On July 23, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of citizens to voice dissent when it asserted that there could not be a “complete ban” on protests in Central Delhi’s Jantar Mantar and Boat Club areas. However, the two-judge bench also ruled that the protests could not obstruct traffic or put the lives of residents in danger.
The apex court has asked the Delhi police to work out guidelines to regulate protests in the two areas located in the heart of the national capital. Protests were banned in Boat Club in 1993 and were outlawed in Jantar Mantar by the National Green Tribunal in October 2017 over air and noise pollution concerns.
“We have started drafting a plan and we have two months’ time to respond to the Supreme Court,” said Madhur Verma, Deputy Commissioner of Police, New Delhi, under whose jurisdiction both the areas fall.
However, several officials in the Delhi police said that adhering to the court order with regard to Boat Club was easier said than done.
“Jantar Mantar is no trouble,” said a senior Delhi Police official who did not wish to be identified. “For Jantar Mantar protest site, the police had already issued a standing order back in 2003, which can be re-implemented. The trouble is with Boat Club.”
The Delhi Police in 2003 had said that peaceful protests could be held in Jantar Mantar as long as there were no vehicles and the crowd did not exceed 5,000 people. A larger gathering could protest at the the Ramlila Maidan, about 4 km away, and if more than 50,000 protesters were expected, they would have to go to a ground in Burari, located at the northern edge of Delhi.
But in October last year, the National Green Tribunal banned protests at Jantar Mantar too, while hearing petitions filed by residents of that area who complained of pollution and disruption. This left protesters with only two sites for mass resistance, Ramlila Maidan and Burari. But neither were popular with demonstrators, given their distance from the corridors of power. The Ramlila Maidan was also expensive – protesters had to pay the North Delhi Municipal Corporation Rs 50,000 per day. In April, the civic body earmarked a one-acre space where protests could be held free of charge, but a security deposit of Rs 50,000 was still required.
Why Boat Club is special
For years, the Boat Club lawns near India Gate, just a stone’s throw from the seat of government, had been the preferred site of protests in the capital. One of the landmark agitations at this venue was the congregation of lakhs of farmers at Boat Club in 1988, led by Mahendra Singh Tikait. The massive protests had shaken the Rajiv Gandhi government and is believed to have laid the grounds for the restriction of protests at Boat Club. In 1993, the Congress government banned protests here citing security reasons after the Babri Masjid demolition on December 6 the previous year. Protests were moved to Jantar Mantar, about two km away.
Civil right activists have welcomed the the Supreme Court’s order to bring protests back to these venues. “The Supreme Court judgment, opening up both Boat Club and Jantar Mantar, reaffirms that the right to peaceful protest is a cherished fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution,” said Aruna Roy of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. “This assertion is of even greater significance in the current environment where critical voices are being silenced. The Supreme Court’s judgement reiterates once more, that the right to protest is an intrinsic part of the fundamental right to freedom of peaceful assembly. It is now the duty of the government to ensure that these rights are protected.”
However, the police say that Boat Club is too sensitive from a security stand point to allow protests there. “When it comes to Boat Club, there are numerous issues [in re-allowing protests]” a senior police official said, adding that security and traffic were the main concerns. The sprawling lawns face the Raisina Hill, home to the Parliament, the Secretariat buildings and the Rashtrapati Bhavan. They are also right next to India Gate, a popular tourist destination. That area sees heavy vehicle flow, even during non-peak hours and any road blockage owing to protests could lead to a traffic nightmare, the official said.
However, plans are already afoot to bring resistance back to Boat Club. On August 9, Dalit and Adivasi leaders have threatened a second Bharat Bandh after the one in April 2, if the government does not meet their demands to strengthen the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. A Supreme Court order had diluted some provisions of Act, sparking nationwide protests. The protest call has also found support from farmers groups and former servicemen who have been demanding changes to the the one rank one pension policy.
The groups are now eyeing Boat Club as a venue for the protests, said Ashok Bharti, one of the leaders spearheading the probable protest on August 9. However, senior Delhi Police officials said that they are yet to receive any letter seeking permission from the protesters.