenomenon. Industrial society ignored the domestic labour of the women and added much of the value to the work done by the men in the industries (typical capitalist behaviour). This division of labour was considered ‘natural’ and something ‘that helps in the functioning of the society’ and thus, exploitation of women’s labour still persists. Unequal renumeration for their labour still prevail.

Women, bearing the triple burden of caste, class and gender, are mindful of these laws against which they fight. Despite the attempt of delegitimizations of this agitation, female farmers have developed a conscious of their own and have come out of their homes to be part of a movement that is equally important for them. Thus, they look after their homes (this certainly proves how home as a space is still gendered.) and also the movement. Veteran activist Medha Patkar asserts, “India sees these women as shields But, in fact, they are the swords.” Women, who fight for their freedom discovered that these farm bills will saddle the with work therefore, they will be forced to give up their education. Education is a hard-earned freedom for women and other oppressed communities. Which of course the privilege class don’t understand.

Similarly, Shaheen Bagh on the other hand became a movement in itself. Women, who were once confined to their houses had now stepped out of their safe place along with their children to bring about a change, to make an important point. Women, irrespective of their age, would sit for hours and dance and sing to the tunes of inquilab.  They set up an ordinary tent with mattresses and blankets on the floor where they would huddle up together. This woman led movement against the discriminatory law of CAA and NRC was joined by students, teachers and scholars, after all these women were making history. Chanting slogan such as ‘hum Kya chahte azadi’ and singing old and newly produced songs like ‘Dastoor’ and ‘hum kaagaz nahi dikhaayenge’ were sang widely, which was later materialized into some sort of a ritual. Children playing around, while sipping juices out of their appy or frooti cans. One can certainly not unsee gender roles beings effectively played by these children; Sisters took care of their brothers. Well socialised into the societal roles I suppose. Mothers and grandmothers of Shaheen, unapologetic of their identity shattered all stereotyped associated with a Muslim woman of being ‘voiceless victims’*. These women stood against these popular prejudices and emerged as independent citizens who certainly knows how to fight their battles. They stand strong, with anger, with fingers raised at the repressor and they fight. During the night, these women sparkled like the torch of revolution. They owned their night. A night that in general is not accessed by most of women of our country.

One cup chai and let’s fight!!

Dissent often finds itself wrapped in hospitality and kindness. Whether it’s the farmers or those fighting against CAA. Their hospitality acts brought in some warmth to those who supported their cause. The warmth of the resilience often began with a cup of chai. Free chais to save yourself from the biting cold.  As recalled by Rohit Kumar, who documented his visit to Delhi’s Ghazipur border, where farmers have gathered and later published by Wire. He writes:a group of Sikhs sitting on mattresses on the flyover pavement. One of them got up, came over to me and said, “Chai piyoge?” This sudden unexpected bit of warm hospitality on a cold and dreary evening caught me by surprise.

Currently, as I write this, agitating farmers of India, despite branded as terrorist or anti-nationalist, stand firm in the values of Sewa and distribute food to those fighting. “koi bhi aajo, sabko khana milega”. Young volunteers from Gujarat, Haryana and Punjab is very much indulged in the act of Sewa. Men cooking, thus, shattering every gender stereotypes. This Sewa didn’t limit to the distribution of food. It certainly came out in other ways, from donating washing machines to repairing the tractors, from providing free medical services to salon services.

Stand in solidarity, my fellow citizens

Solidarity poured in for the protesters. Indians stood united with those protesting. ASHA workers organised under the centre of Indian trade unions (CITU) came out in solidarity. Like many supporting citizens, they too set up camps and provided medicines to the farmers for free. Scholar, activist, artist, students and even those living abroad (both Indians and non-Indians) have shown their solidarity for the farmers fighting to save themselves from the clutches of the oppressive corporates. The nearby shops providing free necessary and essential services to the farmers proves the fraternity and integrity that the citizens of India hold. The fellow supporters bring with them rusks, biscuits, blankets for the biting Delhi winters. Kerala, as a sweet sign of support to these farmers provided 16tonnes of pineapples. In Kashmir, on 8th December, all sort of commercial activities within the apple market remained suspended as sign of solidarity. The women of Shaheen Bagh received a good amount support from young, mindful students and academicians from universities like JNU, Jamia, Delhi university, Ambedkar university to name a few.  These women dealt with hatred by rising together as one and chanting the slogans of inquilab and azadi, they remained calm even during the disgusting hate storm, with an inbuilt solidarity, love for their country and their constitution and their concern for their children gave them the strength to fight. Well known artists held concerts at Shaheen Bagh and visited the farmers in support for their cause.

Solidarity came from the protesters too. The fact that the genesis of this women-led movement emerged in response to the police violence against the students of Jamia is one of the prime examples of solidarity that the protestors showcased. Similarly, the farmers didn’t shy away from showing their solidarity for those voices who have been put behind bars under draconian laws. Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta quotes the president of Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan) while writing for Wire. The president BKU (Ekta-Ufrahan) states “We are confronting a prime minister who is behaving like an exploitative king. All these activists and intellectuals have been arrested on false charges merely because they highlighted the plight of the poor, without bothering about their own safety. It is now our responsibility that we extend our support to them. That is why we are also demanding the release of all these intellectuals and activists, apart from our resistance to the farm laws.” These farmers whommost of mainstreamstereotyped as illiterate and uneducated demanded the release of all the political prisoners and held the constitutional right close to each one us.

A fight with colours, words, tunes and truth

Universities, a home, a place where books and rationality become a student’s friend. Pens become their tool for writing the stories peace, love and justice. In fact, Pavilions of my ‘not so politically active’ college, reverberates the discussions and debates about political developments that are unconstitutional and were materialized in our country, India. Bunch of women coming together discussing and debating the negative consequences of fee hike in different university, abrogation of Kashmir, Anti- CAA and NRC. They empathized with victims and condemned the shocking ‘riot’** that Delhi witnessed. Young minds coming in solidarity and echoing those ideas that they might just have studied. These extraordinary women put their faith in the Indian constitution and echoed ideas of notable leaders like Ambedkar, Phule(s) broke the stereotype that declares women as politically shy beings. Dogs and cats would mark their presence by simply shifting from their usual place to the pavilions. The college grounds did soon become a place where students and teachers came together as concerned citizens. Along with debates, poetry found its way in her hearts and helped us to proceed with our dissent.

New and old songs were produced and both revived during the Anti- CAA, Faiz echoed across nation, translated in different language. Those who couldn’t express their discontent were able to express their outrage through poems and music. Protest songs of other countries were resurrected through translation and in the form of parodies. Students turned to their art to express their fight. Paintings painted on the wall of Jamia shouted a silent yet a powerful slogan. Libraries named after pioneers and famous dissenter like Fatima sheik and Savtribhai Phule installed at Shaheen Bagh and Bhagat Singh library at borders where farmers agitate. Read for revolution. Art installation and innovation thrives through the protest.

Farmer agitation loyal to their history of protest came up with a newspaper called “Trolley times” that emerged in response the hate-filled mainstream journalism. Every week, 5000 copies of trolley times make through the crowds of farmers who read them on a daily basis. Its popularity cuts through different countries. Responses from the non-resident Indians from Canada. Australia and Europe are tremendous. The printed editions are preferred by the elderly farmers while the young resort to the digital edition. Through this newspaper the farmers have boycotted the ‘Godi media’ who termed these peaceful protesters as Khalistanis and helping the government to produce what Foucault calls “docile bodies and subjective minds” at the same time wrecking the unity and the social fabric of India.

Ray of hope

Both of these protest in a dissent-oriented country brought back the lost ray of hope. Both the farmers and women of Shaheen Bagh kept the movement alive by fighting all kinds of odds, from extreme weathers to hatred. women sat for months up until the pandemic. They let those emotions of fear and anxiety vanished.   Despite the repressive measures taken by the police – lathis, water cannon, tear gases to name a few, these farmers fought against these odds with more determination and cherished the values of non-violence. Biting cold and continuous downpour certainly led to difficulties yet the constitutional spirit refused to let go of the protesters. Protest, where constitution comes alive, a site where solidarity, love and hospitality pave their way towards a fight that looks as peaceful and lively as the women with a rose. Let the river of rationality flow through us. Let dialogue and ethical debates remain are tools. As Romila Thapar, an Indian historian reminds, “the articulation of dissent and debate through dialogue is what makes of it (dissent) a movement that changes society for the better.”

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments.                                                       Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

  • Rabindranath Tagore

*As caravan, a political, social magazine puts it in one of their articles.

** or perhaps a pogrom

***