Democracies have thrived and must continue to thrive on the right to dissent of an individual being protected by the state as a necessary part of a functional democratic system
In India, political philosophy and theory are not popular. So issues like the rationale of the state or the irreducible status of the individual on moral and existential grounds have never been debated as they should be.
Most political scientists in the country — liberal and anti-liberal — talk about the need to defend the fundamental rights of individuals in a rather loose sense.
So, when the state gets down to the act of prosecuting an individual on charges of sedition and conspiracy, the supporters and critics of the PM and the ruling party do not offer sufficiently substantial arguments either to justify the action of the state or that of the individuals charged with conspiracy and rebellion. The Government's defense is national security, and the anti-government critics argue that it is harassment of accused individuals by the ruling party.
The arguments never rise above the basic sparring point of partisan politics. The rights activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon violence, and in Northeast Delhi, communal riots have been accused, in various degrees, of posing a mortal threat to the state.
It is not necessary to sympathise or support the cause of the activists targeted by the investigating agencies. It is incidental that most of the accused can be seen as leftists of different shades of red or that they oppose what they consider the majoritarian bias of the BJP.
The cases against them raise some fundamental questions. To what extent can an individual oppose the state per se and not just the ideology of the ruling party? To what extent the state can trample upon the individual in the name of defending the state? Is there a proportionality principle at work?
There is an implicit possibility that those who accuse the state of using brute force hapless and moralistic individuals — there is an undeniable moral dimension to protest per se — will only be too willing to use the same brute might against, what they believe, to be authoritarian elements. To put it in plain terms, the religious person has the moral right to raise moral objections to a secular state, even as the liberal and leftist enjoy the same privilege of opposing the nation-state idea as well as the notion of nationalism as a sacred creed.
This is indeed the kind of hard dilemma that a political theorist or philosopher must face. American political theorist and philosopher John Rawls faces up to this difficult problem in his second, and a little less well-known book, 'Political Liberalism' (1993). He lays out the moral challenge, "…the problem of political liberalism is: How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical and moral doctrines? This is a problem of political justice, not a problem about the highest good."
It is not necessary for those who believe in a majoritarian worldview to deny political freedom to those who believe either in the collectivism of the left kind or of uncompromising individualism. In India, it is generally a clash of opposing collectivism, either of the neo-fascist kind or that of the neo-socialist or neo-communist or religious identities versions.
The moral basis of individual beliefs is ignored in political debates. The modern state, however, derives its moral legitimacy from the fundamental rights of freedom of the individual. Liberty is at the base of the state, and the legal framework that keeps the state system in place must continually satisfy the principle of fundamental rights of the individuals.
The constitutional compact agreed upon by the citizens of a state is the respect for irreconcilable world views of the individuals constituting the state. It follows from this that an individual or a group has the right to oppose not just those who hold opposing views but also to continually question the moral legitimacy of the state.
Freedom does not mean that we say polite things to each other. It means that we oppose each other's tooth and nail.
You cannot be termed a traitor because you oppose the state. It is by opposing the state that you want to open the possibility for others to take a critical look at the existing institutions, and perhaps be persuaded to make changes. The only limitation is that you cannot indulge in violence to throw off what you think is an immoral state.
It is the tendency of those in power to prosecute dissenters saying that there is an explicit or implicit attempt to overthrow the state. It becomes imperative to critically scrutinise the claims of those in power against the accused, more than the other way round.
The conscientious objector stands on a higher moral ground than those wielding state power. That is why Henry David Thoreau's refusal to pay taxes to a government that wages an unjust war and courting arrest is civil disobedience of a high moral order. The conscientious objector is the moral anchor of the state. The democratic framework of the state imposes the obligation that those who raise their voice, not just against the ruling party but also against the state, should have the freedom to do so.
The state and the political establishment must throw the protective cordon around the dissenters. Remember that one of the reasons that Athenian democracy destroyed itself is because it delivered the death sentence to Socrates. It holds a lesson to all other democracies.
Views expressed are personal