What marks Pratap Bhanu Mehta as one of India’s finest public intellectuals is this fascinating ability to draw his readers or listeners, unbeknownst to themselves, into participating almost instinctively in a performance of his political philosophy. His calm, measured and above all lucid way of telling things might fool some, but he is in a certain way stylistically closer to that ancient Greek philosopher and ironist who often compared himself to an irritating gadfly buzzing around a sluggish horse.

Mehta knows so well that every article of his forces his readers into the pathways of furious thought, initiating a dialogue whose space he has already opened up, that one can even imagine him leaving blank spaces in between his paragraphs for future responses. And like that Greek philosopher, Mehta has in his lecture delivered at Project 39A laid the foundation for a conceptual defence of dissent that few before him have even thought to attempt.

The question that Mehta seeks to formulates in this lecture is this: “Is there something inevitable in the form in which we have conceived of liberal democracy that it will, more and more, construe the dissenter as a figure of criminality?” What is remarkable about this lecture is that Mehta refuses, courageously in my opinion, to reduce this tendency of criminalising dissent to a particular and specific situation. One would be taking the easy way out if it is claimed that our democracy is flawed, imperfect, or lacking the institutional or moral strength to uphold dissent.

Even if these claims might be based in fact and even if today it is almost certain that Indian democratic institutions are failing to do their duties, this cannot be accepted as an answer to the question of conceptual basis of the criminalisation of dissent. As Mehta writes, no democratic institution would like to accept that they are illegitimate; this means that the claim of their imperfection means “putting a question mark over [their] legitimacy, which they cannot accept.” In any case, Mehta shows us how the criminalisation of dissent is a general, perhaps even universal, tendency of liberal democracies even in the West.

The question then is, why does the very concept of liberal democracy carry within it this criminalisation of dissent? Isn’t democracy supposed to be the system which thrives on the co-existence of multiple viewpoints? But to believe this claim one is actually falling prey to a conceptually confusing, as Mehta says, disagreement and dissent. Disagreement has to be strictly distinguished from dissent. When I disagree with the government on a certain issue, I may continue to hold on to my opinion but I do not withdraw my consent from the government’s acting upon that issue.

Dissent as a political term, for Mehta, is nothing but this withdrawal of consent. Dissent is a unilateral judgment that remains unbendingly obstinate, impervious to all argument and conciliation. This refusal of consent characteristic of dissent is not like disagreement included within the concept of consent, but a threat to its very consistency.

Mehta, as we know, is too astute a thinker to argue for the absolute existence of such consent, always being careful enough in his lecture to mark it out as a myth that democratic institutions seek as democratic institutions to preserve. Thus he arrives at the answer to his question: dissent is criminalised by liberal democratic institutions since it punctures the consistency of this myth. A democratic institution can preserve this myth either by denying the dissenter her standing as citizen- leading to her criminalisation and eventual arrest, or by limiting physical spaces for public dissent, so that protestors are forced to break the law.

It is here, however, that Mehta’s lecture forces us to respond precisely because his solution betrays the very project he has laid out earlier, of a defence of dissent. My response will remain, as Mehta’s lecture does, on the conceptual plane. Having argued that dissent as withdrawal punctures the myth of consent, Mehta finds himself constrained to offer two solutions. The first is that the charge of unilateralism put upon the dissenter “can, in a sense, be negotiated only if there is widespread solidarity”, which is to say ceaselessly transform dissent into consent. The second solution is to conceive democracy as a “work in progress”, a “process of negotiation” which extends an infinite horizon. Here too, dissent finds itself transformed into its other, which is disagreement.

Neither of the two solutions proffered to us by Mehta can preserve the anxiety that must be provoked if dissent is to be dissent. Where does Mehta, in this piece no less brilliant for this error, go wrong? How does he lose the political thrust of dissent at the very moment when he thinks he has saved it?

The answer (and I offer it here in a very fragmentary and perhaps unsatisfying way) is that while Mehta correctly notices that democratic institutions require the continuance of the ‘myth of consent’, he does not look into the mythic nature of consent itself. What does this mean? It means that we do not know what gives consent its mystical and even magical force.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Social Contract, understood the significance of this question. He wrote in that book that apart from the primitive contract into which all unanimously enter, the vote of the majority always binds all the others to follow it. But how can such a situation transpire that in a democracy, citizens are both free and subject to laws they did not want? Rousseau answers this question by invalidating it. He says, “I retort that the question is wrongly put. The citizen gives his consent to all the laws, including those which are passed in spite of his opposition, and even those which punish him when he dares to break any of them. The constant will of all the members of the State is the general will; by virtue of it they are citizens and free.”

When a law is proposed in the assembly, each man is not asked whether to either approve or reject it, but in a strange way, to guess whether it is in conformity with the general will. When the votes are counted, the man who voted against the law that was passed can only claim to have been mistaken about his own conjecture on the general will. He did not know what he himself, as part of the general body, was willing.

This is the strange game that is called consent, a game with no referee but with a ghostly pre-decided and pre-existent outcome called the general will. If dissent is truly dangerous to democratic institutions, perhaps it is only at this point, and not where Mehta thinks it is: when it calls into question the very force of mythic consent. What does it mean to challenge consent, if not to expose democracy as the greatest risk, a game like no other, yet a game that must still be played? The question we are left with is whether such dissent is even possible? The old Greek philosopher however thought it was, and he bet everything on it. I know our dissenters do too, and this questioning of consent is quite paradoxically part of their contribution to the defence of democratic values.

Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi is a PhD candidate at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Source: https://thewire.in/politics/debate-why-is-it-so-dangerous-to-challenge-consent-in-a-democracyhttps://thewire.in/politics/debate-why-is-it-so-dangerous-to-challenge-consent-in-a-democracy

Updated On: 15/DEC/2020

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