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Supreme Court on Right to Protest

  • 08 Oct 2020
  • 6 min read

Why in News

Recently, the Supreme Court (SC) has upheld the right to peaceful protest against the law but also cleared that public ways and public spaces cannot be occupied and that too indefinitely.

Key Points

  • Background:
    • The ruling came after a petition was filed in the SC highlighting problems caused by the protests which led to the roadblock and traffic problems.
    • The petition highlighted that the Delhi High Court (HC) should have intervened positively and not left the situation fluid and the administration too should have talked to the protesters.
      • Earlier, the petition was filed in Delhi HC, which heard and disposed of the plea the same day without any specific direction.
      • Despite a lapse of a considerable period of time, there was neither any negotiations nor any action by the administration.
  • Issues with the Protest and its Location:
    • Protesters did not fully realise the ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic and continued large gatherings in a small place and there was also a general unwillingness to relocate to another site.
    • The protest seemed typical of the many digitally-fuelled “leaderless” dissent seen in modern times.
    • The presence of various groups of protesters had resulted in many influencers, acting possibly at cross-purposes with each other.
  • Rulings:
    • On Assembly:
      • The court cannot accept the plea of the applicants (who sought to intervene in the matter in defence of the protesters) that an indeterminable number of people can assemble whenever they choose to protest.
    • On Role of Administration:
      • Such kind of occupation of public ways, whether at the site in question or anywhere else for protests, is not acceptable and the administration should take action to keep the areas clear of encroachments or obstructions.
      • It highlighted that the State or UT administrations have the entire responsibility to prevent encroachments in public spaces and should not wait for courts to pass suitable orders.
    • Reference:
      • SC referred to its 2018 judgment in the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan vs Union of India and Another case, which dealt with demonstrations at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar.
      • The judgment tried to balance the interests of local residents with those of protesters to hold demonstrations and directed the police to devise a proper mechanism for limited use of the area for peaceful protests and demonstrations and to lay down parameters for this.
    • On technology Involvement:
      • The verdict also dwelt on the merits and demerits of technology impacting social movements.
      • The ability to scale up quickly, using digital infrastructure, has empowered movements to embrace their often-leaderless aspirations and evade usual restrictions of censorship.
      • However, social media channels pose the danger of creating highly polarised environments, which often see parallel conversations running with no constructive outcome evident.
  • SC’s Observations on Dissent:
    • SC appreciated the existence of the right to peaceful protest against the legislation and held that “democracy and dissent go hand in hand, but then the demonstrations expressing dissent have to be in designated places alone”.
    • The seeds of protest and dissent were sown deep during the Freedom struggle but dissent against the colonial rule cannot be equated with dissent in a self-ruled democracy.
    • The Constitution guarantees the right to protest and express dissent, but with an obligation towards certain duties.
      • Article 19 confers upon citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) and right to assemble peacefully without arms under Article 19(1)(b).
      • These rights, in cohesion, enable every citizen to assemble peacefully and protest against action or inaction of the State.
    • In a democracy, the rights of free speech and peaceful protest are “treasured” and must be encouraged and respected.
      • However, these rights are also subject to reasonable restrictions mentioned under Article 19(2), imposed in the interest of sovereignty, integrity and public order with the help of police regulations.
    • Fundamental rights do not live in isolation. The right of the protester has to be balanced with the right of the commuter and has to co-exist in mutual respect.

Source: TH

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