“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy,” Justice DY Chandrachud observed while the Supreme Court was hearing a petition against the arrest of five human rights activists from across India last month. That is not quite correct. Dissent is actually the oxygen of democracy. A healthy democracy needs a regular expression of dissent on the streets, in public meetings, in newspapers and on the airwaves to make the government accountable.
Yet, we are living at a time when dissent is seen as some form of treason. Even regular political activity is disallowed, with both state and central governments rushing to detain or slap charges against “dissenters”. Earlier this year, for instance, the Tamil Nadu government threw innumerable clauses of the Indian Penal Code at a number of activists who led protests against a Sterlite factory in Tuticorin and a proposed expressway from Chennai to Salem.
Tamil Nadu is not alone in this regard. Across the country, governments refuse to respect the right to dissent. This is not a new phenomenon to India, although the spread and intensity of the lack of respect towards dissenters has accelerated over the past five years.
Last month’s coordinated nationwide arrests of rights activists in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence in January, the manner in which searches were carried out at their homes, the intimidation of people with familial connections to the activists, and the refusal to investigate the others against whom first information reports have been registered in connection with the violence indicates something bigger and more worrying. A message is being sent out that an iron fist will come down on any form of dissent that poses difficult questions to the government, with, if necessary, charges that may not stand up in court.
I have had the privilege of knowing two of the activists who were targeted, and I have had the privilege of being familiar with the work of all the others. Indeed, it is a privilege to know these activists and their work for they have shown a single-minded commitment to speaking up against injustice.
As editor of the Economic and Political Weekly until 2016, I had the honour of publishing Anand Teltumbde’s comments on a variety of socioeconomic matters, and for an even longer period, the wide-ranging commentary of Gautam Navlakha. Both were “activists” but had other professions, too. Anand was a management professional who became a teacher; Gautam was a commentator in the press for over three decades.
Dedicated to his cause
From the late 1970s, Gautam was an EPW staffer whom any publication would have died to have on its rolls. He was fiercely loyal to the journal and intensely protective of it, and this for over 30 years. He regularly wrote commentary; he constantly looked for young authors who could contribute to the journal; and he would always give his comments on what was published. Even when it was blunt criticism, one knew he had the best interests of the journal at heart. He did all this because he saw EPW as one of the most important forums in the country for the dissemination of information, debate and, of course, dissent. For a while in the 1990s, EPW seemed to move towards political positions that Gautam did not agree with, yet he did not end his association with it. He continued to engage with EPW, with Krishna Raj, the editor at the time, and used the space offered to him to make his argument. For Gautam, EPW was too precious an institution to be abandoned.
Indeed, Gautam took on more than was expected. In the 1980s, well before translations became fashionable, he decided to publish EPW in Hindi. Titled Saancha, he edited and produced the magazine using his own resources, and published a labour of love. Without adequate finances to sustain and market such a venture, Saancha was doomed to shut shop in a few years. But that was not going to prevent Gautam from spreading the message of EPW to a wider audience.
Before I became the editor, when I was just another reader of the EPW, I used to come across Gautam’s writings. A running thread in those countless articles over the decades was a concern for the welfare of the oppressed and the marginalised. Whether his articles were about the Adivasis or the people of Kashmir or the republicans of Nepal, I used to be amazed at the spread of Gautam’s interests. In the mid-1990s, I read his innovative assessment, published in EPW, of the full extent of defence expenditure in India, and I adapted the methodology for my own research. Gautam was not a trained academic but he could put many to shame.
Our association may have gone back decades but that did not mean we did not disagree. Indeed, we sometimes disagreed intensely over what I published as the editor, over questions I posed to him about his own contributions, and sometimes over my decision not to publish a piece of his or one that he had forwarded to me. We both knew our respective positions were based on the pride we had as staff of the EPW. He respected my decisions as the editor, and I respected his devotion to EPW. I think we would like to see ourselves in some exaggerated fashion as following Voltaire’s approach to the freedom of expression: “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
After more than three decades of work with EPW, Gautam ended his formal links with the journal in 2012 so that he could pursue other interests. That did not mean he stopped being associated with the journal. He continued to read it from cover to cover, continued to offer comments, and occasionally wrote as well.
It is difficult to witness the Indian state bring down the full force of its might on a person with so much commitment to so many interests.
C Rammanohar Reddy, Scroll.in’s Readers’ Editor, is former editor of the Economic and Political Weekly.
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