Real dissidents are obstinate. They do not respect limits. They don’t take no for an answer. When the poet Czeslaw Milosz found that accepting the lies of the Polish government became too much, an experience he likened to swallowing frogs, he voted with his feet, and became a refugee in the US. When Vaclav Havel realized that the Prague Spring had ended and surveillance would increase, he decided to live the truth, whatever the consequences. Closer home, if Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi found specific laws unconscionable, he would rouse the masses in a civil disobedience movement, and to tame the violence within, he’d go on a fast unto death. The Burmese generals would be only too happy if Aung San Suu Kyi would board a flight and leave, to be with her family, never to return. But she said no.
This streak of obstinacy affects their personal lives too. In his account of Chinese dissidents, Bad Elements, Ian Buruma describes how Wei Jingsheng would deliberately smoke below a sign saying smoking was not permitted, as a sign of his defiance. He drives through red lights in America, because he doesn’t want someone else telling him what he should do.
Those who stand up to a tide, who stare back at an avalanche, are different. They don’t like rules. Their obstinacy may sometimes seem boorish; it may even cause them harm. But without such a streak, they would not have achieved what they had set out to do. They become heroes.
This is fine when they confront a worthy target, or when the only harm they are likely to cause is to themselves. But human relations are different; it takes two to talk, and to do much else.
When Julian Assange brushes past limits and takes on the mightiest of governments through WikiLeaks, he stands up for some principles—transparency, openness and accountability. He deserves support, even if what his website uncovers is not to everyone’s liking, and not everything he reveals is essential for public interest. But the same characteristic that makes him such a formidable foe of the US government has brought him to a villa in England, wearing an electronic tag, and an order from a court requiring him to present himself to the police regularly. Swedish prosecutors want him in Sweden for interrogation, over claims made by two women that he sexually assaulted them. The Americans have neither launched proceedings against him for publishing secret cables, nor sought his extradition yet. But distinguished human rights lawyers, celebrities, and anti-establishment writers have flocked to his support, arguing against his extradition to Sweden, where he faces charges of sexual assault.
Those two cases are separate; the issues are separate. And yet, somehow, the discourse has become confused.
The allegations against Assange in Sweden are serious. If he did what the allegations say he did, he has used force and deception on two women, and violated their bodily integrity. It sounds like a he-said-she-said case, except that in a bizarre reversal, many of Assange’s supporters are painting the women as villains. Defying rules and conventions, overzealous Assange supporters have dug deep into the women’s virtual lives, making their names, photographs and even residential addresses public. One of them has been described as a Christian, socialist, feminist, and an old blog entry of hers has been shown as evidence of her hatred of men, and an article of hers, in which she criticizes Fidel Castro’s Cuba, as evidence of her being a CIA agent. Less is known about the other woman, often described as having worn a pink sweater, but accounts have portrayed her as someone mesmerized by Assange’s personality, reducing her to a rock star groupie. What’s remarkable is that neither woman has changed her story; what’s courageous is that they are persisting with their quest for justice. They’ve avoided publicity—which is their right —to maintain their dignity. It is their critics who have lost all proportion, and in some instances, their sense of shame.
Only three people know what really happened during that week in August in Stockholm, and the fairest outcome is for the case to be heard, while respecting the anonymity that is those women’s right. In such intimate human encounters, no means no.
Some critics of the case have argued that this case trivializes rape. But the publicity these women have endured is going to make it far harder for other women in a similar situation, if they wish to press charges against someone who may have assaulted them—particularly if he is an anti-establishment hero, a celebrity.
For Assange’s supporters, the two women have become the eggs that must be broken, because an omelette has to be made. And that omelette? To give the US a bloody nose—even Assange is the means to reach that goal. In this war, no prisoners are to be taken, and these women have become collateral damage.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi