When dissent becomes difficult, democracy is sick.
In a public lecture at CEU’s School of Public Policy on May 11, George Soros Visiting Practitioner Chair Aruna Roy spoke passionately about a particularly “relevant and timely” topic: the growing restraints that even democratically elected governments in many countries are imposing on dissent these days. Although she focused her remarks on the situation in India, she noted that this was “a malaise that has spread internationally.”
Democratically elected governments often talk – at least initially – about principles like equality and justice, freedom of expression, and the rights of minorities to express themselves. Roy said that many people took these principles seriously and were determined to hold their governments accountable. When they tried to pursue these rights, however, they threatened the status quo. Governments often reacted by restricting dissent.
Roy noted that the ability to express dissent was an especially important “need” for those living on the margins – people who have “no place to go but the streets.” She went on to explain that being able to dissent was more important to many people than the particular issue that they opposed. “Street action is our parliament. It’s where we express our point of view,” she said.
There have been some important moments in India when people’s ability to dissent has resulted in significant changes. Roy detailed several of these instances including the political protests in Rajasthan in 1996 that led to the passage of people-centric legislations like the Right to Information and the MGNREGA (act guaranteeing a minimum level of wage employment to rural households). The rights-based laws that resulted were important achievements for India, especially for its “enlightened poor.” Roy pointed out that dissent is not just a voice against the prevailing status quo or so-called mainstream opinion. It is also a voice for an alternative that pushes governance to honor its commitment to a more equitable society for everyone.
Roy spoke strongly about the “knowledge and skill inequality” that prevents many people from listening to the poor. “We don’t have patience to listen to knowledge that is framed in a way that is not familiar to us,” she said. She showed several videos during her presentation to make this point. In one instance, marginalized and semi-literate women in Kudankulam (in the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu) spoke eloquently about why they opposed plans to build a nuclear power plant in their area demonstrating that they understood the risks very clearly. “Their understanding and wisdom is no less than ours,” noted Roy.
The denial of dissent enables a single narrative to take over public discourse, denying the right to express a multiplicity of opinions and views. This denial of the right to expression and the arbitrary use of power to strengthen autocratic governance further erode the democratic rights of citizens. Free speech, dissent, disagreement, and the fundamental right to expression have to be protected to ensure both a healthy democracy and a better policy framework said Roy.