The Supreme Court on Wednesday observed that public spaces cannot be occupied indefinitely, Live Law reported. The court’s remarks came in connection with the road blockade at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area by protestors opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act.

In its verdict on a batch of pleas seeking to have the site cleared, a three-judge bench headed by Justice SK Kaul observed that dissent and democracy go hand in hand, but that protests must be carried out in the designated areas.

The court said that the Shaheen Bagh movement began as a protest but caused inconvenience to commuters. “Social media channels often fraught with danger lead to highly polarising environment and this is what was witnessed in Shaheen Bagh,” it said.

The court said it had referred to different protests across the Capital and taken into account various rulings by parties including regulations on demonstrations before arriving at the judgement. “Shaheen Bagh produced no solution,” it observed.

The judges also pulled up the administration for not taking action on the matter. The court said that it adjudicates the legality of the action and added that the ruling was not meant to “give a shoulder” to the administration. It is the “responsibility of the respondent parties to take suitable action but such actions should produce suitable results,” the three-judge bench observed.

It further said that the way in which occupants should be cleared from public places is to be decided by the administration and they should not wait for the court’s orders in order to carry out their functions.

The court had on September 21 reserved its order as the petitioners 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.

On December 15, 2019, a group of around 50 women had occupied a road at Shaheen Bagh, demanding the withdrawal of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Gradually, the numbers increased as more protesters joined as police failed to convince the protesters to vacate the road. The protests that started in Delhi in mid-December also spread across the country.

‘People faced difficulties’

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, had earlier 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.

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.

Advocate Mehmood Pracha, appearing for an intervenor, however, had argued that citizens have an absolute right to protest. He claimed that “some people from a political party went there [to Shaheen Bagh] and created riots”.

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.

The bench, reserving its order, 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.

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. He had then filed a special leave petition against the High Court order, asking the authorities to consider law and order a priority while dealing with the situation.

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.

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.