Cannot impose complete ban on protests at Jantar Mantar, says SC

A view of the Supreme Court of India in New Delhi.

A view of the Supreme Court of India in New Delhi.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

In a victory for free speech, the Supreme Court on Monday lifted the ban on organising protests at the iconic Jantar Mantar Road and the Boat Club at India Gate in the national capital.

Every individual or group, whether they are a minority or poor or marginalised, has the right to express their dissent to government policies and fight their social circumstances. It is their right to fight at a location within hearing distance of the power centres. All that is required of them is to protest in an orderly and peaceful manner, the apex court held.

The National Green Tribunal banned protests on Jantar Mantar Road in October 2017.

The Delhi police were repeatedly promulgating prohibitory orders, thus effectively sealing Central Delhi against dissenters. Protesters were given the option of distant Ramlila Maidan at Old Delhi – “too far away” from the Parliament House, North and South Block, Central Vista Lawns.

Organisations like the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement and other groups — all veterans of many protests on Jantar Mantar Road – appealed to the Supreme Court for help.

They said the ban virtually silenced their fundamental right to participate in governance as an informed citizenry.

Right to protest

“The right to protest is recognised as a fundamental right under the Constitution… this right is crucial in a democracy,” Justices A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan agreed with the groups.

Protests strengthen 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, Justice Sikri wrote in his 72-page judgment.

Legitimate dissent is a distinguishable feature of any democracy, the judgment said.

“Dissenters may be in minority…A particular cause which, in the first instance, may appear to be insignificant or irrelevant may gain momentum and acceptability when it is duly voiced and debated. That is the reason that this Court has always protected the valuable right of peaceful and orderly demonstrations and protests,” Justice Sikri wrote.

But the court also found that NGT was right to conclude that protests on Jantar Mantar Road were often unruly, an open threat to hygiene for residents, a source of air and noise pollution. Demonstrations there were a serious cause of distress and harassment to residents.

The court said a balance of the fundamental rights of the residents and the demonstrators was the need of the hour. It said the “pathetic conditions” of the residents of Jantar Mantar Road, who had to suffer from slogans from loudspeakers at odd hours, would not have arisen had the authorities taken steps to ensure that the dharnas and demonstrations stayed within their bounds.

Vantage point

It also recognised that the Boat Club at India Gate was a sensitive and vantage point in the city, often a thoroughfare for foreign dignitaries. “It can be [of] a very restrictive and limited use (for protests) because of the sensitivities pointed out and also keeping in mind that Ramlila Maidan is available and Jantar Mantar Road in a regulated manner shall be available,” the apex court observed.

It directed the Delhi Police Commissioner to prepare “proper and requisite” guidelines for use of Jantar Mantar area and the Boat Club for peaceful protests in the next two months.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2020 10:43:55 PM |

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