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Readings in dissent-I

New Quest, 71, Sept-Oct 1988, p289-296.               


Ajai R. Singh & Shakuntala A. Singh


Readings in Dissent – I


I. A Survey of The Scenario



On First Glance

SOME POLITICAL OBSERVORS hailed both entry of the new President and expul­sion of the dissidents as events likely to bring about stability and sensibility to the political climate. They encouraged the Prime Minister to adopt the 'no-nonsense attitude' by expelling dissidents in the states as well. They pleaded for a speedy restoration of dignity in the highest office of the land and removal of the atmosphere that was heavily charged with suspicion. They also empha­sized the need to do away with springing of unpleasant surprises or the country be­ing kept on tenterhooks.

As can be seen, only a pseudo-stability without any sensibility has been restored in the political climate by the entry of the new President or expulsion of the dissidents. Expulsion of dissidents in the states has led, if anything, to fomentation of trouble there with reverberations at other places. The President-Prime Minister relationship may appear less suspicious but that has not kept unpleasant surprises from being sprung from elsewhere; and the country remains still on tenterhooks. Thus, to advocate firm­ness and 'no-nonsense' is not necessarily to suggest a proper remedy. There are various nuances to both firmness and dissent which defy easy solution. A comprehensive sur­vey of our notions of stability and accounta­bility, dissent and change may probably offer some guidelines.

On first glance, dissent leads to ugly situa­tions and unnecessary power-struggles, change need not be stressed to the detriment of stability, firmness appears the need of the hour, accountability and such other concepts are all-right but not at the expense of the survival of a nation. Practically de­mands we first have an alternative before the situation reaches a state that destabilization leads to anarchy, subversion of democracy or balkanisation. We shall see how far some of our ideas in this nature remain tenable.

We shall avoid offering solutions in a hurry as the purpose of this communication is more analytical. But we need not be averse to those conclusions or solutions which offer themselves as we proceed. In fact an analysis that does not do so can only be a lot of hot air. Such an analysis need not waylay us any more than can be avoid­ed. However, we must also accept that it is only the dogmatist who will seek a final solution in any view, or for that matter in thinking or human development itself. Sure­ly we can be led to believe that change is integral to man?



Firmness, which some consider synony­mous with the no-nonsense attitude, is much valued, especially by those who have always benefited by its use or those who wish, but somehow lack the ability, to use it. (The synonymous relationship, incidentally, is erroneous because firmness is a necessary but not a sufficient ingredient of the no-nonsense attitude - but this need not con­cern us any further for the present). The most vocal supporters of firmness are the conservatives, or those unwilling and, more commonly, unable to change. Firmness in handling affairs and rigidity of temperament often go hand-in-hand.

The usual cohabitants of firmness and rigidity are a persistent desire for stability, fear of disruption and paranoia in relation­ships. This is usually accompanied by need for the reassurance of large camp-following, repeated avowals of faith in leadership, and recurring war-cries to crush dissidence. For, loyalty is as prized in this set-up as dissent is obscene. Change of the type which means the ability to significantly depart from one's previous convictions in the light of fresh evidence and challenges, is anathema. Every such change is viewed as a surrender to dissidence which must upset the apple­cart and injure the occupants.

Conformity must turn out to be the es­sence of success. Uniformity in behaviour must be welcome and get rewarded. As Gerth and Mills have spelled out in their concept of Rational Uniformity, uniformity of conduct results 'not from ethical consi­derations but from the fact that it is expe­dient and in the individual's rational self-interest not to deviate from the general pattern. Thus everyone is motivated to conform. This type of conformity and uni­formity in society is not based on people's desire to. uphold cherished values and norms, but on their sense of the advantage to be gained in exploiting the social and normative system by "playing the game" through overt conformity.' (Cf G.A. Theodorson and A. G. Theodorson, A Modem Dictionary of Sociology, Barnes and Nobles, 1979; also, H. Gerth and C. W. Mills, Character and Social Structure, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1953).

Conformity, therefore, is the rule. Dissent, as a corollary, must be obnoxious, un-wel­come, and fit to be crushed.

So what do we have? In an individual or set-up that professes to democracy, one can have authoritarianism, misuse of power and lack of accountability. Fear of fall from grace makes the common follower just toe the line, not only acquiescing in the intriguing goings-on but actively conniving at its inconsistencies.

Stability, therefore, extracts its price in the form of autocracy in the leader and sycophancy in the led. Neither can be considered equivalent of healthy democratic norms and values. Stability must, of course, remain our greatest concern when it has to act as an antidote to disintegration. But every significant change may not be a disintegration. In fact, it may help in the polarization of the forces of true democracy with the artificial, and a weeding out both of concepts and individuals that will allow the emergence of a true people's governance.


But then stability will remain a major, if not only, concern as long as thought retains its needs and motives, its inclinations and biases. But if we profess democracy where­in there is supposed to be a certain right to differ which is linked with the ability to change, stability is only the first, not the last - and definitely not the only - concept of overriding importance. It is a view-point important because stability and firmness are important. They cannot however become over-riding considerations at times when there appears the need for alternatives, for answerability in those who use power, for belief in the simple but basic needs of civi­lized life - punishment of the guilty, remo­val of corruption and upholding the dignity of man over survival. And if someone feels – ‘But what if survival itself is in jeopardy?', the answer is, 'Whose survival? Since when did this nation's survival depend on that of an individual or a coterie? Since when did survival of that which must not survive be linked with that of a nation? And how long will that nation last whose survival is linked to that of some individuals?

It is time we stopped kidding ourselves with such inane logic.

The Democratic Edifice

How weak is the democratic edifice in which accountability is anathema, and rea­sons need not be given for cutting short others' careers? Where anyone who has the temerity to stand up and call the emperor naked has to commit a political hara-kiri? Answerability is considered a form of at­tack. What a pack of cards have we built that a whiff of dissent or wave of disagree­ment must bring into play the most heroic and reckless of actions to survive? And what are we pleading for, anyway? A so called stability which is nothing more than a poorly camouflaged means of survival, where every destabilization theory becomes an excuse to abrogate more powers and, what must inevitably follow, generate more unrest and greater dissent? Such naive notions of stability and its garrulous and glib P.R.0.s only reflect confused, afraid, irritated and over-strung temperaments, whose instability and insecurity does not take long to rub off on whatever they try to take on.

Stability is synonymous neither with survival nor with status quo. Survival is a measure of desperation, of instincts. Status quo must foil change which can otherwise lead to development. Stability, rather, is a manifestation of a national character where there is no aversion to change because there is a solid foundation of unswerving values. These values welcome both true account­ability which eschews considerations of per­sonal benefit and a humility to own up and learn from one's errors. There is no reason to believe that a bonafide error cannot be pardoned and a second chance to establish credentials cannot be given. It is absurd to believe that error by itself can bring down a leader. It is rather the games one has to play to conceal one's errors that lead to one's down-fall. Probity, therefore, cannot go unrewarded. The leader who believes in no-nonsense has to have firmness and probity in equal measure. It is a proper combina­tion of both these that can help him tackle every type of dissent and adjust to every type of change.

The Baptism by Fire

For the Prime Minister today this is bap­tism by fire - which every beneficiary of power handed over on a silver platter must sometime undergo - either to be scorched or emerge triumphant. The events as they proceed today seem to point to the former. But one need not consider the latter even­tuality unacceptable if it comes about. It cannot occur now except if actions are taken which surpass all our honest expectations. In that case we must be gracious and hail the leader. It is not deceit, gamble or in­trigue which by themselves are going to work for anyone now. It will be only the great qualities of honesty of purpose, up­right attitude, true accountability and swift and sure action that can see one come out unscathed.




Discomfort of Dissent

There is a nagging, persistently irritating --- even exasperating - quality about dissidence which, as a natural reaction, causes vexation in the one dissented with. (We shall call the dissentee, for want of a better word). To help follow this thought, think of your young son who must continue to write his alphabets reversed or behave un­couth when the guests come, in spite of all your training. Or your adolescent son or daughter who must have his or her night out with the friend of the opposite sex inspite of all your protestations; or decide to choose a career which is diametrically op­posite to the values you most fervently che­rish. (We need not consider these examples typical or representative of dissidence as a whole because this can vitiate the under­standing of what is to follow).

The discomfort of dissent brings about, in most individuals, firstly, the avoidance of its realisation. This is manifest by ignor­ing dissent, and often also the dissenter. When this doesn't work, it results in attempts at its speedy termination. The means to achieve both these need not be necessarily related to the intensity or severity of the dissent. At times the smallest of dissent can cause the greatest of irritation and some quite serious dissent may get accepted with grace, even aplomb. These reactions are often emotionally determined and reflect the lack of judgment and equanimity that re­sults when one is so overwhelmed.

This is, of course, the natural reaction of an individual. But what may be a natural reaction is often not a desirable one. For example, this need not be the reaction of a leader at all. He needs to be insightful enough to outgrow as soon as possible the inclination to adopt offensive or defensive postures towards dissent. The hallmark of a competent leader, as of any organiser, is being unruffled by dissidence but, at the same time, adopting corrective steps to take the sting out of it. For being unruffled when stung for the first time may be possible; but remaining so when continuously stung is not only impossible, it is sheer foolhardi­ness.


The methods used to take out the sting can be guided by various factors. For ex­ample, one may be cautiously persistent when the motive of dissent is unclear, ag­gressively mobile when it is ulterior, or stu­diedly silent when it is weak or self-limiting.


The earlier posers of our present Prime Minister would have led some to believe that these methods were utilised by him. Unfortunately, need for survival seems to throw composure to the winds, in a head­long activity where equanimity, accountab­ility and uprightness take such a severe jolt.

Can Dissent be Useful?

Dissidence is a phenomenon at once inevitable and necessary. It can, in fact, be used as a stepping stone to greater success, as a touch-stone to confirm one's, and one's policies, authenticity and relevance. A leader sure of his capabilities can use dissidence to good effect and gain thereby the essential feed-back from his workers, sym­pathisers, opponents, and the masses.

Different individuals view and react to dissidence differently. The workers may be bewildered but may equally well gain a direction to vent their ire. The sympathi­sers may be discomforted but may as well become more committed in their counsel. The opponents may rub their hands in glee, but may as well smite the dust; or un­dergo a change of heart. The masses may be intrigued by the happenings but may equally well respond with a healthy debate on the issues and concepts that need to be sifted and sieved.

Some of us were indeed led to believe this to be a plausible reason for what ini­tially appeared a well-orchestrated duet be­tween the Prime-Minister and his now famous dissident's dramatic and occasionally inscrutable ways. Sadly enough, the hope inherent in this view was not to match the motives of our dramatis personae.

What is the Meaning of Dissent?

For some, dissent is only a pathway to acceptability. They may be considered the mavericks, romanticists and idealists. In fact, it may be the only pathway they know, or consider suitable for themselves. Such individuals usually detest the goings-on and retain - or, atleast profess to retain - an abiding desire to change it. They may be radical or Fabian, rightist or leftist. Their caution may camouflage their intensity but it is often only thinly so. The veil is lifted in the use of their chosen method of expres­sion. For some, it may be the creative arts where they become trend-setters. For others, it is science where they become pioneers and inventors. For still others it may be theology, philosophy and social sciences where cognition and conation, per­ception and reality, faith and reason, re­main perennially at loggerheads because of their abiding interest. And for still others, it is public affairs where they may continuously struggle with stagnation, decadence and mediocrity. In this struggle, quite a few are cautious, and only some openly radical. But in certain situations, caution may quite easily give way to radi­cality. In most other cases, the radical is only presented in a cautious manner to al­low it to gain acceptance. The radical, whilst arousing attraction in some, equally often arouses a fear of destabilization in the rest. A threat of destabilization immediate­ly leads to rejection which is exactly what the maverick wishes to scrupulously avoid.

If you wish for examples, read the writ­ings of those who impress you. Or the other expressions of creative individuals. You will usually find that at times even the most apparently reasoned debate manages to re­veal flashes of the inner-most drives and thoughts, abiding biases and leanings of the writer or thinker. This may sometimes hap­pen only in a sentence or a paragraph. Even in a word. For a beginning, you could start with this communication itself and as­certain what are its drives and motives.

The Problems that Dissent Creates

Now, by adopting dissent as a means of gaining acceptance, these individuals man­age to create any number of problems. One such problem we shall analyse in the sec­tion on the honest dissenter. The dissenter creates enemies and difficulties for himself as well as those whose sympathy he enjoys. Dissent has the uncanny ability to arouse in most others the need to take sides. It almost forces battle-lines to be drawn.

Hence, even in an orchestrated duet, a dissenter and his dissentee must ultimately get involved in a vortex from which retreat is inextricable. The dissentee, as events progress, cannot avoid the confrontation which must follow by remaining neutral or maintaining a studied silence. Both his supporters, who are itching to overthrow the dissenter for their own ends, and his sympathisers, who see in the uprising a threat to the object of their sympathy, now get ready for battle, sound the bells of warning and take up the war-cry to crush dissidence with a heavy hand. The basis of our politics being survival and stability, the result cannot but be a struggle for power that must now manage to occupy centre­stage.


Deviance and Dissidence

A parallel between dissidence and the sociological concept of deviance must be drawn here. Deviance, simply put, means non-conformity to accepted norms. Devi­ance is a common phenomenon in the life of human beings, even in the so-called sim­ple societies. In complex societies like ours, where there are varying group stand­ards and conflicting norms, any member of the society is liable at some time to be con­sidered deviant by some standard or the other. Often, deviance becomes simply a matter of conformity to one sub-group which is at variance with another, which therefore becomes non-conformity with the other's norms and is hence given this name. Deviance can arouse various consequences: from a simple frown, to boycott, ostracisa­tion, imprisonment, and even confinement for mental illness. However, the despised deviant from a particular society or social system may be regarded· as a martyr, a re­volutionary or a saint by another ethical philosophy or historical period. Deviance becomes, therefore, a phenomenon of con­flicting human interactions in a particular normative setting. (cf G. A. Theodorson and A. G. Theodorson, A Modern Dictionary of Sociology, Barnes and Nobles, New York, 1979).

Substitute the concept Deviance with Dissidence and we can see that the paragraph will read equally true. Dissidence, therefore, is the politico-ideological twin of the sociological concept, Deviance.




Some First Aid Tips to Handle Dissent


A Warning

This Communication will concentrate on first-aid. First-aid is delivered only on the spot and can be effective to tackle most common ailments. It can never take the place of systematic intervention when the malaise is discovered to be more serious. There, the best first aid would probably be not to deliver first-aid.

How to Grant Acceptability

We may briefly recapitulate that in most mavericks, dissent is only a pathway to ac­ceptability. Let us now see where this leads us.

An acceptability that you seek can stop hurting both you and the object of your dissent if you are granted that acceptability. This seems a very simple statement simply made. Let us now see if its implications allow us to retain this impression.

What is the type of acceptance that the dissenter seeks? He wishes he and his point of view be recognised. So, when a dissen­ter starts his dissent, the best way of both blunting its offensive and curbing its foray into ulteriority is honest acceptance and just reward in time. What do we mean thereby ?

By honest acceptance we mean the ability to read into the genuineness or ulteriority of the dissent and its likely direction and fate. If it is ulterior or disruptive, whether in the short or long run, it needs to be promptly accepted and its recompense is to put it down firmly. If it is genuine, it needs to be equally promptly accepted and justly rewarded by acknowledging its worth. Fur­ther, certain ulterior dissent can become the common platform of other ulterior dissen­ters who can thus be uncovered and exposal. Also, the ulteriority can arouse an equally fierce condemnation in both loyalists and honest dissenters, when the leader will realise the worth and calibre of both. Dis­sent guided by ulteriority is however best allowed only limited time-span, because ul­teriority has a peculiar appeal to the power needs of man. It can lead to an avoidable shift of headquarters for some loyalists, especially those who are ready to jump on any band-wagon that appears to be going places.

We must now concentrate on manage­ment of the honest dissenter. He needs to be rewarded in suiting to his temperament and his emotional needs. Occasionally, even a brief chat is enough, camaraderie usually manages to ring a sympathetic bell, encouragement and just praise never go un­rewarded. Similarly, regard, genuine regard, can never be ignored by the honest dissenter. In this the dissentee must retain the courage to depart significantly from his professed modes of working and thinking, even at risk of temporary destabilisation and hurt to loyalists, because of a sense of true accountability. Such regard is how­ever possible only in a politician of some stature, courage and nobility. He should not hesitate to acknowledge his own faults as much as his dissenter's validity. This usually is the just reward that the dissenter seeks. And rather than hurt the dissentee's image, it can make him rise immensely in the eyes of both the dissenter and the right­eousness that he represents. Any tilting of power-balance can only result in a desir­able polarisation and weeding out process.

Timing and Proportion of Recompense

The element of timing cannot be over­emphasized. Both firmness in putting down ulterior dissent and rewarding the righteous­ness of honest dissent may be done and yet not be useful if the element of timing is missing. If done too late, dissent has al­ready achieved embarrassing proportions. If done too early, it may not blunt dissent's offensive, as one would anticipate. It may, rather, only make it more sharp and more quick.

Also, firmness and reward should be proportionate to the damage and usefulness respectively of the dissent. Thus, too strict a hand to put down a small dissent which would die a natural death anyway is best avoided since it becomes an unnecessary rallying factor for others who may find it difficult not to sympathise with the wrong­ed. Similarly, a milk and water approach in handling malafide dissent cannot but lead to strengthening its roots. Also, too small a reward to the honest dissenter may· turn him either into a hard core one or a tame loyalist whose emasculated presence has to be ultimately got rid of. Similarly, too large a reward to even an honest dissenter will prompt avoidable bravado and heroics, tempting honesty to be coloured with male­feasance.

We realise, therefore, that though first ­aid solution can be suggested, all the pos­sible difficulties and finer shades of practi­calities cannot but be emphasized as well. Dissent, ulterior or honest, can arouse the greatest abilities of character in both the dissenter and the dissentee.

The No-Nonsense Attitude

Now, both firmness in handling ulterior dissent and reward of the honest one will not curb the dissenting attitude  completely. Nor need it, for as we have seen in proportions, dissent is invaluable as a bouncing wall for theories, convictions and programmes. If well managed, it may tame the ferocity of the dissenter and channelize it for productive purposes. This can be a worthy acquisition to flaunt in a politician’s armoury, besides of course lending a cutting edge to so much steel. However, the desire for adopting this can be a temptation that is best resisted in the incapable and the weak kneed. For, to tame a lion’s ferocity, you need an equally competent trainer.  And one can never forget that a lion is only trainable. He can never be made a domestic pet. 

Such , however , is the  path of the sure, swift and capable leader whose no-nonsense attitude knows the value of mixing firmness with tact, who can use the carrot as much as the stick, always forestalling embarrassing eventualities with shrewdness and knack of reading a situation through and through, including its possible directions and likely fates.

        In carrying out all this, there must be the element of spontaneity and absence of conceit and malice. There is also the need for humility, for recognition of merit in others, for eschewing obstinacy or standing on prestige. There is the need to have a sense of proportions. One’s own power should never be over valued, nor the image of omnipotence aroused in self or others. Just as genuine power can never be stemmed, over valuation of power can equally never be sustained.

                                                (To be concluded)




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