Democracy Implies Tolerance of Dissent

Democracy’, the ancient Greek word literally means ‘rule by the demos’. The term ‘demos’ is generally translated as ‘the people’ and ‘the people’ implies the whole population, particularly the adult population, of a tribe, a territory or a country.

The entire population or the collectivity obviously comprises a multitude of individuals as units.

It is well known that no two individuals in a collectivity— mechanical or organic—can be alike, as their needs and aspirations differ even as their physical and mental compositions differ.

Naturally, their views, notions, beliefs and habits are not similar and yet the concept and practice of and the rule of/by the people, however disparate, is very much in existence.

‘In practice, by ‘the people’, we mean the majority of the people. As such, in a democracy whatever the majority decides, is carried out by an entire population? This, however, does not mean that majority is entitled to rule over the minority.

Rather, democracy thrives only on the willing cooperation of the minority and on the protection guaranteed to the rights and freedoms, and tolerance of, if not agreement with the views and beliefs of the minorities. It leaves such scope for dissent, i.e. there may be people who think differently from the ideas of the majority.

Dissent is not necessarily a negative concept; it offers an alternative to the prevailing ideas, institutions and system, and exists even in non-democratic systems. The views of Boris Yeltsin were at one time expressive of dissent from the dominant and established socialist principles in what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

There was always a dissenting voice against the monarchical form of government in Nepal.

In a healthy working democracy, the voice of the minority is given a full hearing, even if decision is of the majority. Debate and discussion not only clear the air, but also help to bring about a compromise. There is a certain amount of accommodation of even opposing viewpoints.

Should the positive phenomenon of dissent be suppressed, there would be resentment and growing anger. Frustration would lead to a revolt against the established system.

And finally, there might be a revolution, involving great violence, bloodshed and destruction of all sorts. It is, therefore, better to tolerate expression of dissent, which would provide a ventilation to the different views and pent-up feelings, in the larger interests of democratic set-up.

Extremes of dissent can, however, cause havoc in any system, more so in a democracy. As such, it has always been advocated to fix a permissive limit of dissent. In a democracy, people enjoy various kinds of freedom: of economic pursuit, belief (political, religious and others), expression, association, etc.

But these freedoms of an individual or group of people are not permitted to cause injury to another individual or the collectivity, or to adversely affect the social or national fabric.

Fascism cannot be allowed to take roots, although some people may be tempted to support it on the grounds of dissent or as an alternative system.

For if democracy is for the people, dissent that goes against the people in general, must be checked. One of the vulnerable aspects of democracy is that its liberality can be taken advantage of by those very people who, in the end, subvert the system by suppressing the voice of dissent if it goes against them.

One can witness dissent on two levels in the political arena—intra-party and inter-party. Intra-party dissent implies that though the party has a corpus of rules and discipline and a particular modus operandi, some party members may put dissenting notes to some of the provisions or may not agree with the style of functioning of the leadership.

This dissent has to be accommodated by the leadership; otherwise, the party will have an authoritarian image among the masses, or may split. At the same time, the dissent should be expressed only on the party platform, not publicly; otherwise the party will be weakened. Similarly, democracy permits the establishment and continuation of political parties of various hues and views.

If the strong suppress the weak, there will come a time, when a one-party rule under a dictator would be established. Thus, the democratic structure will collapse.

Whenever the political parties in India showed an intolerance to dissent, they themselves broke up or the people were forced to experience a bitter bout of authoritarianism.

The Congress Party broke several times (1969, 1977) and the authoritarian emergency ruled the country during 1975-77. The dissent in the Congress Party today is appropriately contained because of tolerance.

The existence of various parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Janata Dal, the Communist parties and other national and regional parties clearly manifests the requisite tolerance of different points of view.

People in a democracy have freedom of vocation and economic pursuit to earn their livelihood.

And this results in various vocations. Here, too dissent may appear, more specifically regarding the macro-economic policy. For example, some may advocate liberalisation, others mixed economy or capitalism while yet others support nationalisation and the socialistic approach.

All the dissenting views have to be tolerated and given a hearing even if not entirely accommodated within the official view. It is the respect for opposing viewpoints that prompts ministers and official spokesmen to clarify or sometimes even modify policies and programmes, facilitating a wider plan of action.

In a democratic society, one group or class may differ in its form and structure from the majority. But the majority should not interfere in that form or structure or resort to violate judgement.

As human nature has it, every form and composition of a social group is found comfortable by its numbers and any forcible attempt from outside to alter it would defeat the very objective of democracy.

Should a particular group of Kerala or the North-east be asked to change its matrilineal form of family just because it does not conform to “mainstream” practice? Can democracy be valued if anyone tries to impose the social norms of one group upon other groups? Live and let live is a basic principle of democracy.

Cultural diversity is a common phenomenon in almost every part of the world; India is no exception. A variety of religions, customs, food habits, dress-styles, languages, dance and other art forms exists in India.

Some of the cultural units are just microscopic minorities and may appear to others as awkward and ridiculous. But we can never hope to keep the national fabric intact by making fun of them.

A temple, a mosque, a church and a gurudwara are equally sacred to the respective religions: one cannot stand or fall at the cost of another. Hence, in a democracy positive dissensions should always be tolerated.

However, the dissenters also should not try to impose themselves on others, that too by resorting to violent means, because that violates democratic norms.

As democracy reflects the will and aspirations of the masses by projecting their arguments convincingly, the dissenters should also refrain from demagogy. Only then can a healthy and true enjoyment of the freedom of expression—one of the pillars of democracy—be possible.

Given the nature and philosophy of democracy, we can infer that there is something wrong, something missing in the society or a country that claims to be democratic, but in which dissent is conspicuous by its absence.