History of Dissent: Middle East and Asia

On hearing the word ‘dissent’, Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March against British taxations, or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech echoing through Washington D.C for racial equality sprouts from the back of our minds. They have always been considered significant because they peacefully rejected the status quo for a change. These protestors or ‘dissenters’ were not just fighting for themselves or their people, but for permanent emancipation from a particular viewpoint of repression. They were fighting for their future generations.

Dissent can be termed as an expression of non-agreement or dissatisfaction against an idea, rule or majority opinion. In a political dissent, the opposing opinions of people challenge the status quo of a country’s socio-economic or political scenario. The idea of nonconformity appears throughout world history, whether it was to question the rule of a repressive regime or act in solidarity against a particular policy which affects a marginalised section of the society. 

In times where dissent is considered a crucial part of democracy, there have been moments where it has faced suppression in the name of rebellion or anti-nationalist sentiments. Many Asian and Middle Eastern countries have fought, or are still struggling, to let their voices be heard to the authorities. Here are a few examples where a dissent caused major uproar worldwide in the past and present:

The Tiananmen Square protests (China,1989)

A chain of events set off by the death of pro-Communist general secretary Hu Yaobang led over 100,000 people marching to central Beijing in April 1989. What was initially termed as a gathering by students to mourn the passing of the politician, evolved into a massive protest. Better democratic reforms, the abolishment of press censorship, and resignations from leaders of the Chinese Communist Party were a few of the demands drafted by the students. Frustrated by the prevalent poverty and lack of employment due to the recent capitalist reforms, thousands of pro-democracy protesters joined the demonstration. The infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre occurred in June 1989, after news of daily marches and vigils made it to international media. 

As the Chinese security forces stormed the Square, declaring martial law and firing into the crowd, many fought back. An iconic video of one of the protesters was filmed and delivered out to international media channels. A man was pictured standing alone in front of a column of large tanks in defiance as they mobilised near the Square.

Estimations from various sources, including international agencies like Amnesty, suggested death tolls to be over two thousand protestors and bystanders along with soldiers. Most of the student leaders were identified and arrested, and some even fled the country to avoid being incarcerated. Leaders around the world condemned the brutal force of the Chinese government, and weeks later, they were subject to economic sanctions by the U.N. Congress. It caused the government to strengthen its grip on the Chinese press and mass media. To this day, the Chinese government censors much details of the incident from its citizens.

Hong Kong anti-government protests (2019-ongoing)

One of the significant events of dissent lies in recent times in Hong Kong. An extradition bill, namely Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, was introduced by the chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, which could have challenged the freedom and judicial independence of the region. The bill stated that Hong Kong could detain or transfer any criminal suspects to the particular country they are wanted in, including Taiwan and mainland China. It faced severe disagreement amongst the citizens who accused the bill of being a conspiracy to censor political dissent. It risked detention and violence against any human rights activist, journalist or social worker with anti-government ideals. As Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous region under the Chinese rule, it runs on the principle of ‘one country, two systems’. It gives its citizens basic civil rights and liberties including freedom of speech, religion, rights of due process etc. Many human rights activists stated that they could have faced unfair trials and tortures with the new bill.

In September 2019, Lam announced the withdrawal of the bill. However, the demonstrations refused to die down. The protestors’ call was for greater democracy, implementation of universal suffrage for the Legislative Council election and inquiry into alleged police brutality. They even urged not to term the protests as ‘riots’ and asked for the resignation of Carrie Lam. The protestors took to the street to voice their concerns, and the security forces of Hong Kong retaliated, with casualties on both sides. In November, their District Council elections saw a landslide victory for pro-democratic councillors, providing the people with new-found hope.

After Hong Kong imposed a new security law in July 2020, which widened the prosecution and punishment of political dissidents, several arrests were made, and the government has since been facing worldwide condemnation. Mainland China and its State Council opposed the protests, calling it an ‘instigation by the foreign powers’. Recently, Hong Kong banned pro-democratic candidates from their legislative elections on the grounds of opposing the national security law, which criminalises terrorism, secession, subversion and collusion with foreign powers. Accusing Lam’s government of having suppressed political freedom of its own citizens, the United States has since imposed sanctions on 11 Hong Kong officials, freezing any properties owned by them in the country or those in possession of Americans, or U.S controlled entities. Even with the lurking pandemic, Hong Kong’s fight for freedom is far from over.

Arab Spring (2011) and October Revolution (2020)

The popular pro-democracy revolution in the middle east was ignited when a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, self-immolated to protest against police brutality. It served as an impetus towards demonstrations against then-president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s corrupt and authoritarian regime. During his 2-decade long term, Ben Ali was repeatedly accused by human rights organisations of unfair arrest and physical abuse of political dissidents. Bouazizi became a symbol for the Tunisian youth who had for long suffered from unemployment at the hands of an accused embezzler. The unrest spread feverishly throughout the neighbouring regions of Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Syria and came to be known as the infamous Arab spring.

In Egypt, inspired by the Tunisian revolt, the ongoing protestations against the hostile regime of Hosni Mubarak gained further momentum. The nation was and is still under the Emergency Law (Law no. 162 of 1958), which suspends fundamental constitutional rights and legalises censorship. Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed that the Mubarak-led govt had suppressed freedom of speech and controlled public spaces under the guise of fighting terrorism. When Jack Schenker, a reporter with The Guardian, was arrested, he released reports of the brutal treatment meted out to the Egyptian journalists and activists in prison. Mubarak denied the existence of police brutality under his leadership, even with substantial evidence of the same. Mubarak was later held accountable for ordering the killings of protestors gathered at Tahrir square, Cairo.

Although the Uprising was successful in ousting Mubarak out of office, Egypt has not found any solace in his predecessor, Abdul Fateh Al Sisi. Human rights activists continue to report mass persecution of protestors by secretive judicial agencies.

Ten years on, since the Arab Spring, the recent Beirut explosion in Lebanon is a clear indication for long-held reforms in its political administration. Lebanon has observed a sectarian political system following the Taif agreement of 1998, which led to endemic corruption and mass-scale unemployment. In October of 2019, way before the blast shattered the capital, the pleas of the dissatisfied citizens were met with water cannons and tear gas. As the country observes resignation of top government officers, experts at Business Insider predict a critical future for the nation.

The British Raj, Section 377 and CAA (1947; 1994-2018; 2019-ongoing)

During the 19th century, when nationalism broke out in India, the British government implemented various sedition laws to terminate and punish any form of dissent. Citizens had been subjected to the Performances Act (1876) and Vernacular Act (1878) aimed at suppressing any creative expression, oral or pictorial, in any of the native languages. Absconders were imprisoned, sometimes even for life, and fined heavily. Various freedom fighters, the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Aurobindo Ghose, were arrested on charges of treason. The freedom struggle, which ultimately gave India her independence, perhaps envisions the necessity of dissent quite aptly.

Another draconian law introduced by Lord Macaulay in 1861 was sec 377 of the IPC, criminalising homosexuality. The protests against homophobia began in 1992 when two men were arrested at Connaught place on the grounds of indulging in an unlawful act. In 1994, the ABVA filed the first petition against Sec 377 in the Delhi High Court after Kiran Bedi refused the distribution of condoms in Tihar jail. The fight went on against the dehumanising law for the next few decades. It was a long journey when a hundred and forty years after the iconic stonewall uprising in far-away New York City, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India declared sec 377 null and void. Such progressive reforms cannot happen if the citizens become afraid of voicing their concerns.

The most recent controversy which stirred unrest in India was the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019. The communities have raised concerns over the supposed anti-secular nature of the law. The fear of being ostracised from society has brought the Muslim community out on the streets. The only silver lining is probably a kind of women empowerment as the burqa-clad home-makers sat down to protest. However, the arrest of a fourteen-week pregnant Safoora Zargar under an anti-terror law may prove contradictory. The Delhi High Court has, since, granted her bail on humanitarian grounds.

Abroad the abolition of slavery in America, overthrowing autocratic regimes in the middle east and the fall of the Soviet Union, portray the positives of dissent. India finds her own success stories in the un-constitutionalising of triple talaq and decriminalising Sec 377 of the IPC. The harsh side of dissent lies in its culmination into violence, as seen in the recent Delhi riots. 

Dissent, when carried out in a non-violent yet persuasive manner, is capable of bringing about change. Thus, the importance of dissent as a source of change, causing healthy debate, cannot be overlooked. In the words of Justice Chandrachud, “The blanket labelling of dissent as anti-national or anti-democratic strikes at the heart of our commitment to protect constitutional values and the promotion of deliberative democracy.”

Sources: BBC, CNN and the Guardian

Image Source: History

Written by Anushka Shrivastava and Sriya Mistry for MTTN

Edited by Tanya Jain and Avaneesh Damaraju for MTTN

Featured Image by Varun Vyas Hebbalalu for MTTN


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