Nation

Protests: Grammar of anarchy or Constitutional right?

As India celebrated Constitution Day just a few days ago, pictures of state action on farmers marching to the national capital to protest the new agricultural reforms bring us to ask the question if non-violent protest is a Constitutional right or grammar of anarchy.

Every year, the country celebrates Constitution Day on November 26 to commemorate the day when the Constituent Assembly adopted of the Constitution of India in 1949; it came into effect on January 26, 1950. The day was declared as Constitution Day on November 19, 2015 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi while he laid the foundation stone of the Dr BR Ambedkar’s Statue of Equality memorial in Mumbai. Previously this day was celebrated as National Law Day. In 2015, which was the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar, head of the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly, the government chose this day to spread the importance of the Constitution and to spread thoughts and ideas of Ambedkar.

This year, when the country was celebrating the Constitution Day, police in Haryana and Delhi were using force on thousands of farmers from Punjab and Haryana marching to Delhi to seek repeal of new farm laws and assurance from the Central government on existence of the MSP (minimum support price) regime and the mandi system. There were multiple showdowns between the farmers and the police before they finally reached Delhi on November 28. The farmers came in hundreds of vehicles, tractors and trolleys and looked prepared for a long battle against the agricultural reforms, which they fear will leave them at
the mercy of big corporations.

It took the farmers two days to reach Delhi where the police tried to turn stadiums into detention centres but the Aam Aadmi Party government turned down the request. Delhi home minister Satyendra Jain said, “Non-violent protest is every Indian’s Constitutional right; they cannot be jailed because of it.” This is not the first time we are seeing Delhi under siege by protests. As a matter of fact, India got independence due to such non-violent protests and the background of the Constitution of India is formed by its anti-colonial struggle, within which the seeds of a political public sphere and democratic Constitution were sown.

Indians fought hard to publicly express their views on colonial policies and laws, to dissent from them, to shape minds and form public opinion against them, to speak to and against the government, to challenge it.

People staged dharnas, held large public meetings, peaceful protests and demonstrations and even launched civil disobedience movements. Protests have also offered points of inclusion and participation to the voices that are not part of the mainstream. Peaceful protest by citizens is a fundamental aspect of India’s democracy.

However, some legal experts believe that protests are grammar of anarchy because that is not the correct way to follow to disagree with a government action. There are courts to take refuge in and there are other systems in a democratic society that people take use for redress; why should they protest and hold the state to ransom, they ask.

The right to protest is one of the core principles on which democracy survives and thrives. But the protest must remain peaceful. When a protest turns violent, it defeats the very purpose of the protest. The march by farmers to the national capital can be called peaceful protest because they did not resort to any form of violence but at the same time, it can be called violent protest because the bottleneck on the highways infringed upon the rights of other people using those roads. And in such a situation, it becomes imperative upon the
government to stall such a march. The use of water cannons and lathis on farmers, in that sense, can be justified. We need to first understand the Constitutional provisions of right to protest. The right to protest peacefully is enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

Article 19(1)(a), which guarantees the freedom of speech and expression, has been interpreted as assuring citizens the right to assemble peaceably and without arms. The Supreme Court has laid out that “Citizens have a fundamental right to assembly and peaceful protest which cannot be taken away by an arbitrary executive or legislative action.”

In many states, the governments have earmarked spaces for such assembly. If people block roads, lay siege to railway tracks, disrupt normal life of other citizens, such actions don’t fall in the category of peaceful protest because those infringe upon the rights of other citizens. Resorting to violence during the protest is a violation of a key fundamental duty of citizens. Enumerated in Article 51A, the Constitution makes it a fundamental duty of every citizen “to safeguard public property and to abjure violence”.

The Constitution has given us the right to act as watchdogs and constantly monitor actions of democratically elected governments. This is enshrined in the fundamental right to speech and expression. Free speech is necessary to provide feedback to the governments about its policies and actions. Concerned government take such feedbacks seriously and rectify its actions, if the need be, through consultation, meetings and discussions. But it is also equally important that people adhere to their fundamental duties and responsibilities in a democratic society and not create hurdled for other citizens.

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