Through this essay, I will attempt to look at the certain idea of civil disobedience and democracy. I’ll be primarily focusing on contemporary societies, and will be looking at examples and outcomes of the interaction between civil disobedience and democracy.


Looking at Civil Disobedience, I’d like to focus on Henry David Thoreau, and his essay titled “Civil Disobedience” (originally titled – “Resistance to Civil Government”). Thoreau worked on this essay after he was jailed in July 1846 because he refused to pay taxes that went toward The Mexican War and slavery. The essay begins with the following line – “That government is best which governs least”. Thoreau looked at the government as an institution that was often misused as a means to an end by certain actors, and that such misuse is completely antithetical to the duty of the government, that is to ensure individual freedom is not trampled on and is preserved. Thoreau believed that being blindly subservient to the state and its desires was an action lacking conscience and thus individuals who do so must not be propped up as idols. To elaborate, policemen who arrest an individual on higher orders despite their conscience telling them otherwise are devoid of moral sensibilities, the same goes for an army soldier who walks into a battle he feels is incorrect and immoral, a judge who prosecutes an innocent man despite knowing otherwise, etc. For these individuals become tools to facilitate undemocratic actions. Thoreau firmly believed in one’s conscience, and how one should mould their actions according to it. He looked at those who served the state blindly as individuals who “command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt”. He believed that the unjustness that we see around us must be countered by combatting it ourselves and that the preservation of one’s conscience is the ultimate act of heroism.

Thoreau was not against the idea of the government, he instead strived for a better and greater government. His means to a greater government was civil disobedience. Thoreau did not refuse taxes, while simultaneously disobeying his arrest. He complied with his arrest making his act completely democratic. He voiced his opinion and concern through civil action and non-violence. Thoreau questioned the nature of a democracy that often only seeks to service the majority. He believed that the power and decisions of the majority must be questioned within a democratic setup because he believed that in a democracy the majority rules not because they necessarily uphold minority interests or ensure shrewd fairness, but because they are the strongest group. This clearly disregards the needs and beliefs of every citizen; therefore, one must at least have a mechanism to civilly dissent and call for alternative action as led by one’s conscience if the majority fails to uphold certain democratic principles. This is one of the follies of utilitarianism that often seeps into democracy i.e., the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In this case, democracy may be exploited to forward the interests of certain groups at the cost of others.


Here’s where our democratic ideals come in, the ideals which separate democracy from other socio-political systems. The same democratic ideals that have made democracy ever-popular and important in contemporary thinking and scholarly work. The concept of an ideal democracy is arguably vague, however, some of its features include and are not limited to, fair and effective participation in which the respectful dissemination of views is allowed and encouraged before a policy is acted on. There must be an equal voting process without any discrimination, in which every individual’s vote holds identical value. The electorate must be well informed, proposed policies, alternate policies, and the consequences of all such policies must be clearly laid out. The citizens must possess power over what agenda is to be discussed, this embodies the democratic principle as it allows change at any point and is not restrictive. Every individual also possesses the right to participate without intrusion. Ultimately, each individual is granted certain fundamental rights which are essential to the existence and facilitation of an ideal democracy. These include an individual’s right to communicate with others, have their vote accounted for fairly, the ability to collect the information they desire, and be able to influence the agenda.

The above-mentioned points feed directly into the idea of what is called a representative democracy, which is one among the many forms of democracy. Representative democracy is the kind of democracy that exists in most Western countries and other parts of the World. To keep the essay focused on contemporary culture I will only be examining representative democracy. Representative democracy facilitates the tenets of ideal democracy through an array of political institutions, for example India is a Parliamentary Democratic Republic while the United States of America is a Federal Constitutional Democratic Republic. These institutions are intended to ensure the representation of individuals and ideas. These are facilitated through just and frequent elections in which individuals vote for their preferred candidate. There is also the assurance of expression without imposition or fear of being punished. There must be outlets of information that are free of government control and oversight so as to disseminate content without fear, and tyranny of the government. This ensures against the government spreading misinformation, fear, and propaganda. Representative democracy also allows the ability to associate with any individuals or political organisations (Dahl, 2021). This leads to an environment in which a counter-culture of opinions is allowed to exist as long as it does not violate anyone else’s rights. It allows for citizens of a democratic state to have a good degree of choice when picking between various organisations. It allows a fair playing ground for the existence of smaller political groups and gives them due to space to possibly gain traction with the citizens of a nation. Without proper representation, there will inevitably be individuals who are left unheard on a very systemic level.

After having observed the modern ideas of civil disobedience and democracy, we realise that democracy is not a perfect system, it struggles with problems such as inequality of resources, deception and lying on the part of the government, mass propaganda, etc. Even in the largest democracy in the world i.e., India, we see certain authoritarian tendencies in which the ruling government influences large parts of the national media. In recent times we observe the government stifling voices that dissent against its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by removing publicly available tweets (2021, Rao). This is a clear breach of the freedom of expression, and absolutely antithetical to the proper functioning of a democracy. We have seen the freedom of association come under attack in the Bhima Koregaon Case (Peoples Dispatch, 2020) using manipulation, force, and state machinery. In recent years student activists such as Umar Khalid, and Kanhaiya Kumar, among many others have been facing backlash from state officials, and Umar Khalid has even been arrested under the UAPA, and to this day remains in the Tihar Jail (Ahsan, 2020) (Manral, 2021). Umar Khalid and similar activists have voiced their concerns over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), among many other issues. When observing such a case, one’s personal opinion on the stance of such activists should hardly matter, they have the right to have their own separate political identities, and enjoy the freedom of expression and association. It is this breach of the democratic ethos in which a ruling government can silence alternate opinions, is when civil disobedience becomes the burning need of the hour. If the precedent that a ruling party can bully individuals into conformity is set, then the very democratic ideals that we attempt to preserve will die in broad daylight.


The reason why democracy has gained such popularity over the years is because of its systemic commitment to ensuring our rights and freedoms. However, we have seen ruling powers all over the world deprive citizens of the rights afforded to them. It highlights the glaring deficiency in democracy, and how it is vulnerable to the corrupt nature of man. In times like these, we must turn to civil disobedience, we must assimilate without violence not comply with what we consider immoral, and give our lives to the friction that preserves our democracy, the struggle for democracy might start with one individual but doesn’t end with anyone in particular, as David Mitchell so eloquently writes – “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” This encapsulates the essence of the struggle for democracy. We should look to those who have passed before us like M.K. Gandhi, and MLK Junior, and their incredible acts of civil disobedience. We must look at the oppressive regime of Iran and how it is struggling to achieve democracy through civil disobedience and realise that we must not make the same mistakes they did in letting their democratic ideals get eliminated. One can see how intolerant the ruling regime in Iran has gotten toward alternate opinions, a victim of this intolerance is filmmaker Jafar Panahi whose portrayal of life in Iran was not palatable with the authorities, and he as a result was compelled to serve six years in prison, and has been banned from travel and filmmaking for twenty years (Radio Free Europe, 2011). Allowing the practice of civil disobedience is integral for the healthy functioning of a democratic setup.

Also Read: David Harvey’s “The Condition of Postmodernity” (1989)


Ahsan, S. (2020, September 17). Umar Khalid arrested under UAPA in Delhi riots case: What is this tough anti-terror law? The Indian Express.

Bhima Koregaon case: A comprehensive timeline. Peoples Dispatch. (2020, June 7).

Dahl, R. A. (2021, March 9). Features of ideal democracy. Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Iran Upholds Filmmaker’s Sentence. (2011, October 15). Iran Upholds Filmmaker’s Sentence. RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty.

Manral, M. S. (2021, May 13). Ex-JNU student Umar Khalid recovers from Covid-19 inside Tihar jail, returns to barrack. MSN.

Rao, R. (2021, April 29). Modi government chokes dissent on India’s COVID apocalypse with social media blocks. ZDNet.

Thoreau, H. D (1849). Civil disobedience.

Share on:

My name is Ethan John Rajesh, I'm a 3rd year undergraduate student at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts. I'm majoring in International Relations, and have a double minor in Anthropology and Psychology. Outside of academics, I dabble in filmmaking and sports.