Democracy dies when its Streets Fall Silent: On criminalising of Dissent

Protests are being criminalised as "terror conspiracy" or "international conspiracy" to defame the government while our hard earned rights are taken away


Today every act of dissent is being deemed a “conspiracy”. After the criminalization of anti-CAA protests as a ‘terror conspiracy’ for which 24 people were arrested under the draconian UAPA, we saw the protests against the rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras too being deemed an “international conspiracy” to defame the government of UP. The legitimate protests by farmers against the draconian Farm Bills also saw similar labelling and repression. The Mumbai Police recently has sent surety notices to 16 people including four students of Rs. 5 lakh each for the ‘crime’ of participating in a spontaneous protest gathering against the attack on JNU students. In August activist Suvarna Salve was slapped with a surety of Rs. 50 lakh for participating in the same protest. In Mumbai, a total of 31 people have received similar notices for participating in protests against violence in Jamia, JNU and the cutting down of Array Forests.

Eminent citizens of the country held a press conference last week to address this curbing and criminalisng of dissent.

Among the speakers were the internationally acclaimed author, Arundhati Roy; Magsaysay awardee and Convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, Bezwada Wilson; Leading feminist theorist Prof. Nivedita Menon; Nadeem Khan, co-founder of United Against Hate which is being viciously targeted by the government for its role in the equal citizenship movement, against the CAA-NRC; Sanjay Hegde and Prashant Bhushan, among India’s most eminent Supreme Court lawyers; and Yogendra Yadav, President of Swaraj India and one of the most powerful and consistent voices for democratic rights and farmer’s rights.

Each of them condemned the pincer action in recent months, by the state, the police and by the judiciary to roll back our rights as citizens of a free democratic nation – the right to peaceful public protest.

We have to ask ourselves, are all legislations passed by our parliament sacrosanct? No. Not unless it is consistent with the Constitution. Every person arrested today are people who have stood up for Constitutional rights. They are those who have spoken up and stood up for rule of law and stood against atrocities on Muslims and brutalities. The opinion that protests ought to be museum-ised is a parody of democracy. Police refer to Sharjeel Imam, a research scholar from JNU and one of those arrested, reading Paul Brass as if it’s a crime. And what is even more shocking is that not a single person from the higher police administration said a word against such ridiculous framing.- Nivedita Menon

The speakers reiterated that people protest because they experience injustice and inequality, and as long as States remain unresponsive and mute, people need to be heard and to be seen. The world over, the power of public protests, rallies, sit-ins, and marches, have affected profound social, political and legislative change.

Yogendra Yadav started with a quote “Jab sadkein suni ho jaati hai, toh sansad awaara ho jaata hai.” He said, “Before you charge me of contempt, let me tell you that this is Ram Manohar Lohia’s quote. It talks about the deep relation between democracy and contestation.” Not just elections, contestation is absolutely central to democracy, he said. He said that it is unfortunate that some of the observations of our judges today are only emboldening the stifling of dissent.

Nadeem Khan, one of the founding members of United Against Hate, which is being specifically targeted and maligned, said that it is despicable that in the charge-sheet the platform is being referred to as United for Hate.

He recalled how the same police who claimed to have been unable to open the pattern lock of the accused in the case of forced disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed in JNU, are now confiscating hundreds of phones of activists to frame them for attending protests.

“We are proud that UAH has been working on unconstitutional laws like NRC since 2017. We have been following up on different cases of lynching and hate crimes. If protests and press conferences are ‘conspiracies’ then we will keep doing more of them.” He also added, “Today is 22nd October, the death anniversary of Ashfaqullah Khan. We pledge on this day that we will continue the struggles of Bismil and Ashfaq, the same struggle that our jailed voices were continuing.”- Nadeem Khan, UAH

Shaheen Bagh has been an eyesore for BJP and COVID crisis gave them a chance to malign and discredit the protests and eventually shut it down. Three weeks ago, the Supreme Court gave its verdict on Shaheen Bagh protests stating that public spaces cannot be occupied indefinitely.

The SC verdict was widely criticised as being partisan and against the spirit of the constitution that gives citizens the right to protest.

Commenting on the absurdities of the times today, Bezwada Wilson said,

“Abnormal has become normal today. Today the most straightforward things are also deemed ‘dissent’. Today even talking about the burning of the Dalit girl’s body in Hathras has become a tough act of dissent. To say that our shameful position in hunger index has become an act of dissent. Because they do not want us to say any of these things. If we do, we become anti-nationals. Today even what Ambedkar said will be considered dissent.”

Sanjay Hegde said when Galileo told that earth revolves around the sun, it was a dissent. “Ambedkar dissented in front of Gandhi. But Gandhi recognized dissent, he made sure that Ambedkar is brought back to the Constituent Assembly. The Constitution is a product of both dissent and the recognition of dissent.” Over the last few years, he said, dissent is being muzzled, tampered and violated. But I am hopeful. Our generation fought, future generations will also follow.

Prashant Bhushan lamented that those young voices who in fact stood against divisive politics and stood for constitutional values are today being framed and put behind bars. He said that former HC judge Justice Anand Narayan Mulla had once remarked that the UP police is the biggest “organized crime network”. Prashant Bhushan said that if the Delhi Police doesn’t realise, the same would be told about them.

“Every time I speak at this Press Club, I see the ghosts of those people who could be here at this very table in the same spirit as I – ghosts of those who are now in prison. I want to salute all those people who are behind bars, who spoke up – from Bhima Koregaon to the students, anti CAA protests.” After independence, after we were given a constitution, in this caste-ridden society, this was the only document that said all Indians are equal, she said. Today the same document is being rendered useless, redundant. In the 60s radical movements demanded distribution of land and resources for revolution; in the 80s we called the struggles against displacement of adivasis and peasants revolution. And now we are struggling for even our citizenship.- Arundhati Roy

She said that the situation unfolding in Assam under NRC is akin to that in Nuremburg under Nazi Germany where minorities were stripped of their rights.

Commenting on Hathras, she said “If you look carefully what happened in Hathras it shows that every organ of this country has rotten. The police, the medical, the judicial, community erased caste, and now they are claiming that the victim’s family itself is at fault.”

She said that the one thing that we need to talk about today is that the media has become spineless. She said it is shameful how they endangered the life of someone like Umar Khalid with their ludicrous claims.. The corporates and the anchors under their payroll are beyond disgusting, she said. She said that “Even Trump does Press Conferences and the media questions and criticizes him.”
“It is humiliating,” she said, “to live in an atmosphere where people are constantly marinated in hatred.”
She said that we have to realise despite our differences, that we are up against fascism. If we don’t realise that, we are going to be squeezed out like toothpaste, and there would be no way back.


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April 2024


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