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Liberal Democracy and the Right to Dissent

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By: Zahid Sultan and Bhat Irshad

Relatively, liberal democracy, without any doubt, is regarded as the best available form of government in the modern world. There are various mechanisms, principles and procedures through which we can measure the working of a liberal democracy and these may include right to dissent, minority rights, constitutionalism, limited government and tolerance. Here, we are going to focus on right to dissent in the changing global and domestic politics within the states.

The right to dissent is the backbone of democracy and therefore can be either repressed or manipulated by any regime. The strength of a nation state is not gauged by the uniformity of opinion of its citizens or a public profession of patriotism. In fact, the history of progress of mankind is a history of informed dissent; much of creative activity of high quality in all areas of human endeavor at any given time has been a reflection of such dissent. Today if we regard democracy as a most acceptable form of government as it allows a citizen to have and exercise right to dissent without any fear of victimization and that is what distinguishes democracy from authoritarianism, dictatorship or colonial regimes.

In the current Indian political discourse, the space for dissent is shrinking .Contemporary India is standing at a critical juncture where one is forced to stand for the national anthem, at movie theaters, where citizens can or cannot see, eat, read and think about is consciously dictated by the government. Dissent in public spaces, particularly in higher institutions of learning such as universities, is restricted and shouting slogans and raising flags have become tests for nationalism. The continuous attacks on Muslims such as mob lynching, gar wapsi and testing their patriotism by majoritarian community including oppression on other minorities including dalits is what John Stuart Mill considers greatest dangers to liberal democratic society and calls it ‘’ Tyranny of Majority’’.

The debate on Right to Dissent verses Anti nationalism came into limelight in 2016 after the arbitrary arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, a student leader and activist  and the incident of Gurmehar Kaur. The shrinking of right to dissent in a liberal democracy leads to shrinking of social spaces where by younger generation can turn to other alternative models of power. Without imposing the state narratives on the dissenting voices there must have been a public space for healthy discussion, debate without arbitrary use of force because that is what the Indian Constitution promises its citizens. The Right to Dissent is what gives us a better chance in understanding our problems and opportunities, we cannot otherwise directly verify. Right to Dissent has to be grounded in respect for the difference and that is guaranteed by the set of shared core values. This respect materializes in listening well to dissenting voices and accepting personnel limitations. Absence of dissent in a secular and liberal democracy like India is a clear sign of democracy gone wrong – differentiation has been eliminated either by fear or absolution.

To conclude we can say that the true strength of a liberal democratic society is to give spaces to dissenting voices so that the citizens may not feel threatened by expressing contrary views, when fellow citizens need not to resort to violence against their fellow citizens for merely expressing opposite views that is when India will be truly free. What the government of the day needs to realize is that curbing the right to dissent does not destroy the underlining sentiments what it does do, however is further alienating the dissenting section of the society.

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