Curbing Dissent Is The Beginning Of The End Of A Democracy, Says Justice Gautam Patel Of Bombay High Court
The Bombay High Court. (Source: BloombergQuint)

Curbing Dissent Is The Beginning Of The End Of A Democracy, Says Justice Gautam Patel Of Bombay High Court

The first targets of any illiberal government are centres of education, Justice Gautam Patel of the Bombay High Court said in a lecture that comes at the time of student protests against the new citizenship law.

“Educational institutions throughout history have always been the crucibles and birthplaces of dissent and opposition, spaces for the positioning of countervailing perspectives,” Justice Patel said while delivering the annual lecture by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in New Delhi on Monday. “We know this since at least the 1960s in the U.S. and possibly even earlier. This is what we mean when we speak of a liberal education.”

Indian universities have erupted against the Citizenship Amendment Act that excludes Muslims. And police action against protesting students of Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University have triggered the debate on the right to dissent. Justice Patel, however, said that his speech on Institutional Autonomy in Democratic Governance was written weeks in advance and was not criticism of a particular government.

He called Indian Institutes of Technology and Jawaharlal Nehru University as few islands of education which remain startling and provide a true experience of learning.

The purpose of liberal education doesn’t merely end with a degree but it prepares a student for lifelong engagement with new issues as they come up, he said. For the same reason, the best way to curb dissent and questioning of daily governance is at its breeding grounds which are the centers of education, said Justice Patel, adding that such curbs result in the beginning of the end of a democratic republic.

Justice Patel also called for letting state-controlled cultural and art institutions function autonomously.

All art is political, and art is nothing if not discourse and dissent. If it is not that, it is just so much pap. The purpose of art in every form is to question, to doubt, to look askance, to disagree, and to present an alternative perspective.
Justice Gautam Patel, Bombay High Court

Stressing that his speech was not about a particular government or ideology, he said any government that demands or expects ideological conformity from its key institutions and shrinks the space for dissent acts contrary to the fundamental tenets of the Constitution.

“These are, therefore, the conflicting choices before us today. To one side is the perceived political threat that all dissent poses, whatever its form. On the other is the peril of a loss of liberalism, freedom, democracy and the rule of law,” he said. The choice “we make will determine not just our nation’s future, but its survival”.

Full text of the Vidhi Annual Lecture By Justice Gautam Patel:


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