The Supreme Court said on Monday that there cannot be a “universal policy” on the right to protest, Bar and Bench reported. Referring to protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi, the court reserved its judgement on the aspect of balance between the citizens’ right to protest and other rights of the public.
The petitioners had alleged that the protestors’ blocking of a road had been a huge inconvenience.
The protests ended earlier this year due to the lockdown imposed to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The Supreme Court was on Monday hearing a clutch of petitions seeking to have the protest sites cleared.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, said the petitions may not survive now, given that the protest at Shaheen Bagh was over. But barring one petitioner, none of the others agreed to withdraw their petitions.
“There were some supervening circumstances which came into play and it was no one’s hand,” a bench comprising Justices SK Kaul, Aniruddha Bose and Krishna Murari said, according to PTI. “God Almighty itself intervened. We have to balance right to protest and the blocking of roads. We have to deal with the issue. There cannot be universal policy as the situation may vary on case to case basis.” The judges also said that while protesting on the road was permitted, the demonstrations must be peaceful.
Amit Sahni, one of the lawyers who had filed the plea, said that in public interest, the protest at Shaheen Bagh should have been prohibited. “This was allowed to continue for more than 100 days and people faced difficulty,” he said. “This kind of incident should not have happened. Yesterday in Haryana there was ‘Chakka Jam’. They have also called Bharat Bandh on September 24-25.”
Advocate Mehmood Pracha, appearing for an intervenor, claimed that “some people from a political party went there [to Shaheen Bagh] and created riots”. He said: “We have the right to protest. State machinery is not sacrosanct. Members of a political party went there with the police and created the situation.” He contended that the demonstrators have an absolute right to protest.
But Mehta disagreed, saying that the right to protest cannot be absolute, and cited some previous judgements that supported his claim. In response, the top court observed that other public rights such as the right to movement and mobility also exist, and a balance needed to be drawn between these.
Reserving the verdict, the bench said that it had appointed interlocutors to talk to the protestors as an experiment. It said the interlocutors gave suggestions on how to end the blockade. The bench added that the situation may also have been affected due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sahni had earlier approached the Delhi High Court seeking directions to the police to ensure smooth traffic flow on the Kalindi Kunj-Shaheen Bagh stretch, where the protestors had blocked the road since December 15. The High Court had asked the authorities to consider law and order a priority while dealing with the situation. Sahni had then filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court earlier this year against the High Court’s order. It had sought supervision of the situation in Shaheen Bagh by a retired Supreme Court judge or a sitting judge of the Delhi High Court.
Former Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Nand Kishore Garg had also filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking directions to authorities to remove the protestors from Shaheen Bagh. Garg’s plea said that several arterial roads of Delhi had been experiencing traffic congestion due to the protest at Shaheen Bagh.
“It is disappointing that the state machinery is muted and a silent spectator to hooliganism and vandalism of the protesters who are threatening the existential efficacy of the democracy and the rule of law and had already taken the law and order situation in their own hand,” the plea had claimed. It had added that the court must protect the fundamental rights of citizens who had been inconvenienced due to the blocking of the road.
The Citizenship Amendment Act provides citizenship to refugees from six minority communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who have entered India on or before December 31, 2014. The Act, passed on December 11, has been criticised for excluding Muslims. In December, at least 28 people died in protests against the Act, 19 of them in Uttar Pradesh itself. Most of those who died had suffered bullet-inflicted wounds.