Since law and order in the capital is handled directly by the Centre, it is obvious that the Manmohan Singh government is fully behind the decision of the Delhi Police to invoke Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in Jantar Mantar. The ban on any protest or even gathering of four or more people in areas under the jurisdiction of the Parliament Street police division is aimed, first and foremost, at Anna Hazare and his supporters whose campaign for a genuinely empowered Lokpal is all set to go into high gear from August 16. According to a formal notice issued by the Delhi Police, Section 144 has been imposed because the “unrestricted holding of public meetings, processions, demonstrations etc. in the area are likely to cause obstruction to traffic, danger to human safety and disturbance of public tranquillity” and that unless urgent measures to prevent such gatherings is not taken, there is “danger to human life or safety and disturbance.” This reasoning is an insult to the intelligence of all citizens and also demonstrates the extent to which the professionalism of the police is being compromised by the political motives of the ruling party and coalition. The last time Mr. Hazare and his supporters occupied Jantar Mantar, which has long been recognised as a legitimate site for public protest, there was no violence or breach of the peace. Indeed, the peaceful nature of that protest was what made it so potent, and unpalatable for the government. That is why the Congress has decided that civil society groups must not be allowed to stage a repeat.
By seeking to deny citizens the right to stage even peaceful, non-violent protests, the Manmohan Singh regime is betraying not just intolerance but also a lack of confidence in the face of growing public anger against political corruption and the cover-up of allegations of corruption. Although the government's own draft of the Lokpal Bill has not yet been made public, the fact that it differs from the proposals of Mr. Hazare and his team on several key issues is well known. If the government is confident about the robustness of its own proposals, it should not worry about the campaign that its critics are waging. Citizens at large have the ability to judge what is valid and what is not, provided an informed debate is held. Indians may be argumentative but they are not unreasonable. Instead of responding democratically to the civil society draft with logic and argument, the government is using its executive powers to stifle dissent. Though Mr. Hazare is free to stage his fast somewhere else, it is time the courts stepped in to put an end to this blatant misuse of Section 144.