The Karnataka Police is continuing to do everything it can to fulfill the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government’s objective of thwarting protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register. In doing so, the police seems to believe that the democratic right of protest can be exercised only by the affluent.
Last week, the media reported that the Bengaluru police has asked people seeking to organise any kind of protest to sign indemnity bonds valued at up to Rs 10 lakh. In the absence of such a bond, the police said permission to conduct a protest would not be given.
The police has justified these stipulations by citing Section 107 of Criminal Procedure Code. This provision allows the executive magistrate, who is usually a senior police officer, to put restrictions on a person who in his or her view could indulge in activities that could breach the peace.
Usually, this provision is used against against hardened criminals, after specific information is received about an act that could jeopardise the peace in an area. Even though the vast majority of the people protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act are members of the general public without criminal antecedents, the police has decided to treat them them like it handles criminals.
This is a serious violation of their fundamental rights. Seeking such high-value bonds as a precondition criminalises the very act of protest, which guaranteed as a fundamental right under the Constitution.
Second, by imposing such financial restrictions, the police is signalling that the fundamental right to protest itself is a privilege of the affluent. Bengaluru Deputy Commissioner of Police Chetan Singh Rathore told the media that the demand for high-value bonds was the result of violence during an agitation four months ago in Ramanagara, in which public property was damaged. This protest was not connected to the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Besides, a single act of violence cannot be a justification for virtually imposing a ban on protests. There are other provisions in law to tackle violence, which make these preemptive bonds untenable and undemocratic.
This strategy of using costly bonds to stop protests has spread to other parts of the country as well. In Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh. Eleven people in Sambhal were served notices asking them to produce bonds worth Rs 50 lakh each in a purported effort to ensure that peace would be maintained at a sit-in in which they were participating.
In December, the Bengaluru police imposed blanket prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to ban the assembly of more than four persons in the city. It then detained peaceful protesters who were merely carrying placards and shouting slogans against the citizenship law. On Thursday, the Karnataka High Court declared these Section 144 orders illegal for failing to follow due process. But such judicial rap on the knuckles seems to make no difference to the police, who continues to take arbitrary action.
The onus, therefore, is on the judiciary not only to declare these moves illegal, but also take to task officers who believe the law can be misused to fulfill the instructions of the political class.