Protests: Duties and rights

Democracy and dissent go hand in hand… (But) Occupying public places like Shaheen Bagh for protests is not acceptable… Authorities have to act on their own and cannot hide behind courts’

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Frequently some of our legislators have referred to judgements made by the Supreme Court of India to support their position on certain issues. The ruling of the Indian Supreme Court a few days ago in what came to be known as the Shaheen Bagh protest will no doubt be of interest not only to them but to the general public as well. Of course, it will be for legal minds to go into the details of the judgement when it becomes available and possibly consider any element that might be of relevance or help in the local context in future, if at all deemed necessary. Nevertheless, from a layman’s perspective there are some salient points that should retain our attention.

Needless to say the media in India has been awash with comments and analyses in the wake of the judgement. Two points were considered to be key highlights:

1. That people have a democratic right to protest;
2.That in so doing, however, they must not cause inconvenience to other citizens for an indefinite period.

All laymen will surely salute these as logical and commonsensical, although it’s like stating the obvious – but framed within a Supreme Court judgement, they have broader implications, as posted by Times Digital, ‘What the top court said:

  • No person or group of persons can block public places or carriageways to demonstrate or express dissent.
  • Authorities should remove such blockade.
  • Protest should be at designated places.
  • Occupation of public places or roads by demonstrators, which cause inconvenience to a large number of people and violate their rights, is not permissible under law.
  • Right to peaceful protest is a constitutional right and it has to be respected. But that does not mean agitating people should adopt means and modes of protest that was used against colonial rulers during the struggle for independence.
  • In today’s time, social media can be used to create a highly polarised situation, which was seen at Shaheen Bagh protests.’

The Shaheen Bagh protest was held earlier this year, ostensibly against the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which had been passed by the Indian Parliament and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). It went on for 100 days and was a sit-in by women and children relaying each other, most of whom had no clue what they were protesting about, when some journalists asked them pointed questions. Some famed film stars of Bollywood who rallied in Mumbai to express support were similarly ignorant. One of them was asked what was the CAA and why he was protesting; he had no clue about the CAA, and answered that he came along to join his coterie.

From my contacts in New Delhi who lived not far from the site of the protest (an area which I know) I learnt that the protesters were being paid Rs500 rupees each per night, and that food was being prepared and taken to be distributed there 24/7. There were even posts on social media at the time showing food being cooked and packed for delivery.

The Shaheen Bagh protesters blocked a nodal highway linking New Delhi to one of the two important adjoining townships, Noida, the other being Gurgaon, officially Gurugram. Journeys that used to take commuters less than one hour either way were now taking four to five hours, and one can imagine the inconvenience that this was causing. Initially the protesters didn’t allow even ambulances and school buses to go through, although afterwards they gave way. Unimaginable callousness, putting at risk lives and the future of children.

Obviously, the impact on economic activity was concerning, the reason for welcoming the Supreme Court decision by Dr Nasir, President Shaheen Bagh Market association, who said, ‘We welcome the SC verdict, around 200 shops were shut down and 2000 workers were jobless. All the shops are of branded items. We have faced a loss of crores.’

Tellingly, the judges opined: ‘Democracy and dissent go hand in hand… (But) Occupying public places like Shaheen Bagh for protests is not acceptable… Authorities have to act on their own and cannot hide behind courts… Public places cannot be occupied indefinitely like during the Shaheen Bagh protests.’

This was in response to the petition which ‘sought direction from the court on the right to protest, namely ‘It is disappointing that the state machinery is muted and a silent spectator to hooliganism and vandalism of the protesters who are threatening the existential efficacy of the democracy and the rule of law and had already taken the law and order situation in their own hand.’

That there was more to the Shaheen Bagh protest and other so-called anti-CAA riots that took place in New Delhi has been amply exposed in a book by a Supreme Court lawyer, Smt Monika Arora titled ‘Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story’, wherein she has presented in detail the evidence she has amassed about how they were planned and orchestrated by forces which aimed at destabilizing the country.

Several protests that have taken place around the world in recent times have been associated with hooliganism, violence and deaths of innocent civilians, similarly causing inconvenience and hardships to the common man. At least we can be sober about our record in the two protests that took place here in the wake of the Wakashio shipwreck, in the sense that they were organized for Saturday afternoon and not on working days which would have caused great disturbance. They were also orderly and by and large peaceful, although we could have been spared some of the verbal violence, which some justified by reference to some behaviours in Parliament and statements by some top political leaders.

For one, two wrongs do not make a right, and secondly it should remind public figures that, as has been repeatedly said, they have a duty and a responsibility to lead by example. Perhaps if they did that, then, along with the relatively peaceful nature of our local protests, we could be an example to the wider world. A long shot, but one can never know…

* Published in print edition on 9 October 2020

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