Mar 11, 2022
5 things you didn’t know about your right to protest
The Supreme Court has stated that while citizens have the right to peaceful protest, demonstrations which exhibit dissent should take place only in designated places. The Court’s judgement was delivered in the context of the Shaheen Bagh protests opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
- Which law gives citizens the right to protest?
Article 19 of our Constitution provides citizens with important fundamental rights including:
- a) The right to freedom of speech and expression, under Article 19(1)(a)
- b) The right to assemble peacefully without arms, under Article 19(1)(b)
Together, these two rights enable every citizen to assemble peacefully and protest against the actions or inactions of the government. In its judgement, the Supreme Court said that this right to protest must be respected and encouraged because it
strengthens democracy. However, the Court also stated that the right can be restricted for certain reasons.
- What are the restrictions on our right to protest?
Government authorities can regulate and impose restrictions on the right to protest for certain reasons such as:
- protecting the sovereignty and integrity of India
- maintaining public order
The restriction on peaceful assembly is often imposed through Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which is used to prohibit ‘unlawful’ assemblies of people.
- Police authorities and the right to protest
In the Ramlila Maidan case, the Supreme Court held that taking police permission for holding dharnas, processions and rallies is relevant and required in law. Police forces are important for ensuring implementation of the law, and police regulation of large scale protests does not take away the fundamental rights of protesters. Such regulation helps in ensuring social order and is considered as a reasonable restriction on the right to protest.
The Court held that police authorities are required to maintain social order and public peace, and should have a say in the organizational matters related to holding dharnas, agitations, rallies etc. However, the police authorities should be objective and keep in mind a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression. Police should not use their power to suppress the right to protest. The Court stated that refusal and/or withdrawal of permission to protest should be for valid and exceptional reasons.
- Balancing the right to protest with other fundamental rights
In the case of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, the Supreme Court discussed the conflict between right to protest, and the right of other citizens (non-protesters) to enjoy a life without interference by protests. The right to protest must be balanced with every person’s right to life under Article 21. The Court emphasised on the principle of balancing the interests of residents in an area as opposed to the interests of protesters to hold demonstrations.
- The Supreme Court judgement
The Supreme Court held that the current mode of protest in a democracy is different from dissent against colonial rule. Our Constitution gives us the right to protest and express dissent, but this comes with an obligation towards certain duties. The Court held that public ways and public spaces cannot be permanently occupied by protesters, and the right to protest must be balanced with the right of commuters to conveniently access public roads and pathways.
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