Do ends justify the means? It’s an age-old question at the core of all political action, be it of the revolutionary, democratic or fascist kind. And this is inevitably the question that looms large in the fierce debate over the Anna Hazare-led protests underway.
In his speech to the Parliament, Manmohan Singh offered an unequivocal answer: “Anna Hazare may be inspired by high ideals… However, the path he has chosen is misconceived and fraught with great consequences for our democracy.” He went on to warn: “There are many forces who do not want to see India realise our place in the world. We must not play into their hands, create an environment where our economic progress is hijacked by internal dissension.”
This official view finds resonance, oddly, with sections of the liberal intelligentsia whose members have long challenged the autocratic and often bloody policies of the Indian state. The kind who stood in solidarity with Medha Patkar during the anti-dam protests back in the day, or are likely to invoke the name of Irom Sharmila. Yet when it comes to Hazare, a number of these anti-government stalwarts echo Singh, describing his fast as ‘blackmail’ aimed at hijacking the due processes of a parliamentary democracy.
At best, they offer an inverted version of Singh’s argument, as in the case of Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express:
There is no doubt that Anna Hazare’s movement powerfully expressed anger against corruption, even as its own proposed solutions border on unreasonable daftness. But it has to be said that the way in which state power is being exercised to control and squelch protest is a dangerous trend for Indian democracy… So we are now in the awkward position of worrying that though the state is right in asserting the supremacy of institutions, it is becoming dangerously arbitrary and arrogant.
The state may be in the right, but its “thuggish” methods are not. Hazare and his ilk are, however, wrong on both counts. Not only is the Jan Lokpal unreasonably daft, but they are eliding “the distinction between protest and fast-unto-death. The former is legitimate. The latter is blackmail.” Mehta goes on to warn of “a dangerous moral climate being created by Manichean worldviews of good versus evil [that] will ill serve the cause of justice,” arguing that “civil society should not contribute to this frenzy, lest it itself become the victim.”
There are then two parts to this anti-Hazare argument: one, certain forms of protest are more legitimate than others; two, the ‘bad’ kind of protest is not just illegitimate but poses a danger to democracy itself. But this formulation in turn raises the bigger question: who or what determines whether a protest is ‘good’ or ‘bad’? If we rely entirely on popular support – as we might in a democracy — then Mehta and Singh are most certainly on the losing side. Yes, the vast majority of Indians may not even know of Hazare, but most of those who do are inclined to support him over the government. Forget Hazare, how about the aam janta that is taking to the streets or going on strike, are we to condemn their actions as illegitimate, as well?
But democracy is more than just a numbers game, and more so in the matters of dissent. A democratic society must protect the right to non-violent protest, be it by ‘daft’ people or otherwise, or whether they espouse popular causes or not. And yet few among us seem to recognise or uphold this basic democratic right, including – oh, the irony – some of Hazare’s staunchest supporters.
“Annaji is symbol of honesty, and he represents the concerns of the Indian people. I am just amazed at the government’s reaction. They have not understood the mood of the nation,” declared actor Anupam Kher in a television interview. In other words, the actions were “amazing” because Annaji is widely respected and his views have some measure of popular support. Would they be less amazing if the cause was unpopular, as in the case of Arundhati Roy or Syed Ali Geelani? Or how about if the arrested were no-name displaced farmers or tribals who are routinely put behind bars?
Legitimate dissent includes not just action, but also speech and ideology. As the Supreme Court pointed out in the case of Binayak Sen, being a Maoist sympathiser – or even being suspected of being one – is not sufficient grounds for arrest. And yet how many of those who stridently uphold Hazare’s democratic rights today spoke out on behalf of Roy last year? At the time, Alok Tiwari noted:
The lack of outrage at the conclusion by Delhi police that there is “a fit case” to charge Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and author Arundhati Roy with sedition for what the two said in a seminar at Delhi is appalling. Only a few civil liberties advocates spoke out against the move. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party openly bayed for their blood. Congress maintained a studied silence. The minor parties were just not bothered. Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily didn’t come out to well when he suggested that freedom of expression couldn’t be used to violate “patriotic sentiments”, whatever that means.
In the end, it is not about Geelani or Roy. It is about our own idea of India. It is sad that police even in national capital cannot differentiate between an act of rebellion and a contrary opinion. It is sadder that the entire political establishment remains silent when citizens are threatened with criminal charges for voicing opinions – howsoever unpopular or offensive.