WHEN PEOPLE come out on the streets to protest against a law, they are not merely disagreeing but are questioning the legitimacy of the government, said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Contributing Editor, The Indian Express, while delivering the third Project 39A Annual Lecture in Criminal Law on Friday.
“This is why the government sees dissent as a foundational attack on the very basis of the state,” he said, explaining why liberal democracies crush dissent even when the idea of dissent is lauded and protected by the Constitution.
“Dissent is the opposite of consent. The more government claims consent is the basis of its legitimacy, the more it sees dissent as a threat,” he said.
Project 39A is a criminal reforms initiative focusing on the death penalty and prisoner’s rights at the National Law University, Delhi. The lecture was titled “The Dissenter as Criminal: Reflections on Dissent and the Law.”
“The only way for the state to deal with them is by criminalising them and deny them standing as citizens. Then the attention is shifted from the issue to the standing of the protesters,” Mehta said.
Questioning whether an anti-dissent logic is inherent in every liberal democracy, he said that democracies have no language to understand a dissenter in any manner except as a criminal. As an example, he cited how the state is dealing with those arrested for their role in the Bhima-Koregoan protests in 2018 and the 2019 protests against the new citizenship law and the National Registry of Citizenship.
“In both the cases, they are charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. A law expressly designed to deny standing to protesters as rational citizens,” he said.
“Government will always want to show that there is a secret conspiracy behind the protests even when the acts are done in public,” he added.
Mehta also criticised the Supreme Court’s observations in the case relating to anti-CAA protests in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh on the “right manner” of expressing dissent.
The SC had said that the right to protest and express dissent under the Constitution comes with an obligation to certain duties. “What must be kept in mind, however, is that the erstwhile mode and manner of dissent against colonial rule cannot be equated with dissent in a self-ruled democracy,” the court had said.
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