The arrests of five activists – Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad, Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, Gautam Navlakha in New Delhi, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai – on the grounds that they are ‘urban naxals’ caused nationwide outrage.

The Supreme Court, hearing a public interest litigation filed by such renowned intellectuals as Romila Thapar and Prabhat Patnaik challenging their arrest and police remand, passed an interim order directing that the activists be kept under house arrest and observed that dissent is the safety valve of democracy, and any attempt to stifle it would result in an explosion.

Reacting to the arrest with pain and anguish Ramachandra Guha said that had Mahatma Gandhi been alive he would have put on lawyer's robes and defended the arrested activists in the court of law. He added that the present regime in India which arrested the five activists would not have hesitated to arrest Mahatma Gandhi.

In fact a peek into history reveals that Gandhi was arrested and sentenced to a six-year jail term in 1922 by the British Government on three charges, which included 'tampering with loyalty' and 'attempting to excite disaffection towards the British government'.

While Gandhi was arrested and convicted, another man was arrested in 1921 on another strange charge – spreading information among people that famines were occurring in India because of British policies.

Almost a hundred years later, we are passing through a similar situation with people arrested and prosecuted on similar charges. Yesterday a supporter of the ruling party on TV said in so many words that urban naxals are those who use the pen against the present regime, and naxals working in jungles are those who use the gun for the same purpose. He cited the instance of Ramjas College, and the slogans there of ‘Bastar Mange Azadi’ (Bastar Demands Freedom), as an instance of the spreading menace of urban naxalism.

But that slogan was used to underline the point that Bastar should be made free from exploitation and hunger. Anybody using their pen in defence of liberty could be declared an urban naxal. The police asked one of the arrested persons why he was reading Ambedkar, and why there were pictures of Jyotiba Phule and Ambedkar on the walls of his home, and not Gods or Goddesses.

Gandhi had said that even in a non-violent society there would be room for Satyagraha and civil resistance. Ambedkar said, ‘Educate, Organise, and Agitate’. He also said that employing unconstitutional methods in independent India would result in a ‘grammar of anarchy’.

In fact the grammar of anarchy has been unleashed by the people controlling the State machine. As spelt out by the ruling regime, it is a step towards the grammar of dictatorship. The characters in the ruling dispensation who swear by Ambedkar and have reduced him to a part of their massive event management strategy, should be reminded – Educate, Organise and Agitate – which remains central to dissent. In coining and advocating the slogan Dr Ambedkar was advocating dissent.

Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze in their book India and its Contradictions quote the slogan many times, saying that what Ambedkar stressed through it was nothing but a deepening of public reasoning based on arguments, debates and differing perspectives, for the cause of the idea of justice.

These arrests and the increasing stifling of dissent constitute the stifling of public reasoning which remains at the heart of democracy and dissent.

Ambedkar laid stress on the cultivation of constitutional morality and the adoption of the constitutional method to achieve the objectives enshrined in the Constitution. He elaborated that constitutional morality meant respecting the Constitution and the institutions created by it, and interrogating those institutions when they trampled upon the rights of people. The ability to question authorities and the people mandated to govern flows from the cultivation of constitutional morality. As such it is a critical necessity for the successful operation of democracy and the Constitution.

The present NDA Government, which declared November 26 as Constitution Day with much fanfare and organised sessions of the Parliament for two days to celebrate it, has to live up to the ideals of constitutional morality without which the very edifice of parliamentary democracy would crumble.

What is happening in India is the manifestation of a danger of monstrous proportions. The Government would have us see disaffection and dissent against the political persuasions of the prevailing regime as seditious and anti-national.

The limited relief granted to the five arrested people by the Supreme Court and its remarks on the importance of dissent constitute a ray of hope. But let us be mindful that it is only an interim relief, granted till September 6. One hopes the Supreme Court will give full relief and defend the right of people to educate, organise and agitate.

Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary will be celebrated soon. While fighting for our freedom he said that Swaraj meant the freedom to err. By suppressing dissent the idea of Swaraj in terms of freedom to err is also taken away.

In fact Mahatma Gandhi said in 1922 that ‘Protection to be true has to be given in spite of the dissent... Indeed we must jealously guard the rights of minorities if we are to have perfect freedom of opinion in the country. Even a child must be able to express its opinion freely.

‘The rule of the majority would be a barbarous imposition, if it were utilised to crush the minority. What we want in a free India is not a dead level but a variety of opinion and conduct in which the sanest will prevail by the weight not of might but of right.’

The challenge in twenty-first-century India is to celebrate the cause of right and of dissent, which often gets negated by the crude form of might in sinister fashion, by the calculated muscular approach to crush and criminalise the dissent of others.

We need the combined worldviews of Gandhi and Ambedkar to defend dissent and democracy which flow from the Constitution and the civilisational heritage of India.

(S.N. Sahu was officer on special duty and press secretary to the late President K.R. Narayanan and served as director in the Prime Minister's Office in 2004 and 2009).