Protests are Vital for Democracy: Dissent Cannot Be Criminalized

Protests are Vital for Democracy: Dissent Cannot Be Criminalized

By Faheem Usmani Qasmi

India has been witnessing a massive movement for few weeks after the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) was passed by the Parliament as it can be titled the largest movement in the 21st century in India so far. The Indian people, cutting off their religious and political boundaries and limitations, took to the street to protest against the CAA which they believe discriminatory and against the Constitution.

The protest is the only way in a democracy that people can exercise beyond button clicking of a machine – Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) once every five year. It is believed by political scientists that protest is vital to a democracy, giving a voice to those with no platform or privilege.

The issue of protest arises when serious challenges to existing social structures, democratic values, and fundamental rights are made by those in power against the members of the weaker group in society, such as workers, unlettered people and minorities. Such challenges are made for special attention and with a good intention but have dangerous consequences within the society.

When the people of a democracy see their democratic values being mashed up and minorities being deprived of their rights, the individuals in a public rally show their personal concern by their presence and their collective concern by their numbers. Those who are involved in the protests or stand against the government policies cannot necessarily be malevolent for the country as the government tries to show their image as anti-nation ones or not healthy elements for the country.

One more assumption about the protest is that those are not participating in the protests, they do stand with the government as this narrative is widespread through media outlets to show them as supporters of the government. It is quite possible that they are not taking to the street but are against the government policy because very few government employees will to take a strong public stand on an issue which might jeopardize their career. Since an alarming bell was given to the government employees in some states for taking part in activity against the government and its policies, mostly they did not engage with such activities.

People can’t be radicalized just for speaking up against the government and their dissent can’t be criminalized. Protest either of a political nature or of a common nature can’t be greeted with harsh legal penalties and excessive punishments to repress the protests. The protesters can’t be titled with jihadists or anti-nationalists.

The Indian history shows that the protest always played a vital role in changing the perception of the people whether it is the movement of Anna Hazare in 2011 to alleviate the corruption in the Indian government through introduction of the Jan Lokpal Bill or the Bihar movement initiated by the students of Bihar in 1974 and led by the veteran Gandhian socialist Jayaprakash Narayan known as JP movement against misrule and corruption in the government of Bihar.

In a protest, both civilians and the government-controlled administrative institutions are equally responsible to maintain peace and calm during the protest as the severe clashes have been reported in some states because of non-cooperation.

The anti-CAA protests occurred all over India and abroad as well. According to report of the Hindu, close 48% protests recorded at least one violent incident or police action such as detention, lathi charge or both. Death of at least 31 people were related to the violence that ensued during the protests.

Map shows districts which recorded at least one violent incident or police action or both and those that didn’t. At least 24 districts in U.P. witnessed protests, of which 90% recorded violent incidents or police action or both. Among the metros, only Mumbai witnessed protests where no violence or police actions were recorded to have taken place. Delhi witnessed violent incidents, police action and detention as did Bengaluru and Hyderabad. Of all CAA protest-related deaths, 70% were recorded in UP followed by 20% in Assam.

The Writer is research excutive at MMERC, Mumbai