Sabarimala opens today: Treatment of women by protesters is something Mahatma Gandhi would have objected to
The Sabarimala verdict has been rejected by hundreds of devotees, men and women alike. The protest has come in the form of review petitions, marches and demonstrations
The Sabarimala verdict has been rejected by hundreds of devotees, men and women alike. The protest has come in the form of review petitions, marches and demonstrations. On the day of the implementation of the judgment, #SaveSabarimala campaigners took to physically stopping women from entering the temple. Amid threats of mass suicide and physical assault on those who disobey, women tried and were prevented from 'destroying the piety of the deity'. The state machinery watched as women were removed from government buses going towards the temple.
Protesting, as a form of expression of dissent, is crucial to the functioning of a democracy. But should we, and where do we, draw a line?
It is quite befitting that the month of Mahatma Gandhi's birth saw a multitude of protests across India. Students from HNLU sat on a hunger strike demanding the resignation of a vice-chancellor who not only abused funds but also enabled gender discrimination on the campus. A former professor of environmental engineering, GD Agarwal, embraced death following a protracted hunger strike against government inaction to clean the River Ganga. Farmers braved water cannons and tear gas to march over demands ranging from farm loan waiver to fuel prices. Women flooded social media collating instances of sexual harassment, naming and shaming their abusers and receiving either apologies or defamation suits. Animal rights activists protested the government's order to hunt to kill a man-eating tigress in Pune. Diversity of the issues and tenor of the campaigns notwithstanding, the protests have a common theme of wanting redressal outside of the due process provided by law.
According to the German sociologist and philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, the conflict between what the political processes and the constitutional machinery tells us is right and what the common people perceive should be done results in a legitimation crisis. Thus, while the governing elites of the country keep in sight the demands of the Constitution and of rules of good governance, the common individual, divorced from any incentive to take stock of the prevalent constitutional morality, judges the world around them through personal experiences and thus, often a subjective notion of justice. Subsequently, citizens either start to ignore politics till the point it affects them personally or lose trust in the institutions and disengage with the process completely.
The Sabarimala protests showcase this legitimation crisis perfectly. Many devotees protesting the verdict quite naturally place higher authority in God and religious morality than the dictates of a Constitution they have never read. While some believe that the current processes of conflict resolution have not given them sufficient audience and are thus petitioning the government to take appropriate action, others have chosen to shoulder the burden of implementing what they believe is right through force and fear.
The legitimation crisis is real and overwhelming, and it is our response to this crisis that determines our allegiance to democracy. We can either adopt a myopic definition of democracy as a process that requires citizens to vote for their least-hated candidate and hope for the best or understand that words and not force should be the tools to bring about change. The freedom to express ends where the physical autonomy of the other begins. Today, while some continue to use their freedom of expression to voice disagreements and challenge rules unacceptable to them through constitutional processes, others have married dissent to force and forged it into a weapon to subvert the constitutional processes itself.
The treatment of women trying to enter the Sabarimala temple is the kind of protest Gandhi would have protested. To call them protesters is to laugh at the non-violent methods of disagreement that civilised societies have come to adopt as status quo.
Dissent within a constitutional democracy comes with the acknowledgement that discourse, howsoever aggressive, will lead to resolution. Words run the wheels of the Parliament as well as the judiciary and to reject their use in favour of force is to reject the very principles of democracy.
The author is a graduate of Legal Theory from New York University
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