space matters

‘Not all can afford the price of justice’: How the Jantar Mantar ban has silenced protests in Delhi

Protestors complain that the alternative venue, Ramleela Ground, is far too expensive at a flat rate of Rs 50,000 a day.

A 15-year-old boy grazed his mules on a small patch of dusty field, groups of teenagers and adults played gilli danda, young men rented out scooters, truckers gambled next to their parked vehicles, an old man was hawking moong dal pakoras garnished with shredded radish and green chutney under the shade of a lone tree, and a man next to him sold drinking water for Rs 2 a glass. There was nothing unusual about this everyday scene at the Ramleela Maidan in Delhi on Sunday afternoon. Yet, there was something amiss – the complete absence of protestors.

On October 5, the National Green Tribunal had banned all forms of demonstration at Jantar Mantar and directed the authorities to move the protestors to the Ramleela Ground 4 km away.

For several years, Jantar Mantar had been the sanctioned site for public protests in the Capital. According to police records, at least 10 demonstrations on average were held every day on this narrow stretch of road that lies in close proximity to Delhi’s central business district of Connaught Place as well as the offices and homes of top government officials and political leaders.

Citing air and noise pollution from the daily demonstrations, the tribunal – which decides cases on environmental protection and conservation of natural resources – directed the New Delhi Municipal Council to remove all temporary structures, loudspeakers and public address systems from the area and clear the garbage that had piled up. It had also asked the Delhi Police commissioner to immediately stop all dharnas, protests, agitations, public speeches and assembly of people.

Many expected the protestors to make a rush for the Ramleela Ground, a larger area that can accommodate more than 5,000 people and has space for parking, unlike Jantar Mantar. It was the venue for social activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in 2011.

Mohammad Aalim, who gives mule rides at Ramleela Maidan, hopes the protestors will come to the venue and give him more business.
Mohammad Aalim, who gives mule rides at Ramleela Maidan, hopes the protestors will come to the venue and give him more business.

But all was quiet at the Ramleela Ground on Sunday. Both 15-year-old Mohammad Aalim, who makes a living by giving mule rides, and 60-year-old Som Pal, the pakora seller popularly known as Chacha, said they had not seen a demonstration at the venue in the last few years, let alone the last fortnight.

“If demonstrations start happening here, probably more people will approach me for mule rides,” said a hopeful Aalim.

However, Pal – busy scolding a customer for generously helping himself to the chutney – was not convinced that this would be the case.

Som Pal sells pakoras at the Ramleela Ground and says he has not seen a demonstration here in several years.
Som Pal sells pakoras at the Ramleela Ground and says he has not seen a demonstration here in several years.

Stragglers at Jantar Mantar

The same afternoon, Jantar Mantar was far from empty. Despite the tribunal’s order, people still sat there on protest, though the number of groups had thinned to around seven.

Surya Narayan Shukla continued his lonely dharna for wages he was yet to receive from his former employer, a chain of retail stores that is no longer in business. He was the only one-man protest there. The 52-year-old was one of several protestors had spoken with on October 6, the day after the ban order. All of them had been wary of moving out of Jantar Mantar as this would take them far away from the country’s power centre.

Madhusudan Biswas, a school teacher from West Bengal who was on an indefinite hunger strike to press for a nationwide ban on plastic, had also been interviewed that day but was nowhere to be seen on Sunday.

Among those who remained were a few followers of jailed religious leaders Asaram Bapu and Rampal, but they refused to speak with the media.

Some protestors remain at Jantar Mantar after the National Green Tribunal's ban order, though their numbers have dwindled.
Some protestors remain at Jantar Mantar after the National Green Tribunal's ban order, though their numbers have dwindled.

Confusion over rules

One protestor at Jantar Mantar said unreasonable rules and high costs had kept him from moving to the Ramleela Ground. “We have no problem moving to Ramleela Ground but how could we accept the unjust demands made by the authorities?” asked P Ayyakkannu, a member of a farmers’ association from Tamil Nadu that is demanding loan waivers, pensions and a Rs 40,000-crore drought mitigation fund.

“First the police told us that only two of us could take the protest to Ramleela Ground,” he said. “In that case, the protest would have just broken down. Secondly, a demonstration in Ramleela Ground is an expensive affair. Not all can afford the price of justice.”

Adjusting his langot (loincloth) – the only piece of cloth the farmers in his group have worn since they started their demonstration over 100 days ago – Ayyakkannu, however, said that it was becoming increasingly difficult to stay on at Jantar Mantar as the civic authorities had drastically reduced their water supply.

Farmers from Tamil Nadu have been protesting at Jantar Mantar for drought relief and are among the few groups that remain there.
Farmers from Tamil Nadu have been protesting at Jantar Mantar for drought relief and are among the few groups that remain there.

Officials at the Parliament Street Police Station, which is just around the corner from Jantar Mantar and has jurisdiction in the area, could not provide any clarity on the two-person rule Ayyakkanu had complained about.

However, a senior official at the Delhi Police Headquarters suggested the farmer may have made a mistake in understanding the rules. “A standing order dated 2003 requires the police to transfer protestors from one venue to another in groups of two,” the official explained. “But the two-person rule is only limited to the process of moving them. It does not mean that not more than two persons in total could go to the new protest venue.”

A Rs 50,000 a day fee has kept protestors away from the Ramleela Ground.
A Rs 50,000 a day fee has kept protestors away from the Ramleela Ground.

Cost of protest

However, the expense of moving to the Ramleela Ground remains a daunting prospect for protestors.

“The rent for holding demonstrations in Ramleela Ground is Rs 50,000 per day,” said YS Mann, a spokesperson for the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, which has jurisdiction in the area. “The demonstrators first have to get a no-objection certificate from the police and then file an application with the corporation. Space is supposed to be allotted on a first-come-first-served basis.”

The corporation does not have different rates for demonstrations that vary in size. Therefore, those who apply first and can afford to be there have the advantage in terms of the space available.

Pointing out that “the per day rent is a flat rate”, Mann added that this fee was adopted in 2015 and had not been amended since.

All photographs by Abhishek Dey

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