Dissent, safety valve of Democracy

“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, then the pressure cooker may burst,” – Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, part of a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra.

The above quote is from a judgement which was passed by the Supreme Court on the detainment of the five activists who were arrested on the charge of ‘sedition.’ Their arrest had sparked off a debate. Is dissent in India under threat?

What is dissent? The dictionary defines it as, ‘the holding or expression of opinions at variance with those commonly or officially held. 

There are multiple articles on this website which talk about how the people should value the rights they enjoy. But in this article, the primary focus will be laid on how these rights (especially freedom of expression) is indispensable for a nation.

Democracy, is one of the most widely accepted political systems across the world. 123 countries (out of 192) follow this system. It is the only system (till now) where the focus is on the individual. Fundamental rights are granted to the people to ensure their well being. Furthermore, these rights keep the powers of the government in check. Among these rights is the ‘freedom of expression.’ The term is quite self explanatory, it gives anyone the right to express their opinions on the public platform. This also includes ‘dissenting’ opinion.

Dissent has played a vital role in the history of India. ‘Sati Pratha‘ was a prevalent social practice in India during the 19th century.  ‘Sati‘ required the woman to immolate herself on the husband’s pyre. Women were forced to follow this practice. Raja Rammohan Roy dissented from society. He worked hard against conservatism, fought off the forces of the backward mindset society and succeeded into making the British Government listen to him. In 1829, under the Governorship of Lord William Bentinck, ‘Sati Pratha‘ was abolished.

In 1885, the Congress party was formed. It is often argued that this party was ‘allowed‘ to be created by the British. The reason being that it would act as a ‘safety valve‘ for the population they ruled. It gave them an insight into the thinking of Indians and develop a deep understanding of them. What the British did not realize was that this was the first of many mistakes they made. No one could have thought that an organization which was created as an experiment, would overthrow the mighty British Empire without even firing a single shot. Their key weapons were ‘ahimsa‘ (non violence) and ‘satya’ (truth). To this I would like to add, dissent.

If the leaders of the Congress hadn’t dissented from the methods of governance of the ruling dispensation. Then independence may never have come to us.

Another example of how dissent is vital for countries to maintain peace and stability. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). It was a Communist regime where freedom of expression was prohibited.  For a long time the people were denied the right to express their opinion. This pressure kept building and one day it burst. USSR ceased to exist in 1991.

The above example clearly illustrates how the lack of freedom of expression leads to strife and instability. However, does freedom of expression lead to peace? Let us look at the Roman Empire to answer this question.

An empire of three continents, the Roman Empire consisted of a very diverse population. To integrate the people of various ethnicity and cultures, the Roman senate began accepting popular leaders of these provinces as senators (representatives) of that province. This policy allowed the indigenous population to voice out their views in the central authority of the empire. When they realized that their voices were being heard, they would feel a sense of belonging with the foreign empire. If there would be boiling tensions then the ability to dissent and express would act as a safety valve. Things would not explode and peace could be restored easily.

A country is a complex machine. All such machines have a safety valve as a precaution to ensure that if there is a buildup of pressure, the safety valve can be opened up and the pressure can be released. In a country like India where there are people from various ethnicity, cultures, regions, religions; dissent plays an important role in maintaining the unity among the people. When we express ourselves or confide in someone, we feel good. Our mind clears and starts thinking logically and constructively again. This same concept can be applied to a country. When people can speak up, they release their anger and the pressure goes down.

What happens when this same anger is allowed to build up in the minds of the people? It becomes a ticking time bomb. Sooner or later it will explode. When it does, it will be very disastrous for the nation. Sometimes it may even lead to disintegration (as was the case with USSR.)

Does it mean that I am advocating dissent regardless of its repercussions? No. Absolutely not. The core value of dissent is to ensure peace and stability. Expression is a powerful tool and it has to be used wisely. Whoever uses this tool to instigate violence. Under the pretext of patriotism, is not patriotic. Peace and co-existence is enjoyed by very few in this world. I will quote our own Mahatma Gandhi on this, “I object violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”

It is necessary that we protect dissent. Especially in a country like ours where diversity is an inherent characteristic. We are a nation built of nations, but we are a people of one nation. Dissent is essential for democracies to survive and thrive. Our ability to voice our opinions makes a lot of difference. It prevents violent and destructive thoughts from manifesting in our minds. Dissent acts as a safety valve, to release the pressure. We must always cherish and protect it.

Priyamvad Rai

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