Right To Dissent Is Essential To Democracy, Criticism Can’t Be Termed Anti-National: Supreme Court Judge
The Supreme Court stands in New Delhi, India. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

Right To Dissent Is Essential To Democracy, Criticism Can’t Be Termed Anti-National: Supreme Court Judge

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Supreme Court Judge Justice Deepak Gupta said on Monday that the right to dissent is essential for democracy and criticism of the executive, judiciary, bureaucracy, and the Armed Forces cannot be termed "anti-national".

The right to dissent is the "biggest" and "most important right" granted by the Constitution and it includes the right to criticise, he said. "There can be no democracy without dissent." Justice Gupta said that as long as a person does not break the law or encourage strife, he has a right to differ from every other citizen as also those in power, and propagate his belief.

Justice Gupta, while giving a lecture at an event- "Democracy and Dissent" -- organised by Supreme Court Bar Association -- said everyone must be open to criticism, and the judiciary is not above criticism. "If Judges of the superior courts were to take note of all the contemptuous communications received by them, there would be no work other than the contempt proceedings. In fact, I welcome criticism of the judiciary because only if there is criticism, will there be an improvement," he said.

Justice Gupta said there must be also introspection as "when we introspect, we will find that many decisions taken by us need to be corrected". "Criticism of the executive, the judiciary, the bureaucracy or the Armed Forces cannot be termed "anti-national". In case we attempt to stifle criticism of the institutions whether it be the legislature, the executive or the judiciary or other bodies of the State, we shall become a police state instead of a democracy and this the founding fathers never expected this country to be", he said.

Justice Gupta, who is set to retire on May 6, said: "To question, to challenge, to verify, to ask for accountability from the government is the right of every citizen under the Constitution. "These rights should never be taken away otherwise. We will become an unquestioning moribund society, which will not be able to develop any further".

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

He disapproved of calls often made by various bar associations refusing to represent accused in various cases and said it is against legal ethics and an obstruction of justice. "I chose this topic because I am troubled with certain recent events especially concerning lawyers and Bar Associations where forgetting the duty cast upon the lawyers under the Advocates Act, 1961 and the right of every person to have free legal aid, some Bar Associations in different parts of the country are passing resolutions that none of their members will appear in certain causes. This is something which worries me immensely," he said.

Highlighting the importance of dissent in a democracy, he said, "If a country has to grow in a holistic manner where not only the economic rights but also the civil rights of the citizen are to be protected, dissent and disagreement have to be permitted, and in fact, should be encouraged". He said that rule of majority is an integral part of democracy but "majoritarianism is the antithesis of democracy" and in a democracy like India, the government in most cases does not represent the majority of the population, and often not even the voting electorate.

"Therefore, when those in power claim that they represent the will of all the people that is more often than not a totally baseless claim. They may be the elected government voted on the first past the post system by a large number of voters, but it cannot be said that they represent the entire will of the people," he said.

Justice Gupta, however, said that dissenting views must be expressed in a "peaceful manner" and citizens have a right to get together and protest when they feel that actions taken by the government are not proper.

"Their cause may not always be right. At the same time, the Government may also not be right. Merely because certain groups oppose those in power cannot take away their right to oppose what is proposed by the Government or to oppose any actions of the Government as long as the protest is peaceful. The Government has no right to stifle or quell protest as long as the protests are peaceful," he pointed out.

Justice Gupta said that the bedrock of our democracy is the rule of law and this necessitates that there must be an independent fearless judiciary. "There can be rule of law only when we have judges who can take decisions independent of political influence, totally uninfluenced by media or any other extraneous considerations," he added.

He referred to several historic dissenting judgements including the famous opinion penned by Justice HR Khanna in the ADM Jabalpur case and said that Justice Khanna knew that he was putting his future as Chief Justice of India at stake.

In the ADM Jabalpur case of 1976, the five-judge bench by a majority verdict 4:1 had arrived at the conclusion that Article 21 is the sole repository of all rights to life and personal liberty, and, when suspended, takes away those rights altogether.

Emergency was imposed in the country for a period of 21 months - from 1975 to 1977. Justice HR Khanna was lone dissenting judge who had held that "the suspension of the right to move any Court for the enforcement of the right under Article 21, upon a proclamation of emergency, would not affect the enforcement of the basic right to life and liberty".

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