For us to have a different opinion and to protest for its acceptance peacefully is a fundamental right. It is what the true essence of democracy is about. To raise your voice against the actions or decisions of the government that you disagree with should be respected as well as encouraged.
Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code prohibits any assembly of five or more people in an area if it is believed that such a gathering could disturb the peace. However, its brazen use by the Delhi Police since January has allowed the cops to forestall demonstrations every two months in the Central parts of the city.
At first, protests at Boat Club lawns near Parliament after the Mahendra Singh Tikait agitation were restricted. Then the entire Central Delhi area which has several government buildings was banned from holding demonstrations.
This left us with Jantar Mantar.
However, two months ago, the National Green Tribunal requested the Delhi government to stop all protests at Jantar Mantar, citing that people living around the area had the “right to live peacefully and comfortably in an atmosphere free from pollution.”
This begs the question of whether peaceful protests and law and order can’t coexist at all. An organiser of a peaceful demonstration cannot be forced to relinquish their fundamental right and run the risk of suffering punishment just because the State decides to do so.
Just as the organiser has the right to freedom of speech, right to assemble and demonstrate by holding dharnas and peaceful agitation, they also have the right to refuse to abide by an order that denies them their fundamental right to protest.
Standing up against the imposition of a blanket ban on all protests in Central and New Delhi, NGO Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan filed a PIL.
According to The Tribune, the NGO said that as per sub-section 4 of Section 144 CrPC, an order could be issued for a maximum period of two months. However, the Delhi Police had adopted the tactic of issuing the same order repeatedly. The petition filed by the NGO’s founder member and social activist, Aruna Roy, deals with the larger issue of fundamental right to protest, and not just the NGT’s recent ban.
Thankfully, the writ petition has brought the Supreme Court’s attention to the repeated imposition of Section 144.
On Monday, the SC issued a notice to the Centre and the Delhi Police to formulate guidelines to balance the rights of citizens to protest and the need to maintain law and order.
According to PTI, the bench of Justice AK Sikri and Justice Ashok Bhushan spoke about the importance of having guidelines that would ensure that neither the fundamental right to protest was violated, nor any inconvenience was caused to the public.
This intervention by the SC comes at an essential time, when the arbitrary imposition of the ban has been violating Article 19(1)(b) of the Constitution and curtailing the fundamental right of citizens to peaceful assembly.
The petition has requested to quash such an imposition of prohibitory orders and requested the SC to frame guidelines for the conduct of peaceful demonstrations. It has asked to declare such orders under Section 144 to be declared illegal.
The hope is that such guidelines are formulated at the soonest, and the impact that the protesters seek to gain isn’t diluted by distancing them from protest sites. The matter is next listed for further hearing on January 5, 2018.