CALLING DISSENT the “safety valve of democracy”, Supreme Court judge Justice D Y Chandrachud on Saturday said “blanket labelling of such dissent as anti-national or anti-democratic strikes at the heart of our commitment to the protection of constitutional values and promotion of a deliberative democracy”.
Speaking on “The hues that make India: From plurality to pluralism” at the 15th Justice PD Desai Memorial Lecture here, Justice Chandrachud said “employment of state machinery to curb dissent instils fear and creates a chilling atmosphere on free speech which violates the rule of law and detracts from the constitutional vision of a pluralist society.”
His comments come at a time when the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) has triggered protests in many parts of the country.
“The true test of a democracy… is its ability to ensure the creation and protection of spaces where every individual can voice their opinion without the fear of retribution… A legitimate government committed to deliberate dialogue does not seek to restrict political contestation but welcomes it… A state committed to the rule of law ensures that the state apparatus is not employed to curb legitimate and peaceful protest but to create spaces conducive for deliberation. Within the bounds of law, liberal democracies ensure that their citizens enjoy the right to express their views in every conceivable manner, including the right to protest and express dissent against prevailing laws. The blanket labelling of such dissent as ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-democratic’ strikes at the heart of our commitment to the protection of constitutional values and the promotion of a deliberative democracy,” he said.
Stating that the “great threat to pluralism is the suppression of difference and the silencing of popular and unpopular voices offering alternate or opposing views,” Justice Chandrachud said: “Protecting dissent is but a reminder that while democratically elected governments offer us a legitimate tool for development and social coordination, they can never claim a monopoly over the values and identities that define our plural society. The employment of state machinery to curb dissent instils fear and creates a chilling atmosphere on free speech which violates the rule of law and detracts from the constitutional vision of a pluralist society… The destruction of spaces for questions and dissent destroys the basis of all growth — political, economic, cultural and social. In this sense, dissent is the safety valve of democracy. The silencing of dissent and the generation of fear in the minds of people go beyond the violation of personal liberty and a commitment to constitutional values — it strikes at the heart of a dialogue-based democratic society which accords to every individual equal respect and consideration.”
Another threat to pluralism, he said, is the belief that “homogenisation presupposes the unity of the nation”. “India, as a nation committed to pluralism, is not one language, one religion, one culture or one assimilated race… No single individual or institution can claim a monopoly over the idea of India… The idea of a plural India guides and dictates how the institutions envisaged by the Constitution as well as individuals in the society respond to diversity,” he said.
“A democracy welded to the ideal of reason and deliberation ensures that minority opinions are not strangulated and ensures that every outcome is not a result merely of numbers but of shared consensus… Where, on the one hand, due deliberation and consideration within institutional spaces underlines a commitment to pluralism, deliberation by individuals in public spaces on the other hand is of equal, if not more, importance,” he said.
Quoting political scientist Uday Mehta, he said the founders of the Constitution “sought to unify a divergent India by accommodating all people who called India their home. For the founders, the Constitution was premised on both a deep trust in the tolerant nature of its citizens and an unshakeable belief that our diversity would be a source of strength”.
He said the “commitment to pluralism does not imply non-interference with brute practices which hinder the constitutional vision of an equal citizenship, premised on equal dignity, worth and liberty of every individual.” Referring to the Sabarimala case, he said: “Take, for example, a religious group which prohibits the entry of women into institutions of worship grounded in their physiological characteristics. Here, inequality on the basis of sex is grounded in the membership of the group which seeks to prevent their entry. For this reason, the state was empowered to provide for social welfare and reform by throwing open Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all sections of Hindus.”