The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court had foreseen the violent scenes witnessed during Tuesday’s anti-Sterlite protest in Thoothukudi district. Disposing of a writ petition filed by Vedanta, the holding company of Sterlite, seeking protection for the plant, the court had, last Friday, said: “The wordings in the pamphlets (calling for the protest on Tuesday) indicate that the protesters do not have any intention of conducting a peaceful protest.”
Justice M.S. Ramesh went on to state: “It is not in dispute that the pamphlets calling upon the general public to protest on May 22, 2018 to demand the factory’s closure have been widely circulated...On an overall reading of the pamphlets, the proposed protest is likely to trigger a law and order situation.”
In its affidavit, the petitioner company stated that it had made representations to the Thoothukudi Collector and the Superintendent of Police on April 9 and 16 to declare a radius of one kilometre around the copper plant as well as its residential quarters, Thamira-I and Thamira-II, as a ‘no protest zone’.
The company had insisted on government officials issuing a prohibitory order by invoking their power under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. During the course of the hearing of the case, a government counsel informed the court that none had approached the police so far, seeking permission for any kind of protest on May 22. He also stated that in case of any illegal protest, the police would initiate “stringent action against the violators.”
‘Rule of law paramount’
The court was also informed that already, 38 cases had been registered with respect to the ongoing protest demanding the closure of the copper smelter plant, and that 21 individuals had been arrested and remanded in judicial custody.
After recording the submissions, the judge said it was needless to point out that the freedom of speech and expression was subject to “reasonable subordination to social interest and preservation of public order.”
Further, stating that the rule of law should be the primary consideration in case of an illegal protest or an unlawful assembly, the judge said the invocation of Section 144 of the Cr.P.C. would be “highly recommended” in the public interest. Conscious of the fact that the decision to invoke Section 144 fell within the jurisdiction of the Collector, Justice Ramesh said the official could not sit on the representations indefinitely, especially “when there are sufficient materials to show that there is a possibility of a protest on May 22, 2018.” Non-consideration of the representations would amount to dereliction of duty, he observed, and directed the Collector to pass appropriate orders on or before May 21.