Unreasonable curbs

Having failed miserably to curb crime against women, the Uttar Pradesh government under Yogi Adityanath is resorting to repression to quell widespread protests. It’s a desperate move, but it may not help the ruling party save face. Unnao, Bulandshahr, Balrampur, Azamgarh, Hathras — the list of UP districts that have witnessed horrifying sexual assaults in recent years is getting longer by the day. In the Hathras case, the authorities seem hell-bent on creating a smokescreen to escape scrutiny. The hasty imposition of Section 144 (unlawful assembly) of the CrPC — till October 31 no less — and the sealing of the district’s borders don’t pass the key test of reasonableness and proportionality. In January this year, with reference to the prolonged restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir, the Supreme Court had observed that prohibitory orders under Section 144 could not be used as ‘a tool to suppress difference of opinion or grievance of any democratic rights’. A few days later, the Delhi sessions court had stated that denying anybody his or her constitutional right to protest peacefully was unacceptable.

Despite the judicial rap, things have not changed on the ground. The abuse of power was starkly visible on Thursday when Congress MP Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra were stopped on the Yamuna Expressway by the UP police and not allowed to march towards Hathras, about 150 km away. The cops had clearly been ordered to prevent them from coming anywhere near the victim’s family. Can two persons constitute an unlawful assembly? It won’t be easy for the state police to give a plausible answer.

Taking a leaf out of their UP counterparts’ book, the Delhi Police on Friday warned against any gathering around India Gate in view of the imposition of Section 144. The order was apparently aimed at Delhi’s ruling party AAP, which had planned a protest at the spot against the Hathras gangrape and murder case. Such highhandedness is a brazen attempt to silence dissent. It shows Indian democracy in a poor light. It’s inevitable that the court would have to intervene yet again to remind the authorities of the dire need to restrain themselves.

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