IN 1927, the American news magazine Time began its tradition of selecting a ‘Man of the Year’. This was later enlarged to ‘Person of the Year’ (so as to include women), and even further to a ‘group, idea or object who has done the most to influence the events of the year’. Its first ‘Man of the Year’ was Charles Lindbergh, who made the first trans-Atlantic flight. Our own Mahatma Gandhi was made ‘Man of the Year’ more than once. In the same fashion, as 2020 comes to an end, I hereby select my person of the year: ‘The Dissenter’. You can also call that person ‘The Protester’, which is rather apt, given the ongoing farmers’ protests. Let’s not go into the rights and wrongs of the farmers, not even if they represent all the estimated 146 million farmers spread throughout the country. But they certainly do stand for the one million farmers in Punjab and probably quite a few others in Haryana, UP, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan.
It is also worth bearing in mind that many, if not most, of the Punjab farmers came from Pakistan, after the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. They arrived from across the border, often on foot, traumatised and usually penniless, having lost their land and worldly belongings, amidst horrific bloodletting. A majority of them were Sikhs. Yet, leaving the bitter past behind, they rose phoenix-like, and made Punjab the most prosperous and thriving state in a remarkably short time. They also ushered in the Green Revolution, turning a famine-prone land into a food self-sufficient one. And they freed us from the humiliating PL-480 Act, whereby we were importing American foodgrains for our survival. The nation has much to thank them for. It is another matter that the indiscriminate use of water, pesticides and fertilisers degraded the soil, and that the gains from the Green Revolution are now being widely questioned by environmentalists. The state has also suffered from maladministration in recent years. That, along with the twin menace of militancy and the ruinous use of narcotics, blighted Punjab, bringing it several notches down from its earlier primacy. Nevertheless, the resilience and enterprise of the Punjabi farmers remains embedded in the national consciousness.
The voice of dissent also made itself heard in the beginning of the year. On December 11, 2019, Parliament passed the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA). Three days later, a movement began that soon snowballed into thousands of protesting women — mostly Muslim — in a Delhi locality called Shaheen Bagh. The protesters claimed that the CAA unfairly targeted Muslims, as did the National Population Register (NPR), which is due to be implemented. As proof, they held up the relevant passages of the Constitution. The protest movement lasted from mid-December up to March 24, after the lockdown announcement. It captured the imagination of the nation, with many thoughtful Indians, not just Muslims, wondering why one particular community was being singled out for citizenship. Shaheen Bagh became a symbol of protest against an Act that reeked of sectarianism.
The lockdown became the occasion for more protests. Somehow, the Prime Minister and his government had overlooked the plight of millions of migrant labourers, left stranded far away from their homes, with no work and hence no food or roof over their heads. It was a monumental mistake and a little like the PM’s disastrous demonetisation, another measure the consequences of which had not been thought through. Yet, with his legendary communication skills, he was able to put a spin on it and make both measures sound positive. We now know that they caused immense suffering. Yet, the protesters and the dissenters were labelled “anti-national”.
Let us now turn not to individuals but to institutions that have become a focus of dissent — our law courts. Though he has been mentioned before, the example of Justice Siddharth of the Allahabad High Court needs re-telling. He highlighted the misuse by the UP government of the law banning cow slaughter. He questioned the credibility of the state police in making arrests under this law — mostly of Muslims, needless to say. After the same state government had passed an ordinance against inter-faith marriages — targeting Muslims, yet again — that very High Court rendered another stinging judgment. Its strong wording bears repetition: “The right to choose a partner, irrespective of caste, creed or religion, is inherent under the right to life and personal liberty.” Yet, other BJP-ruled states intend to pass a similar law. The huge irony is that soon after the infamous ordinance, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had the gall to visit Mumbai to try and persuade Bollywood to set up a ‘film city’ in his state. Somebody there should have told him that, contrary to his sentiments, Bollywood shines in inter-faith unions. One also wonders whether once the Yogi’s ‘film city’ comes up, it will have a prominent sign at the entry: “Inter-faith couples not permitted”.
Very few governments, even the most democratic ones, are comfortable with dissenters and protesters. Like Indira Gandhi, especially during her Emergency rule, the present government is behaving no differently, except for its marked anti-Muslim leaning. Hence, it takes guts to dissent, or to protest, thereby taking on the powers-that-be. You risk being called unpatriotic, or an “urban naxal”, especially when there is a majoritarian government in power, with a leader who is charismatic and still hugely popular. But dissent is the very essence of democracy, its lifeblood. And the Constitution should be one’s guiding spirit. The Bhagvad Gita put it another way: “Do your duty, no matter the consequences.”
— The writer is a veteran journalist