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There Is More to Dissent Than We Dream Of

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In Sophocles’s (495-406 B.C) formidable play, Antigone daughter of Oedipus defies the edict of King Creon of Thebes that her brother’s corpse should not be entombed, and that it should be left for birds and vultures to feast on. When Creon charges her with disobedience of the law, “Thou didst indeed dare to transgress that law.” Antigone replies thus:

“Yes; for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict: not such are the laws set among me by the Justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that the decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of to-day or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth.”

Antigone’s vindication of an act of insubordination established the justification for dissent. In history, individuals ranging from Antigone to Gandhi have encouraged us to disobey ‘immoral laws’. Living as we do in a democracy, however, we are concerned with collective action, simply because collective action unleashes a host of dynamics that hold important implications for our status as citizens.

Collective forms of dissent such as strikes, sit-ins, protest movements, gheraos and demonstrations reiterate time and again Antigone’s immortal justification of dissent: laws passed by men [and some women] simply do not possess the same moral validity or force as the laws of God; or in the language of modern politics, natural justice. In the historical conditions that promote democracy, we divine the laws of natural justice through intuition, or even through simple common sense – certain things must be done for human beings, and certain things must not be done to them. What things should be done for human beings is fairly clear: they should be treated with decency, with respect, they must be provided with the basic preconditions of life itself such as income, food, health and education, and they must have the right to possess rights. And certain things must not be done to human beings: they must not be tortured, or deprived of dignity, and most certainly they must not be discriminated against.

Sebastien Norblin’s painting of Antigone being captured and arrested for the burial of her brother, Polynices. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/VladoubidoOo CC BY SA 3.0

When laws of government discriminate against citizens without any reason, or for reasons that are purely arbitrary, they violate the basic norms of natural justice. Citizens have the right to challenge and even disobey these laws. The proviso is that the issue that provokes dissent must be significant enough to validate this action. Dissent, in other words, must be justifiable. It has to be thought through.

Imagine the processes that must have preceded Antigone’s action in burying her brother’s body with great reverence. She must have pondered over an important question – what do we, the living, owe the dead? Decent societies know that bodies of those who are no more with us have to be treated with respect. If a monarch disobeys this law of natural justice, citizens are entitled to dissent and disobey. More........

© The Wire

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