Dissent 'safety valve' of democracy; Blanket labelling dissent as anti-national hurts its ethos: Chandrachud

Last Updated : 15 February 2020, 18:35 IST

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Supreme Court judge Justice D Y Chandrachud on Saturday termed dissent a “safety valve” of democracy and warned that “blanket labelling of dissent as anti-national strikes at the heart of our commitment to the protection of constitutional values”.

He also said the “employment of state machinery” to curb dissent “instills fear and creates a chilling atmosphere on free speech”.

Justice Chandrachud’s comments come in the backdrop of street protests and campus unrest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens across the country, and the government crackdown on protesters in some states.

Delivering the 15th P D Desai Memorial Lecture at the Gujarat High Court auditorium in Ahmedabad, Justice Chandrachud cautioned that a democratically elected government “can never claim a monopoly over the values and identities that define our plural society”.

Emphasising the protection of deliberative dialogue as essential to democracy, Justice Chandrachud said, “Beyond the rights-based procedures and goal-based outcomes of our Constitution is the commitment to deliberation that incorporates the diverse views of all stakeholders concerned, including those who do not support the law.”

The fine balance between majoritarianism and liberal democratic governance, Justice Chandrachud argued, “is marked by constitutional principles wedded to the rule of law that guarantee individual freedom and ensure freedom from discrimination”.

“A democracy related to the idea of reason and deliberation ensures that minority opinions are not strangulated and ensures that every outcome is not a result, merely of numbers, but of a shared consensus,” Justice Chandrachud said.

Warning against curbing dissenting voices, Justice Chandrachud said “the destruction of spaces for questioning, and dissent destroys the basis of all growth - political, economic, cultural, and social. In this sense, dissent is the safety valve of democracy”.

“The true test of a democracy is its ability to ensure the creation and protection of spaces where every individual can voice their opinion, without the fear of retribution. The Constitution is a commitment to a plurality of opinions. A legitimate government committed to deliberate dialogue does not seek to restrict political contestations but welcomes it.”

Justice Chandrachud also underlined the importance of mutual respect and protection of space for divergent opinions.

"Taking democracy seriously requires us to respond respectfully to the intelligence of others and to participate vigorously, but as an equal in determining how we should live together," the supreme court judge said.

Democracy is judged not just by the institutions that formally exist but by the extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard, respected and accounted for, he said.

According to Justice Chandrachud, the "great threat to pluralism" is the suppression of differences and silencing of popular and unpopular voices offering alternative or opposing views.

"Suppressionof intellect is the suppression of the conscience or the nation," he said.

The supreme court judge further said the country was conceptualised"as incorporating its vast diversity and not eliminating it".

"National unity denotes a shared cultural values and a commitment to the fundamental ideal of Constitution in which all individuals are guaranteed not just fundamental rights but also the conditionsfor their free and safe exercise," he said.

He said the country'spluralism underlines a commitment to protect "the very idea of India as a refuge to people of various states, races, languages and beliefs".

"In providing spaces to a multitude of culture and free space to diversity and dissent, we reaffirm to our commitment to the idea that the making of our nation is a continuous process of deliberation and belongs to every individual," he said.

No single individual or institution can claim a monopoly over the idea of India, he said.

Justice Chandrachud also referred to a "positive obligation" for protecting a plural identity.

"The framers of the Constitution rejected the notion of a Hindu India and a Muslim India. They recognised only the Republic of India," he said.

Justice Chandrachud also said the framers put trust on the futuregenerations to create a common bond of what it means to be an Indian, which "shunned homogeneity and celebrated diversity in what is meant to be an Indian".

Hecompared the "layered Indian identity" to Matryoshka dolls, and said this is what makes us Indian "and must be central to our understanding of pluralism and efforts to foster it.

"Homogeneity is not the defining feature of Indianness. Our differences are not our weakness. Our ability to transcend these difference in our recognition of our shared humanity is a source of our strength.

"India is a subcontinent of diversity in itself. Pluralism has already achieved its greatest triumph -- the existence of India. The nation's continued survival shows us that our desire for a shared pursuit of happiness outweighs the difference in the colour of our skin, the languages we speak, or the name we give the almighty," he added.

With PTI inputs

Published 15 February 2020, 16:54 IST

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