A dissent for the ages

Rarely have we Indians had the privilege to watch eminent citizens in public life stand up for their principles at risk of personal injury, inconvenience and witchhunts.  Many citizens have sacrificed their life attempting to uphold public good and principles. But up the ladder the post-Independence heroes are too few in number and Justice HR Khanna is perhaps the greatest of them all.  His pivotal role in the Keshavananda Bharati judgment that enunciated the “basic structure” doctrine that preserves our Constitution even today and his singular, but powerful and ringing, dissent in the habeas corpus case opposing the suspension of fundamental rights even in an Emergency stands like a sentinel even today.

For his courage, Justice Khanna paid a heavy price, being superseded when his turn to become Chief Justice of India came. Today, was advocate and activist Prashant Bhushan’s moment of reckoning. Through umpteen PILs he has served many a humanist and activist cause. Today I am a PIL sceptic and believe political and citizen-led action are needed to salvage governance rather than poorly drafted, selectively framed PILs before ill-equipped judges. But even my disagreements with him on his chosen legal trajectory or politics can’t take away from the powerful dissent that Bhushan expressed in Supreme Court today. It came in the face of an impending jail term or some other form of punishment but Bhushan hasn’t flinched, to my cynical self’s surprise.

Quoting the last paragraph of his statement would be appropriate here: “My tweets were nothing but a small attempt to discharge what I considered to be my highest duty at this juncture in the history of our republic. I did not tweet in a fit of absence mindedness. It would be insincere and contemptuous on my part to offer an apology for the tweets that expressed what was and continues to be my bonafide belief. Therefore, I can only humbly paraphrase what the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi had said in his trial: I do not ask for mercy. I do not appeal to magnanimity. I am here, therefore, to cheerfully submit to any penalty that can lawfully be inflicted upon me for what the Court has determined to be an offence, and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.”

Quoting Gandhi from his sedition trial statement has hit home. After all, Gandhi was the one who taught freedom fighters during the national movement to wholeheartedly accept punishment for doing their duty to the country. What dissent does is to illuminate, inspire and provoke lesser mortals. This is the reason regimes across the world have feared dissent from time immemorial.  From Mahatma Gandhi’s dissent a century ago against the British Raj to HR Khanna’s dissent against Indira Gandhi during the Emergency to Prashant Bhushan’s dissent against the Supreme Court  today, it is an assertion of moral fibre, personal courage and unbending conviction. The powers that be may punish or not, ignore or not, retract or not, pardon or not, but slight of frame Bhushan’s  dissent will not be forgotten soon, whether you like it or not.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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