The right to protest in a free society

The right to protest in a free society

➢ The article argues for the right to protest for the citizens.
➢ Recently, there have been public protests in India against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019
and the proposed National Register of Citizens.
➢ The government’s handling of the protests has invited criticism from certain sections. The
administrations have been blamed of arbitrary imposition of section 144.
➢ Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) of 1973 authorises the Executive Magistrate of
any state or territory to issue an order to prohibit the assembly of four or more people in an area.
➢ Section 144 of CrPC generally prohibits public gathering.
➢ Section 144 has been used in the past to impose restrictions as a means to prevent protests that
can lead to unrest or riots.
➢ The administration has defended its actions, as being preventive in nature and to avoid violence and
damage to public property.


Constitutional features:


➢ India as a functioning democracy
➢ The Preamble of the Constitution states that India is a democratic republic.
➢ Democracies are founded on two core political rights.
➢ The right of every citizen to freely elect their government and when dissatisfied with its
performance, to vote it out of power in a legitimately held election (Article 326).
➢ The people have the right to question and challenge the government’s proposals or decisions. This
allows the citizens to politically participate not only during but between elections. This involves a
broader conception of democracy that embodies active and not passive citizenship.
➢ Democracy requires that the voice of the people be heard by those in power and decisions be
reached after proper discussion and consultation.
➢ Public protests for legitimate causes and concerns are the hallmark of a free, democratic society.
They constitute our political freedoms.

➢ The right to protest is a fundamental political right basic to a democratic society.
Holding the government accountable
➢ The protests perform an important function of holding the government in power accountable to its
actions and decisions.
➢ The cluster of inter-related political rights of expression, association, assembly, petition and protest
is meant to ensure that the government works in the interests of the citizenry.
➢ The citizens can act as watchdogs and constantly monitor the government’s acts.
➢ They play an important role of helping to recognize and rectify mistakes.
➢ An elected government may stray from the constitutional course, go against the interests of the
people, become unresponsive and refuse to listen. In such conditions, pressure against the
government can be built through public protests.
➢ This is similar to the multiparty system provided for in the Constitution, where Opposition parties
are viewed as valuable adversaries and not enemies.


Fundamental rights:


➢ The right to protest peacefully is enshrined in the Indian Constitution via Article 19(1)(a) which
guarantees the freedom of speech and expression and Article 19(1)(b) which assures citizens the
right to assemble peaceably and without arms.
➢ The right to free speech and expression can be also interpreted as the right to freely express an
opinion on the conduct of the government.
➢ The right to association can also be the right to associate for political purposes, which might involve
challenging government decisions.
➢ The right to peaceably assemble allows political parties and citizenship bodies to question and object
to acts of the government by demonstrations, agitations and public meetings.
➢ The Supreme Court has reiterated that the right to protest is a fundamental right through its
verdicts in many cases.
➢ In the case of Ramlila Maidan Incident v. Home Secretary, Union of India & Ors., the Supreme Court
has held that citizens have a fundamental right to assembly and peaceful protest which cannot be
taken away by an arbitrary executive or legislative action.
➢ In the Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India case, the SC held similar views on right to protest.


Independence struggle:


➢ The background of the Indian Constitution is formed by its anti-colonial struggle.
➢ The Indian freedom struggle involved public expression of views against colonial policies and laws,
demonstrations expressing dissent and shaping of public opinion against them.
➢ The methods involved staging dharnas, holding large public meetings and demonstrations and even
civil disobedience.


Post-Independence:


➢ Potti Sreeramulu undertook a satyagraha demanding for the creation of a new Telugu-speaking
state of Andhra.
➢ The Chipko Movement led by Gaura Devi, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, was a people’s movement to save
the trees in Uttarakhand. It was meant to prevent the then U.P. government from awarding
contracts to commercial loggers.
Inclusive approach
➢ Street protests and demonstration movements are particularly important for those outside the
mainstream, or those not educated formally.

➢ They provide an opportunity for even the most illiterate and powerless person to show dissent.
Street protests help involve many people in the movement.
➢ Abraham Lincoln had once noted that “the right of the people to peaceably assemble is a
constitutional substitute for revolution”.


Concerns:


Restraints on Right to protest:


➢ The right to protest, to publicly question and force the government to answer, is a fundamental
political right of the people that flows directly from a democratic reading of Article 19. For this, the
right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are necessary.
➢ The arbitrary restraint on the exercise of such rights by the imposition of Section 144 is a concern.
➢ Section 144 is to be imposed in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger of events that has
the potential to cause trouble or damage to human life or property thus limiting it to only
emergency situations.


Intolerance towards dissent:


➢ The arbitrary imposition of Sec 144 highlights the inability of the government to tolerate dissent.
➢ It also reflects the incapacity of the government to discuss, deliberate or listen.
➢ The people opposing the CAA have the right to protest and express their opinions. The government
needs to acknowledge the right to dissent and protest for all Indians.
➢ Notably, Article 19(1)(3) states that the rights are subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest
of public order. There is the need to ensure there is no violence or damage to public property in the
protests.

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