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Tackling dissent

Frederick Noronha

Dissent involves disagreeing or opposing an idea or an approach. Usually, dissent refers to critiquing government policies. Democracy and dissent go together, it has been often said. But dissent itself comes at a price. To understand any society, you need to look at how it deals with dissent.

When organisations seen as close to the Church accused some of Goa’s politicians of land conversions and questionable dealings, the response was quick and sharp. It did not come in the form of a clarification or a denial. Instead, it came by way of counter-allegations against the Church and its own role in land-conversions. Or rather, the alleged land conversions of some Church-related institutions in parts of Goa.

This is another way of saying ‘if my hands are dirty, so are yours’. Attack, after all, is the best form of defence. It is for history to judge as to who is right and who isn’t.

For understandable reasons, taking up unpopular causes comes at a price. This is especially true when those targeted or challenged happen to be powerful and influential, or those close to the seat of power.

This was also true of the Tarun Tejpals and the Tehelkas, who saw their media organisations and years of institution-building vanish into nothing after facing allegations of sexual harassment. It also happened to some prominent national journalists who found themselves taken off prominent slots on television, apparently because of the stands they took.

In such muck-raking campaigns against the dissidents, it is not difficult to find allies. Usually, the case is framed well. If it’s a case of sexual harassment, then the women’s rights activists will quickly come on board. And why not! There are at least a few critics of every institution, who will agree with the critics of the critics. If journalists face tough times, there are enough rival journalists to point out what they did wrong. The sensationalism and mis-trials that happened in the aftermath of the murder of the J Dey case (where one of his colleagues was also jailed, and her career destroyed, only to see her being released recently) is another case in point.

Not for a moment is one saying that the allegations may not be true. But then, if the intention of making counter-charges is only to avoid any further criticism, then that’s unfair. Motives need to be understood here.

The Church, being an institution manned by humans, is itself bound to make its own mistakes. The current Pope and some of his predecessors have themselves rendered apologies when it was felt necessary.

If the experience of nearby Mumbai (or, rather, Bombay) is anything to go by, then issues like Church property and its control could surely snowball over time. The real estate boom, the need to protect community assets built up over generations, and the ability of a few individuals to severely sell-out, all end up making this a potent mix.

The case of the Goan cudds (or ‘clubs’) in Mumbai is no difference, only perhaps less noticed. What was built over centuries can take a very short time to squander.

There is another reality of post-1961 Goa. The change in regimes and tenancy laws have meant that those without the direct political influence are out in the cold when it comes to even controlling their own property. There are quite a few expat Goan friends whom I meet up with regularly because they are spending the best years of their lives still fighting tenancy cases against those caretakers with whom they had once trusted their homes.

A number of campaigners have found themselves slapped with a range of legal cases, severely hampering their ability to raise issues. The question now is whether those who face such a plight would have the determination and persistence to continue with the causes they raised, or prefer to drop the same.

US writer Linda Atkins put it well, saying: “Throughout the history of our country, dissent has been important to bringing change to our government. Without dissent and protest, we would still be English citizens, people would still own other people as slaves, women would not have the vote. Promoting a world view that doesn’t allow citizens to protest the actions of their government is to take on the philosophy of all of the despots and dictators who kept their citizens silenced and afraid of retribution.”

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