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Dissent—Of the People, By the People, For the People

Dissent is like a Gurkha’s kukri: once it emerges from its sheath it must draw blood before it can be put away again.

— Shashi Tharoor, in his book, The Great Indian Novel

Kings and queens of yesteryear had immense hegemony over the lands they ruled, keeping diminutive things under their control. Trade routes and good relations with neighbouring kingdoms were considered politically advantageous, but protests by the people were always met with disdain. As monarchies gave way to dictatorships, personal and public opinions became dwindling fires, ready to be put out by the waters of tyranny. As a result, the minds of people were swayed by radical orders, decisions were taken by the bureaucrats to cater to the State rather than the citizens, and sugarcoated words became the norm of the day, lest the wielders of power crack their whips.

Times have changed considerably since. The average 21st-century citizen is not one who would discount anything on its face value. Equipped with an insatiable curiosity in worldly affairs, people around the world have begun to appreciate the freedom that comes with having an independent opinion and living an unoppressed life. They have started to voice their thoughts on the diplomacy and radicalism that directly affects their lives. The protests across Thailand, presently spreading to other parts of the world, depict the flickering flame of democratic freedom that still burns in their hearts.

DISSENT FOR DEMOCRACY

Thailand, in particular, has witnessed years of political turmoil. The monarchic system in place accepted and even supported the coup d’état that led to Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military leader of the coup, being installed as Prime Minister in 2014. However, an election won with questionable legitimacy in 2019 and a few unpopular legislations that gave more power to the monarchy was all it took to stir the anger of the masses. Around the same time, an enthusiastic group of citizens had been endeavouring to spread the idea of democracy in Thailand under the banner of the Future Forward Party (FFP). Not surprisingly, the FFP with its charismatic leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, garnered the third-largest share of seats as a result of being immensely popular with young, first-time voters. But a court ruling in February 2020 claimed that the FFP had received a loan from Thanathorn, deeming it an illegal donation. As with all well-meaning ventures, the FFP fell prey to petty politics and a biased judiciary, forcing the party to disband. The party’s sympathisers, however, added a much-needed impetus to the overall movement as they campaigned with renewed vigour against the anti-democratic policies of the State.

The three-fingered salute, inspired by Hunger Games, has become a symbol of defiance against monarchy and oppression across Thailand. [Image Credits: The Japan Times]

The protests started out as a student movement against the ill-functioning government. With the growing popularity of memes against the government, dissent against the Prime Minister and the King, Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, grew just as steadily in Thailand. In a historic move, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a 21-year-old student led the movement and asked the government to curb the powers of the King, and empower their constitution instead. He demanded the government to scrap Section 112, popularly known as the lese-majeste law. The law decreed severe punishment of up to 15 years of imprisonment, for anyone convicted of defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir or regent faces, and has been a topic of much debate in the country.

In a failed attempt to suppress these voices and bring about ‘peace and order’ in the country, the Thai government issued an emergency mandate, banning large gatherings and limiting groups to a maximum of four people. But the protesters took to the streets of Bangkok and gathered in protest outside the Prime Minister’s office, leading the government to deploy the riot police to keep things under control. The citizens of this vibrant country, an amalgamation of several Asian cultures, have taken their fight for democracy to new heights with their persistence.

In sharp contrast, Zimbabwe—a country with a struggling economy—witnessed people rising against their own democratically elected hero. After leading Zimbabwe to freedom and subsequently being elected as it’s first Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwean parliament amended the constitution to give Mugabe limitless executive powers. A man gifted with unbelievable luck, Mugabe survived two assassination attempts while in office. He paid no heed to the economic turmoil he was causing in the country with his dictatorial ways.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, spotted alongside Robert Mugabe, is believed to be just as oppressive a ruler as Mugabe by many leaders in Zimbabwe. [Image Credits: New Zimbabwe.com]

Multiple elections, twisted mandates, and years of economic oppression later, Mugabe still wielded absolute power over the entire country. He was a violent and repressive ruler. Research has shown that authoritarian leaders almost always contend with two major political pressures—challenges from within their regime, which rarely trigger a democratic transition, and popular challenges from outside the system, which are very likely to upset the authoritarian regime. Mugabe was forced out of office in 2017 by the military, paving way for the country’s first change in leadership since 1980—37 years of dictatorship. Emmerson Mnangagwa, vice president during Mugabe’s tenure, was installed in Mugabe’s position as more than 70 per cent of the country’s 16 million-strong population (as per 2017) participated in an election that did not feature Mugabe.

Dashing people’s hopes for a better leader, Mnangagwa turned out to be just as authoritative as Mugabe. Mnangagwa continues to serve as the country’s President. His ongoing reign is riddled with political controversies and societal injustice, and the citizens have expressed their disapproval over Mugabe’s right-hand man. The elections in 2018 that placed Mnangagwa and his party in power were questioned by leaders around the world, just like polls during Mugabe’s tenure. With elections in Zimbabwe being seen as international publicity stunts, power remained with the President and his party, who remained free to amend the constitution at will due to the lack of a noteworthy opposition. Protests that erupted across the country were covered up, people were mercilessly beaten as they campaigned for democracy, fair elections, and responsible, trustworthy leaders for their impoverished country.

DISSENT IN DEMOCRACY

The world’s most populous democracy, the Republic of India, has seen it’s fair share of protests in its 72 years of independence—Dalits protesting in Maharashtra, anti-corruption movements across the country, and the state of Tamil Nadu asserting its right to the waters of the Kaveri river to name a few. In a country where the right to speech and freedom of opinion are often misinterpreted and lost over chaotic debates about trivial topics, the common man has mastered the art of voicing his opinion. Hence, we can safely conclude that Indians are seasoned protesters against oppression.

Farmers turned up in hordes at the borders of Delhi to protest against the injustices meted out to their community. [Image Credits: Times of India]

Recently, farmers in the country have been protesting against laws that might affect their livelihoods—they rebelled against the union government and ensured their voices were heard, but unfortunately to the wrong people. The government, taking due advantage of the ever-spreading tentacles of the pandemic, passed several laws in the Parliament, and implemented them—announcing that the farmers were making a mountain out of an apparent molehill. The new rules made it easier for farmers to bypass government-regulated markets and sell their produce to private buyers, engage in contract farming and made stockpiling of produce legal for traders. The farmers, however, are apprehensive about losing their bargaining power and MSPs to big corporations. Largely uneducated and limiting their lives to their fields, crops, daily wages, and three square meals a day, these farmers are immensely vulnerable to corporate exploitation. After months of failed protests in their respective states, they marched to Delhi to make their stand against these laws, and demand that the government nullify the farmer bills.

WILL DISSENT LEAD TO EGALITARIANISM?

A small spark of passion is all it takes for a disagreement to become a full-fledged protest. If the protest is well received by the masses and strikes the right moral chord, the ruling administration has a national movement that it needs to deal with. Modern technology coupled with the right amount of social media influence can fan the fires of the movement and transform it into a blazing global campaign—as is evident with the enormous number of people who stepped out in support of Thailand and it’s troubled citizens.

Political and societal landscapes keep changing with time as people continue to strive towards living a better life in an egalitarian, democratic country of their choice. [Image Credits: Observer Research Foundation]

But the pertinent question here is—will dissent lead to egalitarianism? In 1911, German sociologist Robert Michels had propounded his political theory advocating oligarchies. He stated that all organisations, regardless of how democratic they are when they are born, transform into oligarchies as power gets concentrated amongst a few individuals. But the world is subjected to frequent reality checks that sustain the endless cycle of the rise, fall and rebirth of democracies. Hence, every person in Thailand is entitled to the same resources, privileges, and luxuries that any person in a democratic country around the world indulges in. Every farmer toiling on the lands of India for a day’s worth of food, has the same rights, duties, responsibilities, and the same freedom of opinion and speech that every other man of knowledge takes for granted.

All of these arguments in light of the debate on egalitarianism lead to multiple answers on the relevance and necessity of dissent. Protests and disagreements with the ruling administration—ruling, because real democracy is rare to find—are considered radical steps by many, but the general consensus on the need for dissent seems to point in the right direction. Dissent is considered an essential tool to enforce, though ironical to the concept of democracy, and propagate equality amongst the masses. Considering how freedom, justice, equality, and representation are among the strongest pillars of any elected government, dissent presents itself as a vital cog in the functioning of democracies.

Featured Image Credits: The Straits Times