Supreme Court judge Deepak Gupta said on Monday said that Indian citizens have the right to criticise the government, and dissenters cannot be labelled as anti-nationals for holding contrary views, The Indian Express reported. He was delivering a lecture on “Democracy and Dissent” organised by the Supreme Court Bar Association in the national Capital.

“Criticism of any institution is to be protected — the executive, legislature, judiciary, and even the armed forces. There is no holy cow when it comes to dissent,” Gupta said. “If we stifle criticism of these institutions, we shall become a police state instead of a democracy.”

He emphasised on an individual’s right to dissent, saying it is not just a principle enshrined in the Constitution but also a basic human right. “Disagreement, dissent and dialogue alone can run a democracy,” said Gupta. “The government and country are two different things. You can be critical of the government without being critical of the country.” He added that a society which sticks to traditional rules degenerates.

The judge’s comments come at a time when protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens have gripped the country. Clashes erupted in Northeast Delhi between supporters and opponents of the Citizenship Amendment Act on Monday. The Delhi Police tried to quell the protests, but parts of Northeast Delhi continued to be hit by violence on Tuesday, with the toll from clashes reaching seven. More than 50 people were injured as well.

In photos: CAA supporters attack Muslims at Delhi protest, hurl stones and petrol bombs

Addressing an audience of lawyers, which included Attorney General KK Venugopal, Supreme Court Bar Association President Dushyant Dave and senior counsel CU Singh, Gupta said the government has no right to stifle or quell protests as long as they are held in a peaceful manner. “No doubt, these views must be expressed in a peaceful manner, but citizens have a right to get together and protest when they feel that actions taken by the government are not proper. Their cause may not always be right, but at the same time the government may also not be right.”

The Supreme Court judge added that citizens have the right to criticise the government, and such criticism cannot be construed as sedition. “We have the right to criticise the government in power, whichever government it may be,” the judge said. “Expressing dissent to government’s policies did not amount to acting against the nation.”

There have been a number of sedition cases slapped against individuals who have participated in the recent anti-CAA protests. Last week, a college student in Bangalore was charged with sedition by the Bengaluru Police for saying “Pakistan zindabad” at an event held to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Earlier this month, three Kashmiri students were arrested in Karnataka’s Hubballi city of Dharwad district for allegedly saying “Pakistan zindabad” in a video shared widely on social media. In January, authorities at a school in Karnataka’s Bidar city were booked on sedition charges after students performed a play criticising the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens.

Sedition cases have also been filed in Assam and Uttar Pradesh against Jawaharlal Nehru University PhD scholar Sharjeel Imam, who was earlier associated with the Shaheen Bagh protest in Delhi, for a speech he made against the Citizenship Amendment Act at Aligarh Muslim University on January 16.

The judge also said that while the rule of the majority is inherent to a democracy, majoritarian rule cannot be accepted, The Hindu reported. Gupta added that even the judiciary is not above criticism, and must introspect its own actions.

Speaking on the significance of dissent in the judicial system, the judge said that there can be no democracy without a fearless and independent judiciary. “The judges must be independent of political power and media influence, and must not fear to pen a dissent,” he added. “There can be rule of law only when we have judges who can take decisions independent of political influence, totally uninfluenced by media or any other extraneous considerations.”

Justice Gupta’s statement comes days after Supreme Court judge Arun Mishra described Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an “internationally acclaimed visionary” at a function in Delhi. Mishra, the third most senior judge in the top court, praised the “versatile genius” of Modi to “think globally and act locally”.