By Muslim Mirror Special Correspondent,
New Delhi: Civil society groups and activists have welcomed the verdict of the Supreme Court lifting the ban imposed by National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) on protests and demonstrations outside Jantar Mantar here. The apex court stated that there could not be a blanket restriction on citizens’ right to assemble peacefully and protest. Along with Jantar Mantar, it also allowed demonstrations at Boat Club, which had been restricted to protestors since the 1990s. Boat Club, and later Jantar Mantar have been important sites of innumerable protests and sit-ins, emerging as established spaces for expression of dissent and free speech.
While ruling on the petitions challenging the blanket ban on Jantar Mantar, and the illegal perpetual imposition of Section 144 on most of New Delhi, the Supreme Court said that ‘The right to protest is, thus, recognised as a fundamental right under the Constitution. This right is crucial in a democracy which rests on participation of an informed citizenry in governance. This right is also crucial since it strengthens representative democracy by enabling direct participation in public affairs where individuals and groups are able to express dissent and grievances, expose the flaws in governance and demand accountability from State authorities as well a powerful entities. This right is crucial in a vibrant democracy like India but more so in the Indian context to aid in the assertion of the rights of the marginalised and poorly represented minorities.’
In October last year the NGT’s order had banned protests at Jantar Mantar on a plea by the residents of the area and shifted the protests to Ramlila Maidan. This ban proved to be detrimental to citizens’ fundamental right to protest at a place that is close to the seat of power, that is the Parliament and government offices, where there is a sense of being seen and heard. It should also be kept in mind that similar restrictions exist in other parts of the country and the recent Supreme Court judgement may emerge as a guideline to similar solutions in other places as well.
The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan leader and activist Aruna Roy said Monday’s Supreme Court judgment, opening up both Boat Club and Jantar Mantar, reaffirms that the right to peaceful protest is a cherished fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution.
“This assertion is of even greater significance in the current environment where critical voices are being silenced. In the Court’s own words, ‘Legitimate dissent is a distinguishable feature of any democracy’.”
However, the judgment falls short of providing any effective remedy against the excesses of executive power in imposing Section 144 restrictions on the rights of even peaceful assemblies, she added.
The Court has directed police authorities to frame guidelines for peaceful demonstrations, while the same authorities have been responsible for imposing excessive restrictions and refusing permissions for such demonstrations. The core question related to the perpetual and illegal imposition of Section 144 in Central Delhi still remains.
The Supreme Court’s judgment reiterates once more, that the right to protest is an intrinsic part of the fundamental right to freedom of peaceful assembly. It is now the duty of the government to ensure that these rights are protected. The Delhi Police guidelines to be framed in the next two months, must ensure that peaceful protests, as an essential feature of democracy, can be held without any unfair restrictions.