Indian Mainstream Dissent Makes A Comeback: What Revived It?

The penultimate week of August 2020 is when mainstream dissent was suddenly and miraculously stirred back to life.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Image of The Quint’s Founder-Editor Raghav Bahl (Centre); Senior Advocate Prashant Bhushan (bottom right); artist’s impression of strife within the Congress party (top right) used for representational purposes.
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A week, they say, is a long time in politics. And so it was with the penultimate week of August 2020 – it wasn’t just unusually long and pregnant, but also a long time coming in India.

One year ago, dissent, the plasma of a vibrant democracy, went silent, as if 1.3 billion Indians had collectively pressed the mute button. Don’t get me wrong. People who are dedicated critics, activists, student leaders, and firebrand columnists, they never relented on dissent – and neither did the regime’s cheerleaders, trolls, or apologists go silent. That slugfest stayed as alive, raw, and raucous as ever.

Indian Mainstream Dissent Makes A Comeback: What Revived It?
(Graphics: Shruti Mathur)
But I am talking about mainstream dissent – that is, those ordinary protests and institutional actions by democratic organs whose job is to protect dissent – all of which went strangely silent in the numbing aftermath of BJP’s unexpectedly strong and renewed mandate in May 2019.

Barely had that spectacular outcome sunk in when the government, in less than seventy days, pulled off – allow me to borrow a rather hackneyed phrase – a ‘constitutional coup’ in Jammu & Kashmir.

The Fifth Of August 2019

Once again, don’t get me wrong. My province here is not to debate the political merit of abolishing Article 370, eviscerating statehood, and bifurcating the troubled land. That may well have been politically tenable or completely undefendable – it’s not my intention to enter that argument here. Instead, my remit is to focus on how mainstream dissent got muted on that fateful day, the Fifth of August 2019. Whether right or wrong, bold or reckless, the move was so audacious that it demanded dissent:

  • How could parliament be hustled into amending the Constitution without any notice?
  • How could an appointed governor usurp the rights of an elected assembly to endorse a political order which the legislative body would have opposed tooth, nail, hook, line, and sinker?
  • Did the unprecedented action violate or uphold the Constitution?
  • How was it legally possible to incarcerate scores of leaders and deny millions of people their right to connectivity and livelihood for months on end?
Indian Mainstream Dissent Makes A Comeback: What Revived It?
(Graphics: Shruti Mathur)
The issues were so moot that every democratic organ – the judiciary or press or opposition parties – should have been incensed, seized, and in turmoil. But what followed was an eerie silence, punctuated with stray, occasional protests that only made the muting of mainstream dissent ever more deafening. Even the judiciary, which could have set up a day-to-day hearing by a Constitution bench to adjudicate on the profound move, simply deflected to a much later date by which time the deed was over and done with.

Since then, for one long year, except for the anti-CAA protests which were led by students and activists but not much supported by the democratic organs of mainstream dissent, India has been muted. And from March onwards, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the coma even more fatal... until now, the penultimate week of August 2020, when mainstream dissent has suddenly and miraculously stirred back to life.

Indian Mainstream Dissent Makes A Comeback: What Revived It?
(Graphics: Shruti Mathur)
Snapshot
  • One year ago, dissent, the plasma of a vibrant democracy, went silent, as if 1.3 billion Indians had collectively pressed the mute button.
  • In the aftermath of Article 370’s revocation, every democratic organ should have been incensed. But what followed was an eerie silence.
  • The penultimate week of August 2020 is when mainstream dissent suddenly and miraculously was stirred back to life.
  • The spark was lit by Attorney General KK Venugopal who opposed Prashant Bhushan’s conviction for contempt of court.
  • Perhaps the most unexpected plume of dissent rose from within the Congress party, India’s principal opposition party, but one that frowns upon any kind of internal opposition or dissent.

How Mahatma Gandhi’s Words Relaxed a National Chokehold

The spark, ironically, was lit by the top law officer appointed by the Modi government. When Attorney General KK Venugopal intervened in open court and asserted – nay, dared – that he was opposed to senior advocate Prashant Bhushan’s conviction for contempt of court for merely two tweets, a national chokehold got relaxed. And when Bhushan para-phrased Mahatma Gandhi in his defence – “I do not ask for mercy. I do not appeal for magnanimity. I am here, therefore, to cheerfully submit to any penalty that can be lawfully inflicted on me for what the Court has determined to be an offence, and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen” – an acquiescent people were shockingly reminded of the conscientious dissent that had won them freedom from colonial rule less than 75 years ago.

Indian Mainstream Dissent Makes A Comeback: What Revived It?
(Graphics: Shruti Mathur)

Suddenly, it was open season for dissent. In Kashmir, the silence of the political graveyard was broken by a joint clarion call by opposition parties which were alleged to have gone ‘complicit’ with their tormentors. When Farooq Abdullah led six mutually adversarial groups – including PDP, Congress, People’s Conference, CPM and Awami National Conference – to ask for the restoration of Article 370, declaring that “political activities will be subservient to the sacred goal of reverting to the status of J&K as it existed on 4 August 2019”, democracy was reignited in the Valley.

Justices TV Nalawade and MG Swelikar unleashed the equivalent of a judicial missile from the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court.

They quashed the FIR filed against six Indians and 29 foreign nationals from Iran, Ivory Coast, Indonesia and Djibouti for attending the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi that had become the ‘first super-spreader’ of COVID-19 in India. Unfortunately, this Tablighi infringement of quarantine rules was converted into the super-spread of communal hate, viciously accusing them of doing so ‘deliberately and criminally’. But thank heavens the court saw through that diabolical propaganda, pulling them up for making ‘scapegoats’ of the accused. It was another notch for reborn dissent.

Indian Mainstream Dissent Makes A Comeback: What Revived It?
(Graphics: Shruti Mathur)

Dissent Even Challenged Monarchies & Multinationals

Perhaps the most unexpected plume of dissent rose from within the Congress, India’s principal opposition party, but one that frowns upon any kind of internal opposition or dissent. Twenty-three political heavyweights, cutting across regions and age brackets, asked the Gandhi family to shape up or ship out. By Congress’s placid standards, it was an earthquake measuring 24 on the Richter Scale. While the ‘rebellion’ was temporarily scotched with protestations of loyalty, the bare fact it happened was a double notch for twice-born dissent.

Indian Mainstream Dissent Makes A Comeback: What Revived It?
(Graphics: Shruti Mathur)

Finally, it was the turn of a multinational, a corporate breed that usually stays safely away from domestic politics, to wade into the minefield. Bloomsbury cancelled its publication of a book on Delhi riots which had ultra-right-wing leader Kapil Mishra as its pin-up boy. The miffed authors quickly took their work to a local publisher of another persuasion, who jumped at the opportunity. So now, whether the book is a bestseller or a dud, dissent has won big time here, and nobody has lost or was banned – not the overseas publisher, not the authors, and certainly not the new guys in town.

Indian Mainstream Dissent Makes A Comeback: What Revived It?
(Graphics: Shruti Mathur)

Whoa, the green shoots of dissent are finally here. So, we should end with this prayer:

Our father, who art in heaven,
Give us this day our daily August,
And let it not be a solitary swallow,
After a winter of silence.

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