This post is written by Bilal Khan, a student of English Honours at Christ University, Bengaluru. Bilal’s research interests include English and Cultural Studies.
In one of our latest blogs, we discussed the ins and outs of the new Army Recruitment process, the Agnipath Scheme. Understandably, whoever is “reading” about the scheme is a person of certain social standing. It is only suitable to assume people who are keeping updates about the project are also keeping updates about the other side of this scheme, the continuous protests.
Many words have been associated with the recent protests that started gaining momentum in Bihar. However, a term that is slightly absent from this discourse is ‘Dissent’. To understand protests as dissent, we need to study this absence closely.
To start, we have to talk about the grave issue of how the silencing of dissent happens during protests in India. For this silencing, Ayesha Pattnaik reviews the Sedition Law:
The Indian sedition law, enshrined in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, was introduced by the British government in 1870 specifically to deal with revolution and dissent against colonial rule.
It is then made clear that the history or origin of this law was to suppress dissent. Pattnaik also mentions how the employment of the law is different in contemporary times. Giving the examples of Aseem Trivedi and Kanhaiya Kumar, Pattnaik points out the strategic use of the sedition law to silence dissent.
But this act of criminalising a protest begs the question if a demonstration can be criminalised. Snigdha Poonam, in her article, writes about India’s trickling position as a democracy. She explained how different laws by the state are responsible for this, with the central focus on protests. Hence, a nation-state’s democratic values are always a target by silencing dissent.
Different branches study the issue of protest and its silencing in contemporary times. In his book, “Towards a Philosophy of Protest”, Dr Clayton Bohnet philosophised different forms of protests, particularly its criminalisation. Though the book provides its limitations not to cover every protest, the text offers a keen understanding of them. In distinguishing the word “protest” between a noun and verb, Bohnet writes:
In protest as verb there is a person who makes what could not have happened, what could not have been objected to, happen/be objected to. Such a first person experience is unrepeatable. And it is because of the embedded, singular, and irreversible nature of what the verb form names that perhaps escapes linguistic conceptuality in a way that the noun form does not—something is not objectified by language in such a form. (26)
What Bohnet here signifies is that when a protest becomes a verb, it is significantly a first-person experience. This experience is, therefore, at least as a verb is, unrepeatable. Bohnet also explains the lack of the noun form to produce this effect as it “objectifies” a protest. According to him, a protest in noun form refers to particular past, present or future protests. Like the Bihar “protests”.
So, if protests are such radical activities, they must carry some distinct form of power. In fact, this power makes protests a fascinating form of dissent. In the Introduction of “Dissent and Consensus”, edited by Basudeb Chattopadhyay and his colleagues write how protests cannot and should not be deemed under one individual group (2). Even the Agnipath protests are fuelled by the discomfort caused to multiple sections, classes and castes of Indian society. Sonalde Desai writes about these communities in her article and confirms that the underprivileged classes are the society’s most affected sector by these sudden changes in the recruitment process. Thus, the upper classes are the only classes absent from these protests, unlike in the era of British imperialism (in the case of Chattopadhyay at el.). The reason is that the scheme is not for the elite.
In this stream of thought, the dissent of one class against the beliefs of the other authoritative class becomes crucial for the state. Yet, the suppression of this hearing is continuous. Sometimes covertly and primarily overtly. Edmond Roy, in early 2021 wrote about the slow death of dissent in India. Using the examples of Bihar, back in 2021, candidates were warned by the police about their disqualification from government jobs if they had any part to play in the protests. Even today, protestors face a similar tactic and ideology.
Recently, the Military also declared that the protestors of Agnipath will no longer be considered for recruitment. The issue reached as far as conducting an oath-taking for the candidates. Lt. Gen. Anil Puri from the Department of Military Affairs issued a statement where he went as far as to put “protest” alongside “vandalism”. In this association, the army lieutenant is not just criminalising the protest but also justifying the silencing of dissent.
In a covert display of power, three significant Indian military chiefs (Lt. Gen. Puri being one of them) held a briefing where they asked the youth or the protestors to start preparing for the Agnipath recruitment process. In this process of elucidating the fundamental concepts of the scheme, the figures also put the protestors in a crosshair. If any candidate were to go against this briefing, they would go against the Indian Army itself—in a rhetorical sense. They will, by default, become the Other of the future Agniveers.
The ethos of the figures is not debatable, and we do not suggest that either. But so many army veterans have raised their voices against the scheme. Retd. Major Gen. Yash Mor and Lt Col. Anil Duhoon, to name some. Then why are these voices secluded from articles and Twitter and not given an official platform? These tweets or discussions do not reach the protestors and are subject to knowledge erasure because of the presence of a more authoritative body of dissemination.
Going back to Dr Bohnet, another quote from his extraordinary work can help us to further this need to criminalise a protest: “Criminalization serves to de-legitimize the expression, to nullify it and, more pervasively, to use ‘fear and intimidation’ to stop or preempt protests” (101). Bohnet explains how an “illegitimate” act within a protest can translate as a moment, catalytically, to something that can be read as a kind of terror (102). Destruction of public property, namely the burning of trains, is a spectacle read as the destruction of public property. This destruction posits a possibility that the elite or the middle class is somehow affected by the protest. Bohnet explains that once deemed as a terrorist, the protestor now stands as a possible threat to the public. This public must be protected. When they see the burning trains, a place known for being public, it involves the people that lie outside Agnipath and the protests. But we have to question the legitimacy of their reading of these protests as terror. The state is still protecting the people as it is easier to deem these acts of protest as violent, than to generate a dialogue.
Several dialogues can be included in this silencing of dissent. I want to conclude with J.C. Heesterman’s view of dissent:
“Any serious world view must take both sides into account; dissent and heresy can neither be denied nor simply excluded but must be given their place in a broken world whose center is conflict and disruption.” (149)
As citizens of a democracy, we need to question where we provide this said “place” because it is evident that our world is indeed broken.