The strongest man is the one, says Dr Stockmann in Henrik Ibsen's immortal play The People's Enemy, who stands alone. So strength and being by oneself are quite interrelated. Dr Stockmann shows – and he is a qualified and sensitive medical doctor, and a good man – that the city’s public baths have become “a pestiferous hole”, that they are polluting everything that the city’s commons use, the city’s people and those who visit it need and depend on.

He is disbelieved, decried, and all but demolished by the people for whom the filthy and now dangerous baths provide legitimacy. They want its patronage, prestige. They want the power it confers. And they hate Dr Stockmann for speaking about its polluting sickness, its threat to human life.

They are out to get him by a manipulation of public opinion, by pandering to a false sense of ‘pride’ in the city, in ‘the larger picture’ of the city’s future. Our baths, dirty? How dare he? Dr Stockmann persists in his belief, in the broadcasting of his belief. And they do get him. He is exiled, his house’s windows smashed, his daughter at school victimised. He is strong, he stands alone. He is the classic dissenter. But Ibsen wrote about dissent everywhere, and anytime.

Four hundred years before Christ, another dissenter, in a city-state, Athens, warned his fellow citizens against dictatorship within a democracy, against the collective belief that might makes right. He challenged the status quo and then did the unthinkable – he praised Athens’ great rival, Sparta. He was tried by a jury of 500 Athenians, found guilty by a majority of 280 against a minority of 220. The crime was “corrupting the minds of youth” and “impiety”, that is, of “not believing in the gods of the state”.

He was asked, “What punishment would you want?” Impious or not, Socrates was irreverent. “Punishment?” he rejoined. “I should be rewarded – wages and free dinners for the rest of my life.” He was strong, he drank his hemlock.

What happened to Christ himself we know, we know well. “Are you the King of the Jews, the Messiah?” he was asked. According to Luke, Jesus replied: “You say that I am.” He was found guilty of blasphemy, ordered to be crucified.

And it was the turn of the barbaric State, this time, to be irreverent. On the block above the nailed man’s head, was carved what is perhaps the first written instance in the world of a taunt: INRI – “Jesus of Nazareth King of Jews”.

He was strong, he was hung.

Across the ages

Coming to our chunk of the earth, the Buddha was a dissenter. When he left his palace, and did whatever he did, there was something of a dissenter in him. He also left his wife – suddenly like that, making her a dissenter of a kind herself, but that is another story. I’d stick to historical figures so wouldn’t include Arjuna, who was also a great dissenter.

Many hundred years later, in our part of the world, in this very city of Delhi, another man born into a Jewish home but a convert to Islam, Sarmad, wandered about its streets, a naked faqir. His Persian quatrains spoke wisdoms, not popular or dictated refrains. Sarmad became a spiritual guide to the eclectic and other-worldly Prince Dara Shukoh.

After the newly-installed Emperor Aurangzeb had his elder brother Dara murdered, he turned the royal gaze to Sarmad. Aurangzeb may have had blood on his hands, murder in his thoughts but, befittingly to his throne, he decreed that ‘due process’ be observed. “What is this man’s crime?” he asked.

“Most High, this man wanders around naked, a sin in the eyes of the Shari’a.” “Hmmm,” the emperor is said to have wondered, “Anything else?”

“Most High, he entered this court not just naked and accusing your majesty of injustice to Prince Dara but denying the Prophet’s miraj, declaimed ‘the mullah says that Ahmad went to the heavens; Sarmad says the heavens were inside Ahmad’.”

The emperor’s sense of due process was not quite satisfied. This was not crime enough.

“Anything else?” he asked again. “Yes, Jahanpanah… the man is an atheist, when asked to recite the Kalima, he did not do so in its entirety and instead of saying La ilahailla’llah – there is no God except Allah –  he said only the first part ‘La ilaha’ (there is no god) without the ‘illa’llah’ (except Allah). How dare you, we asked him, how dare you leave out the second part? He replied, Jahanpanah, that he was in a negative, nihilist mood, and so felt like saying only what was not rather than what was, and if he were to say something that is positivist, or affirmative, like ‘Only Allah Is’, he would be lying, and lying is wrong. He is a heretic, Most High.”

That clinched it. Heresy stood established, death by beheading was ordered. Sarmad recited his own, no one else’s quatrains, as the blade, more naked than he was, fell on his neck at Jama Masjid.

The two Congresses

About three centuries after Sarmad’s execution, with the Mughal empire long since demised, another faqir, not quite naked, but nearly there, was disliked, despised, for saying Ishwar Allah tere naam, for saying those two names in the same breath, within the same tala, the same laya, and for his temerity – unthinkable! –  in not howling imprecations at our Sparta – Pakistan – but actually wishing the enemy well.

What happened to ‘the half-naked faqir’ as he walked to his prayers we know. Blood is blood, whether spilt by the falling blade or the piercing bullet. The dissenter is alone, but not the State.

The powers of the day wield the power of might. And that ‘might’ is not just the musculature of the State but a genome of manipulated frenzy, which the ‘throne’ feeds and is fed by.

Behind the orders passed in a Scandinavian town against Dr Stockmann, in Athens against Socrates, in Judaea against Jesus or in Delhi against Sarmad, the procedures, or due process followed, enjoyed a surface sanction, a paper legitimacy, a technical credence that sealed the ‘guilt’. But they also had the assurance that a certain body of opinion, influential and powerful, would stand by those orders.

Why? Because those ‘orders’ of execution were also orders of protection, of patronage, of preferment. And sometimes, as in the Delhi of 1948, that frenzy acts on its own.

In authoritarian regimes, there would be no room for opponent. Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussain – none of them allowed dissent. But in dictatorships, while opponents have no room, dissenters can arise. The democratic set-up has opposition, but when it comes to dissent, democracy and dictatorships equally dislike them.

The Congress started as a party of dissenters. Now the Congress is 130 years old. But the Congress is in effect two Congresses: 1885-1975 is one Congress; it conduced itself with dignity, democratic grace; Gandhi himself was a dissenter, and the Congress of the day made space for Gandhi. Nehru was a dissenter, he made no bones about his dissent with Gandhi.

Those 90 years and the second 40 years, post-75, are different universes. From ’75 to ’77 the opposition evaporated, but dissent survived. Even opposition leaders became dissenters. There was an extraordinary metamorphosis. Dissent revives, in a way, when space shrinks. It is quite extraordinary: technically the space had shrunk. They were in Tihar [jail], but still their dissent was eloquent, JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) being the most prominent of the lot. He had been in opposition for years. But in the years leading to the Emergency, when he became a political dissenter, he became an irresistible force.

Censorship across arenas

Laxmi Chand Jain, in the memory of whose mother this award is given, would have spoken more eloquently about Jayaprakash than I can ever do. From within his prison walls, everyone could hear, “Andhere mein ek prakash; Jayaprakash, Jayaprakash.”

But I should not go on and on about Congress as if it’s the only party that hates dissent. The Hindutva-related parties, which have disliked dissent within themselves and beyond themselves, do not encourage dissent today. There is no question of the leadership of the BJP ever hearing a voice of dissent within the party: it can hear voices of opposition, yes, but dissent, no.

The communist parties of India. What does one say of them at all? It is not a supremo party, but a politburo party. Dissent? Forget it!

And then we have supremo parties in our country. Regional parties. Each with an iconic person as its head. Dissent equals expulsion. Today, when intolerance has in a sense got anointed through the means of democratic election, we can’t do better than remember what Dr B R Ambedkar said of a possibility of a landslide victory turning a democratic leader into a dictator.

There is no doubt that the institutions of democracy are functioning today, no doubt that judiciary is keeping a sharp eye open on how the administration is functioning. But there is no doubt either that various statements are made, very often by people in authority, under oath to constitution – those statements of intolerance are not put down with reflexive action the way Nehru would have. The question didn’t arise because occasion didn’t arise, but he would have. Today, that is not happening.

It is not enough that we hear that nothing egregious coming from the PM himself. But that is not enough. Dissent, if dissent it be called, in the shape of a contrary opinion held by somebody – individual, political party or institution – should be respected, made comfortably secure by the highest authority in the country, namely the PM. And unless that happens, the space for the dissent shrinks. But as I suggested a little while ago, the shrinking of the space for dissent is a matter of great regret, no doubt; is a handicap to free expression, no doubt; but should be seen in a completely different light, that the very shrinking, that the very claustrophobing and strangulation of dissent can become its greatest strength. And Jayaprakash Narayan showed it more than anyone else. He was invincible when he was free, he was incomparable when he was not.

Politics is not the only arena where dissent is silenced: communities in our society are often as vicious in their opposition to dissent as politicians are. What has happened to the writers in the last several decades; during the Congress era and after that… Writers in our country have here and there, in a scatter of incidents, suffered what Stockmann suffered. As recently as last month, Perumal Murugan in Tamil Nadu went through psychological torture, leading to what has been described as literary suicide. Musicians have to be free in a sense in which musicians are free, not in a sense in which they have to conform to rules laid down by either critics or organisations or leaders of cultural opinion.

Illiberalism in society

Censorship is not done by state alone: it is done by state in concert with illiberal traditions in society. There is a tradition in Bharatnatyam of the Padam and Javali. There is a Padam in which woman speaks of a certain situation, and she says in a Tamil word, which all of you will understand – aiyayo. It is a situation where there is just a man and a woman, and something happens and she says, aiyayo. But, the censorship being what it is, the aiyayo became ammamma. Now the society imposes a code in which aiyayo becomes ammamma. The society which says this will breed a state which censors.

It is a matter of great joy that the first online media award has been presented today. But the Net? Oh my god! Can there be anything wider than the Net? Can there be anything narrower than the hate mail which the Net brings? No. If tomorrow I don’t get in my mail box the most vicious criticism of what I have said today, I’ll be very surprised, of course I’ll also be disappointed. But that is where we are.

Opposition is collective, dissent is individual, and I’ll now round off by saying – I started with Buddha, now let me conclude with Buddha – what has happened at Nalanda has nothing to do with Siddharth Gautam. But there is a continuity. The intolerance with which that historical Buddha was greeted with certain sections of our society is no different from what Acharya Amartya Sen has gone through at Nalanda. But I made a passing reference to Yashodhara. There is no greater human being than Buddha: It is because of what he gave up that the world has found its light. But Maithili Sharan Gupt has spoken for all women when he asked through Yashodhara, Yashodhara asking her Sakhi. Siddharth has gone, and she says, “Sakhi, woh  mujhse keh kar jaate.” In that chastisement of the greatest human being lies the unspoken chastisement of the often neglected, frequently exploited and abused, Indian women.

There can no greater putting down of a book than Mahatma Gandhi’s description of Katherine Mayo’s Mother India as a “drain inspector’s report”. But he also said, “We have those drains. We should be thinking of the drains. She thought only of the drains, but we have to be thinking of everything and the drain.” But he didn’t ask for the book to be banned. The banning of the documentary is the narrowing of dissent, but much more so, it’s a narrowing of human rights.

And may Yashodhara forgive those, who have done that, in the way when she saw Rahul standing at what was like a balcony, with Buddha coming. The son asks her, “Who among these is my father?” And she says, “He is your father who walks like a king.”

Those today who walk like kings should know what kingship means.