Blow For The Dissent “Citizens are the conscience keepers”

B L Saraf

Thanks to the intervention of courts, the wind seems to be changing direction, though slowly. After a long spell of one sided discourse, hopefully, we are in for the ‘other ‘narrative, as well. First it was the Apex Court which, in a TV Anchor’s bail matter, batted strongly for individual’s right to liberty, then came the comforting words of Additional Sessions Judge, Delhi. Through the medium of the order granting bail to a young environmental activist, Disha Ravi, learned Sessions Judge raised citizen’s status, in a democratic set up of governance, to the higher levels. The activist was arrested by Delhi police in connection with a toolkit on farmers protest that was tweeted by Swedish activist, Greta Thunburg ,and charged with offence of sedition. Justice V Krishna Ayer must be smiling up heavens: after all it was he who put a premium on citizen’s right to liberty and coined the dictum “Bail not Jail” which, unfortunately , off late the persons wielding state authority have turned upside down and observe it more in breach than in compliance.
Additional Sessions Judge Delhi , in his bail order releasing Disha Ravi from Police custody, described citizens as ” the conscience keepers of the government in any democratic nation ” who cannot be put behind the bars if they simply choose to disagree with the state policies. Judge Dharmender Rana’s made other observations, also. When put together, they mark profound characteristics that form back bone of a Constitutional Democracy and underscore judiciary’s special responsibility. Some of them raise important questions which Delhi police and the central government will have to answer. These observations come as a big relief at the time when we have been witnessing a vilification of genuine activists as anti national conspirators “bent upon to destabilize the nation.”
It has become a pathetic phenomenon that whenever a question , though awkward but very relevant, is asked to the ruling establishment its spokespersons flaunt Government’s huge electoral success and claim ‘immunity’ from answering them. They brow beat the questioner by terming him as an anti-national. Even a simple protest for protection of livelihood, or a basic right is dubbed as an anti-national act. True, for a democratic set up of governance elections are necessary but they are not the “be all and end all” of the enterprise. Elections alone do not define democracy. Democracy is measured on other indices also. It is said that democracy is as much a rule by the majority as it is regard for the minority rights. Minority could be a religious or the political one. Next, democracy has to satisfy other requirements that come into play post elections. One of such requirements is restraint on the executive, regard for the civil liberties and citizen’s right to peaceful protest .It doesn’t bode well for the democracy when the state charges peace full protesters with sedition , puts curbs on press and restricts free flow of information – which these days has become the rule .
True, the citizens, along with rights, have some duties as well towards state and the society. Among duties and the rights a balance has to be maintained. It will be turning democracy on head if citizen’s duties are elevated over their rights . What a pity : the land with rich spiritual and cultural heritage whose philosophy places high value on logic, seeks truth from contending arguments and embraces love and compassion, is fast turning into a one inundated by the FIRs.
It is a tragedy that governments -be in Delhi or in the provincial capitals-have become thin skinned, get peeved at the slightest criticism evoked by their thoughtless actions and then wildly charge the questioning persons as seditionist. To them the learned Judge has shown a mirror when he wrote in the bail order “Offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments .” Referring to a PC decision of 1942, the learned Judge said that difference of opinion, disagreement, divergence and dissent are recognized legitimate tools to infuse objectivity in state policies. He stressed the point that an aware and assertive citizenry, in contrast with an indifferent or docile citizenry ,is indisputably , a sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy. We can’t let leaders go with the inflated ego, arrogance of power and disregard for the debate that compels them to run rough shod over the citizenry. One sided discourse will never carry the ultimate truth .
Those amongst us who bat for dissemination and wide spread of the information will find a big support in the words of the Judge, that the freedom of speech and expression include right to seek global audience. There are no geographical barriers on communication. A citizen has a right to use the best means of imparting and receiving information as long as the same is permissible under four corners of law and as such have access to audience abroad . We, Indians, were never averse to the ideas pouring in from varied quarters . Our religious scriptures promoted cultural ethos which respected diverse opinions and kept doors open to let in noble thoughts from all the directions.
It has taken blood and sweat of our founding fathers to create and maintain a democratic and pluralistic set up that singles out India in the Sub-Continent. The democratic form of governance is a cherished dream of all. The country can’t afford let it wither away. Constitutional Morality demands that the politicians, of all hues and colour, conform to the real test of democracy and don’t derail it by their actions: lest they prove correct what a noted political scientist of the modern era has said : ” these days most democratic break downs are caused by the elected civilian governments and not by general and the soldiers.”
(The author is Former Principal
District & Sessions Judge)