At 8 am on Friday, Surya Narayan Shukla sat on a charpoi on Jantar Mantar Road in Central Delhi, protesting the non-payment of wages by a chain of retail stores where he was employed. The stores are no longer in business. “A month-long hunger strike has made me weak,” said the 52-year-old. A light blanket wrapped around his body did not stop him from shivering occasionally even on a humid morning.

The protest had started on August 4 with around 20 former employees, and thinned down to just one person, Shukla, by October. The migrant worker from Allahabad had ended his hunger strike on September 30, but refused to move from Jantar Mantar – the venue for numerous protests, big and small, in the Capital round the year – until the Central government heard his plea.

There were others like him there on Friday – farmers demanding loan waivers, some others protesting the arrest of religious leaders. There were several one-man protests like Shukla’s too, each with their own demands. And they were all aware that they would have to move out soon, with the National Green Tribunal on Thursday banning all protests at Jantar Mantar. The tribunal – which decides cases on environmental protection and the conservation of forests and other natural resources – directed the New Delhi Municipal Council to remove all temporary structures, loudspeakers and public address systems and clear the area of garbage that has piled up. It also directed the Delhi Police commissioner to immediately stop all dharnas, protests, agitations, public speeches and the assembly of people, the Press Trust of India reported. The tribunal said the protests violated laws, caused air and noise pollution, while the “lack of cleanliness and non-performance of duty by authorities of the state” created health hazards for residents.

Jantar Mantar Road lies in close proximity to Lutyens’ zone, which is made up of the offices and homes of top government officials and political leaders, as well as the Capital’s central business district of Connaught Place and the Ramleela Ground, which was the venue for social activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in 2011.

Eight to 10 demonstrations on average are held daily at Jantar Mantar, according to police records. In the first six months of this year, 2,283 dharnas and demonstrations were held at the venue compared to 1,921 in the same period last year.

Surya Narayan Shukla’s one-man protest remained on Jantar Mantar Road on Friday, a day after the green court's order banning all demonstrations at the venue. (Credit: Abhishek Dey)

The protestors, including Shukla, were all shaken by the tribunal’s order. They feared that moving to another venue would take them far away from the country’s power centre.

Thirty-three-year-old Madhusudan Biswas, a school teacher from West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, came to Delhi on September 30 and has been on an indefinite hunger strike at Jantar Mantar since October 2. His demand: an immediate country-wide ban on plastic bags and sheets, flex sheets and thermocol containers. He said he had written to the prime minister’s office in this regard.

“It was through news reports that I came to know that Jantar Mantar is the place to be in Delhi if you want to be heard by those in power,” he said. “But now I am confused. If I have to move to Ramleela Ground, will my protest still be taken seriously?”

For now, the protestors seem to be staying put. On Thursday evening, policemen came to Jantar Mantar and informed them about the green court’s order. But none of them had moved till the time this report was filed.

Madhusudan Biswas, demanding a country-wide plastic ban, is worried if his protest will still be taken seriously if he is forced to change locations. (Credit: Abhishek Dey)

In the wake of the tribunal’s order, BK Singh, deputy commissioner of police (New Delhi district), said permission will no longer be granted for protests at Jantar Mantar, according to a Hindustan Times report. The article also quoted Dependra Pathak, chief spokesperson for the Delhi Police, as saying that the police would examine the tribunal’s order and take appropriate administrative action.

Rules of protest

Delhi Police officials said they grant permission for protests and rallies on the basis of a standing order issued in 2003. And they do not allow protestors to gather at any location other than Jantar Mantar, the Ramleela Ground, and Burari Ground in the northwestern peripheries of the city. However, they follow strict guidelines on the choice of venue while granting permission.

For instance, Jantar Mantar cannot accommodate more than 5,000 people and does not allow vehicles. If the protestors come in vehicles – many of them travel in large groups from other states – the venue is shifted to the Ramleela Ground, which has parking facilities, officials said.

If a demonstration is estimated to involve more than 5,000 persons, they are usually accommodated at the Ramleela Ground, while Burari Ground is the venue for gatherings of more than 50,000 people. If the protestors still need to go to Jantar Mantar or to the office of a person with VVIP status to submit a memorandum, they will have to form a delegation comprising not more than four persons.

Not adhering to these guidelines can lead to protestors being detained by the police under the Code of Criminal Procedure, the officials said.

In April 2015, the Delhi Police and the Aam Aadmi Party had fought over the latter’s choice of venue for its farmers’ rally after a farmer committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree in front of the stage. The incident had occurred at Jantar Mantar. The police had accused the Aam Aadmi Party government of violating the guideline with regard to turnout and choice of venue and had registered a case of abetment to suicide and obstructing a public servant in the discharge of his duty.