After simmering for more than two months, Delhi streets have erupted in violence. Led by women and children, anti-CAA protesters have been occupying Shaheen Bagh for more than two months now. The locals have been complaining about the inconveniences as the area has been cordoned off.
The protestors are claiming that they had not blocked any road and it is the police who have done it to defame them. The right to protest peacefully is a part of the Indian Constitution. Article 19 (1) (a) guarantees freedom of speech and expression and Article 19 (1) (b) assures citizens the right to assemble peacefully and without arms.
Though the Supreme Court had reiterated the same, it was unhappy about the protests causing inconvenience to other citizens. Earlier the courts have always maintained that its duty is to ensure that laws are followed. The courts had never worried about the outcome of their orders and had always held up the Majesty of Law. It is for the state to maintain law and order. In the Shaheen Bagh issue, the court has chosen to tread the path of negotiation and mediation. Perhaps, the fact that the protestors are mainly unarmed women and children might have spurred the Court to take this path.
Those who argue about the right to protest, often forget that other people also have the right to use the public place and their acts of protests should not create nuisance to others. At the same time, those who are self-righteous that the roads and public places are sacred place that shouldn’t be used for any activities that inconveniences them often condone such activities when those who misuse the public place belong to their own creed or beliefs. Every political party in India has used public roads for their election campaigns and rallies. People who talk about ambulances getting delayed to reach hospitals often have no issues when the roads are taken over by countless religious processions all throughout the year.
In a chaotic democracy such as India, it is impractical to say that public places cannot be utilised for protests. Indians have always used streets for public functions since time immemorial. Kumbh Mela happens on the streets. Jagannath Rath Yatra, Thrissur Pooram or various other famous Indian festivals happen on the streets and public place. Holi is a festival that is celebrated on the street. The Muharram procession is taken out on the streets, various Jatras, Ram Navami processions, etc are organised on the streets. The streets of Mumbai are choked during the Ganesh Visarjan and so are Kolkata streets during Durga Puja. No one can say such rights of people should be curtailed. The Indian freedom struggle itself was fought on the streets. India is a land of elections. Hardly any month passes without elections happening in some part of the country or the other.
Political parties use the roads as their private property when elections are happening and common citizens cannot even dare to question them. In many European countries, such processions require a slew of government permissions. However, they don’t have the issue of tackling a population of 1.3 billion with varied religions, cultures and ethnic groups, who each have their own religious festivals and rituals that they have been following for centuries. It is critical to remember that all protests are legal, but there is a caveat. They have to be non-violent and appropriate permissions have to be taken. If a procession is blocking an ambulance, it is a matter of law and order and must be tackled accordingly. There are only some reasonable restrictions as per our law that could prevent the peaceful right to protest.
If the security of the state is in jeopardy, if the procession threatens the friendly relationship we share with a neighbouring country, if public order is disturbed, if there is contempt of court and if the sovereignty and integrity of India are threatened, the authorities can deny permission. If a protest doesn’t violate any of these five conditions, every citizen has the right to protest on the streets. Indians had fought a long battle to publicly express their views against the colonial government and now when we are a democracy, we cannot curtail the same citing inconvenience to some.
India must find a middle path. We cannot be selective in banning certain festivals, protest marches, or processions, religious and secular. The only way to tackle this is to ensure proper law and order. We should allow every citizen the right to walk on the street, alone or in a procession, silent or shouting the slogans of their choice, for or against a cause, supporting or critical of the government, as long as it doesn’t affect the fundamental right of others to walk or travel on the street. The moment such kind of protests use violence, they forgo their right to protest peacefully. It becomes a crime and must be dealt with accordingly. By being selectively intolerant about some protest or other, because it is against something the majority believes in or is done by someone not from the mainstream, is a violation of the spirit of the Indian Constitution.
An Act passed by the Parliament can be questioned in the court. The same can be objected also on the streets, if it is done peacefully. In a complicated country such as India, with such huge diversity and population, there is bound to be difference of opinion and people should be allowed to express them fearlessly, without being labelled or demonised. Democracy is about finding a path of consensus and not imposing majoritarian will on everyone. firstname.lastname@example.org
Anand Neelakantan Author—Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy