The Madras High Court has set aside a First Information Report (FIR) filed against peaceful protests around the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. In this context, let us look at citizens’ right to protest in India.
Which law gives citizens the right to protest?
Article 19 of the Constitution of India, 1950 provides citizens with important fundamental rights such as:
- 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 the actions or inactions of the government. The Supreme Court has said that the right to protest must be respected and encouraged because it strengthens democracy. However, the right to protest can also be restricted for certain reasons.
What are the restrictions on the right to protest?
Government authorities can regulate and impose restrictions on the right to protest for 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 Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, which is used to prohibit ‘unlawful’ assemblies of people.
Police authorities and the right to protest
In the Ramlila Maidan case, the Supreme Court said that to hold dharnas, processions and rallies, police permission is relevant and required in law. The Court held that such regulation helps in ensuring social order and is a reasonable restriction on the right to protest.
The Court stated that police authorities should be objective and keep in mind a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression. They should not use their power to suppress the right to protest. The Court stated that refusal and/or withdrawal of permission to protest should only 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 the right to protest, and the right of other citizens (non-protesters) to enjoy a life without interference by protests. The Court said that the right to protest must be balanced with every person’s right to life, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. The Court emphasised on how during demonstrations, the principle of balancing the interests of residents in an area as opposed to the interests of protesters must be done.
The Shaheen Bagh judgement
In 2020, the Supreme Court delivered a judgement in the context of the Shaheen Bagh protests opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. In its judgement, the Court said that while citizens have the right to peaceful protest, demonstrations which exhibit dissent should take place only in designated places.
The Court also said that protesters cannot permanently occupy public ways and public spaces, and the right to protest must be balanced with the right of commuters to conveniently access public roads and pathways.