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The Daily Fix: Supreme Court should end the brazen use of Section 144 to muffle protest

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The Big Story: Unlawful Assembly

Few people realise it, but a British-era law meant to prevent Indians from gathering to take on the mighty Raj is almost always in force in the national capital. Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure allows magistrates to issue orders directing the assembly of more than four people in an area to be unlawful if they believe such a gathering could disturb the peace.

The section was used in British India to prevent nationalist gatherings, but it has remained on the books. Section 144 is meant to be applied only when there is an imminent danger of the peace being disturbed. But every two months, the Delhi Police apply for it to be imposed around the government buildings in New Delhi, allowing the police to forestall any demonstrations.

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued notice to the Centre and the Delhi Police based on a writ petition challenging the brazen use of this provision to clamp down on the right of citizens to protest and gather in public. A bench of justices AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan said that guidelines should be formulated to balance the rights of citizens to protest and the need to maintain law and order. The matter has been posted next for January 5.

This intervention in the use of Section 144 is essential at a time where government seem more willing than ever before to find ways to curb dissent. The gradual shifting of Delhi’s acceptable protest venue, from the Boat Club near Parliament to Jantar Mantar and now to Ramlila Maidan, where citizens would have to pay a significant fee just to air their views, has driven this point home even more clearly.

The petition, filed by the non governmental organisation, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, calls on the Supreme Court to frame guidelines for the conduct of peaceful demonstrations and under what circumstances the government can choose to impose its will to prevent them. It also calls on the Supreme Court to affirm that the repeated promulgation of Section 144 orders is illegal and should be struck down. The Centre, and the many state governments that use 144 willy nilly, would do well to pay heed to this petition and speak up for the rights of citizens over what essentially amounts to lazy policing.

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Punditry

  1. “The continuing failure of religious leaders to discipline Muslim husbands in the matter of divorce as per Quranic teachings makes some state legislation in this direction inescapable,” writes Tahir Mahmood in the Indian Express.
  2. Governance paralysis due to state elections is just an excuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using to justify simultaneous state and central elections, writes Praveen Chakravarty in the Hindu. The real reason is how dependent the two national parties are on their central leadership to campaign.
  3. Jayalalithaa’s death, a year ago, has left a vacuum in Tamil Nadu politics that has yet to be filled, though many are trying, writes G Babu Jayakumar in the Hindustan Times.
  4. Apoorva Javadekar and Sujan Bandyopadhyay in Mint analyse the numbers and conclude that the surge in imports after demonetisation may not have been directly linked to broken domestic supply chains.
  5. “There are prominent ways in which it is evident that the government is prioritising saving at the cost of its poorest people – a breach of the law and the Constitution,” write Nikhil Dey and Aruna Roy in the Indian Express.

Giggle

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Omkar Khandekar tells us about a British writer is chronicling the rarely heard history of the Maldives.

“But where they lacked in accessibility, these islands more than made up in stories. All the couple had to do was find an old man and a joali (traditional coir-chair resembling a hammock) and the stories would start to flow. Soon, they had learned of the Maldives’ Buddhist history, its indigenous medical tradition, and the secret recipes of Ramzan. They had even got a glimpse into the world of Maldivian sorcery. But there were times they wondered if what they had heard were tall tales or history. Was the beautiful girl from Gaafu Alif Villingili really burned alive by her spurned admirers? Did an island in Huvadhu really become extinct because of black magic?

Much as he tried, Bosley often hit a wall while fact-checking. Many storytellers would recall the most colourful details of an incident but when asked when it had happened, they would simply say, ‘A long time ago.’”

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