Recent rulings by Supreme Court and Madras High Court have curtailed the right to go on strike. Veteran jurists and social activists, however, believe that agitations for just causes are a vital tool for common people to draw attention to their plight and secure their rights. Prabhakar T analyses..
They have no clout to influence policies in their favour, nor do they have the money to challenge those policies in the expensive corridors of justice. But together, the nameless in the country, the masses, still have the gravity to change the narrative with an old tool – protest. Where do the recent strictures against protests by the Supreme Court and the Madras High Court put them?
In the statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau that is inherently bereft of context, all are classified as protests – whether it be the mayhem at Panchkula when the followers of Dera Sacha Souda went on a rampage after their guru was convicted, and the State-wide agitations by government employees seeking arrears that was due to them for years.
But equating mob violence where destruction is the starting point with a strike that has disruption at its heart misses the perspective, say veteran trade union activists and jurists, arguing against curtailing the right to protest.
We are ready to stage protests abiding the laws. But it is the government that curtails our freedom of speech and expression using police, and thus triggering protests. Now, protesters are arrested not to maintain law and order, but to strangle voices that are critical of State and Centre.
-M Valarmathi, the student who was detained under goondas act which was revoked recently
“We did not press a new demand and call for a strike all of a sudden. We are only asking to implement the Government Order that was issued in February 2016, which came after a great struggle. We’ve been fighting for its implementation for over a year,” pointed out M Thangaraj, treasurer of Tamil Nadu Government Employees Association.
As the coordinator of Joint Action Council of Teachers Organisations — Government Employees Organisations (JACTO-GEO), he was part of the State-wide protest that began as an indefinite strike on September 7 but had to be suspended on Friday after pressure from the Madras High Court.
Though the bench noted that the demands of the agitating staff were justified, it directed the associations to wind up the protests with immediate effect as it affected public life. But according to union leaders, governments consider their demands only after the employees go on strike.
A tool to earn rights
Citing an example, the State secretary of the transport employees union affiliated to the CITU, Pa Kaliappan pointed out how the State government dragged its feet on fixing the daily minimum wage for transport corporation staff even after passing an order and the matter reaching the high court twice – the second time as a contempt petition for not implementing the order.“Will the courts question the government for not implementing its own GO? We will get our rights only through strikes and protests,” Kaliappan stressed.
There is no law curtailing people from organising peaceful protests. Law and order would be disrupted even in case of a petty quarrel in a public place. When there is no concern over public order in the State, the court does not have the right to stay a protest or strke; it is not its duty.
- Justice (retd) D Hariparanthaman
“Tamil Nadu Government Servants Conduct Rules of 1973 says organising strikes against the government is illegal, though the labour law provides the right to protest and strike. It becomes legal when a large mass of people stands up against the government or an act. Protests will continue as means to meet their demands,” said Rajya Sabha member and senior trade union leader TK Rangarajan, who was part of the last JACTO-GEO protest in 2003.
That strike had created history after the then-chief minister J Jayalalithaa dismissed 1.3 lakh government employees invoking the Essential Services Maintenance Act, and arrested hundreds of employees and opposition party leaders. Rangarajan, who finally managed to get a stay on the mass dismissal, terms that strike the greatest victory for the employees.
Protesters not to blame
Rejecting efforts to pin the blame on protesters, CPI veteran R Nallakannu, who faced charges of inciting the agitations in 2003, said it was not instigation from external elements that pushed the masses onto the path of agitation.
The people need not change their mode of protests just because a judge passed a comment. Because it is the right of the pople. There should be a limit and balance for judicial activism and authority of the Parliament. When that is crossed, we have to take it to the people.
-Professor A Marx, activist and president of National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations
“Common people protested against TASMAC liquor retail outlets; students protested against NEET; and youth across the State joined hands during jallikattu protests. It is not as if the people are waiting for instances to agitate; but it is the government that is forcing it on the people, like the NEET, which forces them to protest,” said Nallakannu.
Commenting on the matter, retired judge of the Madras High Court, justice D Hariparanthaman said while judiciary can set parameters for a protest, it cannot take an absolute position stating no strike against the government.
“If the court takes such a stand, it amounts to helping one of the parties in the dispute. In this case, it is helping the capital (government) against the working class (employees),” said justice Hariparanthaman, a labour law expert.
Agreeing with this, Nallakannu cautioned that people were getting disillusioned, as the power entities manage to evade or even ignore court orders. “People are losing hope in the judicial system, as the orders in their favour are not implemented while those judgements against them are enforced immediately citing policy,” said the leader of many a public protest, citing the order on closure of liquor retail shops and multiple orders on sharing Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu.
Even as he accepted the importance of the judiciary in democracy, Ramu Manivannan, professor and head of politics and public administration, University of Madras, pointed out that the court had erred in not upholding constitutional position of having education as a State subject, when it banned protest over NEET.
“The court says it is the government that brought in NEET, and it has to be accepted. But our Constitution has always kept education as a State subject. Why is the court not saying that? Is it not a violation of the constitutional spirit, the spirit of Indian federal policy?”
The courts do have the vision to evaluate the matter from the perspective of creating opportunities, said professor Manivannan without mincing words. “We will soon have committed bureaucracy and committed judiciary, which will be sad day for Indian democracy.”