Critiquing the recent discourse on dissent, SHIV VISVANATHAN writes that we fail to distinguish between true dissent and merely different opinions, and explains why the former is necessary to sustain a democracy. He says while our courts are proud of their dissenting judgements, they should be equally celebratory about dissenting judgements in society. 


THE contemporary academic, while being an occasional activist, is more of a spectator and a witness. He uses the power of commentary to clarify a discourse.

The recent discourse on citizenship and dissent has been a bit erratic. Whether one looks at Bhima Koregaon, the caricature of the urban naxal, or the response to the farmers’ protest, it is clear that majoritarian democracy is becoming a monolithic text.

Also read: Silencing Dissent: Misreading of Sedition Law Leads to Misuse to Shut Up Critics

There is only one truth. It is official and wears a starched uniform.

Democracy, liberalism and dissent

One must admit democracy as a theoretical exercise has been lazy about dissent. As the political scientist Rajni Kothari once told me, we confuse variety, eccentricity, opposition, and radicalism with dissent as a more grounded discourse. He added that Liberalism often fails to understand the difference between table manners and an ideological critique. He claimed all these manifestations are required, but one needs a Linnean sense of difference.

The liberal theory of tolerance, he claimed, was lazy. Liberalism tolerates the other as long as the difference is confined to the domain of the private and the personal. A personal eccentricity of dress hardly bothers society, but a veil as a political statement can drive a modern society hysterical. 

In medieval times, sects fought each other to death. But modern secularism faces the litmus test for liberalism when it confronts a migrant who emphasises difference. When you walk around Europe, especially France or the Netherlands, you sense that natives are embarrassed about the migrant. The migrant speaks a different language that Western democracy hardly understands. The nation state as a disciplinary idea has been responsible for a standardisation of ethnicity and membership.

Modern secularism and liberalism has to go beyond the lazy theory of tolerance. It has to move from an availability of eccentricity to an articulation of plurality.

The value of plurality

Plurality, unlike tolerance, does not see the other as a necessary evil. It celebrates diversity and articulates it into a dialogue of difference.

Here, the idea of opposition or radicalism comes in. It is focussed on an ideology or a political programme. It challenges the system on institutions and externalities. An opposition challenges you for power. Radicalism challenges the ideas that you hold when you are in power.

Dissent, however, is more fundamental. It embodies an ethic and an epistemology. Radicalism can challenge the dominant sense of history; dissent can challenge the very idea of history as a textual epistemology. The recent work on the People’s Linguistic Survey of India captures both dissent and difference. It articulates a plea for orality in a texual world.

Epistemics demand that one dig deeper into thoughts, looking not just at the idea as an interest but as a way of thinking. Dissent, especially creative dissent, attacks fundamentals without being fundamentalist.

Also read: Democracy in India needs dissent to be celebrated not curtailed

Dissent also needs dialogue. The urban Naxal triggers dialogue. First, he offers a self-critique of the Marxist neglect of nature. Secondly, in confronting the tribe, he offers a new theory of justice and development. It is the dissenting Marxist who threatens the ideas of party and state. Third, such a politics goes beyond an abstract ideology to a sense of belonging and caring.

You sense this in a Stan Swamy, a Sudha Bharadwaj, and a Kobad Ghandy. They care for people and ideas, and reflect on both to offer alternative lifestyles and thought. Our current regime is so paralyzed by mediocrity, though, that it takes the shortcut of calling them anti-national

The value of dissent in a democracy

Dissent raises questions beyond the dissenter. We have to realise and recognise that dissent is a part of the essence of democratic thought. Patrick Geddes, the sociologist of the modern university, showed that epistemically and institutionally, no modern university as a knowledge system is complete without its dissenting academics. As Alfred Wallace, the biologist and historian of science said, science needs to invent dissent if it is getting too monolithic. The alternative hypothesis, the nagging question or possibility which we cannot answer, is the lifeblood of a thinking science. Dissent is the grounded articulation of difference, playful enough to threaten any establishment force.

As a historian of science in a Law department, I often read court judgements with despair. Whether it is Justice S.A. Bobde or Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, their sense of dissent is still cosmetic. Their idea of dissent has not worked itself into the grammar of democracy. They do not see that sustainability needs dissent, that dissent is the possibility that keeps democracy ideationally open.

Also read: The Value of Dissent in Supreme Court Judgments

During the Truth Commission in South Africa, I heard a journalist cite A.C. Jordan, the philosopher, claim that a society must keep inventing others to sustain itself. India too must stop confusing variety with dissent, and celebrate the latter.

Our Courts are proud of their dissenting judgements. I wish they were equally celebratory about dissenting judgements in society. 

(Shiv Visvanathan is an Indian academic best known for his contributions to developing the field of science and technology studies, and for the concept of cognitive justice – a term he coined. He is currently a Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonepat. The views expressed are personal.)

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