On October 7, 2020, the Supreme Court of India, ruling on the Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, had asserted that the right to protest in public places was not absolute and public places cannot be occupied indefinitely for such protests. It has reiterated its postulate that the right to protest cannot be anytime and everywhere, while dismissing a plea seeking review of the earlier verdict. No doubt the Indian Constitution empowers citizens with the right to protest and express dissent, but the need to be responsible entails that such powers be exercised with provisos. Public spaces cannot be occupied indefinitely and demonstrations expressing dissent have to be in designated places alone, the onus of selecting the places being with the authorities. It had also said that the mode and manner of dissent against colonial rule during India’s freedom struggle cannot be equated with dissent in a self-ruled democracy. The court had said that the manner in which occupants should be removed to clear public places is to be decided by government authorities and they should not hide behind or wait for court orders in order to carry out their functions. No doubt they had been right in pointing out that dissent and democracy go hand in hand but protests must be carried out in designated areas so that the general public does not face inconvenience.
Yet such provisos would have carried more weight had India been an ideal democracy where protests were tolerated as acceptable mode of dissent and elicited positive response from the powers that be. It may be noted that the earlier judgment had given the authorities and the police with almost unbridled power to select protest locations and decide when and how a particular protest could be declared illegal and forcibly broken up, a situation which appears to contradict democratic and constitutional norms and provisions. As the review petition had contended, such directives would in all likelihood lead to a situation where the administration would never engage in dialogue with protesters but instead take action against them. As for designating venues, in the context of Indian democracy, the administration was most likely to select one which would dilute the impact of the protests, as had been observed during the current demonstrations by farmers, who had rejected the venue the Home Ministry had initially selected. Thus it would have been more conducive to the functioning of our democracy if the apex court had simultaneously laid down specific guidelines to the authorities on the granting of permission and designation of venues, thereby restraining them from arbitrary, undemocratic behaviour. Equally unfortunately, the court has also been silent on bandhs and similar modes of protest, a majority of these called by political parties, which cause greater inconvenience to the people than mere blocking of a road!