IN a democracy, the Opposition is not only tolerated as constitutional, but must be maintained because it is indispensable.’ The Supreme Court’s verdict on Shaheen Bagh protests has to be understood in the context of Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Lippmann’s above statement, quoted by the court to drive home the larger point about the right to peaceful protest in a democracy. The legal position on right to free speech and right to assemble peacefully under Article 19(1)(a) and Article 19(1)(b) of the Constitution, respectively, has been very clear, i.e., they are subject to reasonable restrictions, including those in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India and public order.
There can’t be any quarrel with the court’s observation that ‘democracy and dissent go hand in hand’. Also, one would agree that roads and public spaces can’t be blocked indefinitely. But to say that demonstrations expressing dissent have to be in ‘designated places’ alone could be problematic as such earmarked places aren’t available in every part of the country. Instead of providing such places, the UP authorities have imposed prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) till October 31 in Hathras district to prevent people from gathering to protest against the alleged gangrape of a Dalit woman.
Holding that repetitive orders under Section 144 would be an abuse of power, the Supreme Court had, in January, ordered the authorities to forthwith review the existing prohibitory orders. While dealing with the lockdown in J&K following the nullification of Article 370 of the Constitution, the court had said, ‘The power under Section 144 cannot be used to suppress legitimate expression of opinion or grievance or exercise of any democratic rights.’ Right to protest works as a ‘safety valve’ and protects the constitutional order. Denial of this right is fraught with serious consequences for the state system and democracy. It would have been better if the court had ordered the authorities to set up ‘designated places’ in each district and taluka to allow people to vent their ire on issues that matter the most to them.