There is a clear attempt to stereotype the activist as an unruly delinquent and thereby curb basic freedoms of political expression that unsettles those in power.
THE Supreme Court of India recently, delivered its judgment in the case of Amit Sahni v. Commissioner of Police. The decision effectively transforms the “reasonable restriction” exception to Freedom of Speech and Expression as the new norm, and conversely alters the right itself into an exception. This is stated to have wide-ranging repercussions as the court’s wordings have given rise to problematic interpretations that could be adopted by the state in the longer run.
The grievance made in the petition was that the persons opposing the CAA and the NRC in the national capital had adopted a method of protest which resulted in the closure of public roads, affecting daily commute of passengers and causing grave inconvenience to the citizens residing in the nearby area. The petition argued that such encroachment by protestors into public spaces could not be permitted as it violated “public order”.
The question before the court therefore was on the point of “balancing of interests of the residents in the area and the passengers vis-à-vis the interest of the protestors to hold demonstrations”. The court held that, “we have to make it unequivocally clear that public ways and public places cannot be occupied in such a manner and that too indefinitely”. It further held that protests could be carried out only in “designated places”. This was reasoned as a “reasonable regulation” and not an “arbitrary exclusion”.
The idea of restricting access to public spaces for protest by activists has been a colonial dream of the state. The petition before the court aimed at achieving the same. It was successful but, the larger question is, are we losing our legacy of a ‘protest democracy’? Not just in the context of the judgment in ‘Amit Sahni’ but as a larger political conspiracy in the recent past to close down streets, parks and playgrounds where citizens have found the comfort of a shared opinion in their fight against a common enemy.
At first look, the protest culture itself seems odd. Standing in the heat, chanting, sloganeering, singing songs, dancing and demonstrating, looks like a futile exercise. The state is mighty afterall! Moreover, its actions are presumed to be constitutional in the eyes of law. Protests also look like a chaotic adventure by a group of anarchists whose main motive is to disrupt the system. They are irrational, disordered and a dysfunctional mob who have no respect for democracy. They are unruly and have an illusionary sense of being free thinkers, artists, libertarians, observers, intellectuals, academicians, etc.
However, these notions about the nature of a protest and the motivation that drives the protesters are in line with the recent political attempt at stereotyping the activist. Majoritarian Politics has always been terrified by the ability of the people to command the streets. It’s a colonial idea. The unmattering of the marginal voices and the delegitimization of a protest shows a larger political process that is at play. It starts with demonizing the idea of a protest and protesters by calling them unruly delinquents and generalizing the idea of a protest to mean a violent mob only. Then, working towards marginalizing and writing-off their voices in popular media. Many a time, slapping them with cases of sedition, criminality, violence, intimidation and imposing on them strict conditions for free movement. All this, even though the present government shows itself as followers of leaders like Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and Dr Ambedkar.
Protestors are now being termed as the “Loud Minority” – in line with the Richard Nixon rhetoric of the “Silent Majority” used during the 1969 Vietnam War. Daniel Q. Gillion in his book “The Loud Minority” goes on to characterize how activists are stereotyped as promoting the interests of only a small section of the community.
This mindset is, however, against the rich history of protest and dissent that civilizations across borders and philosophers like Gandhi, Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr. and Chavez have propounded and celebrated. In his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’, King Jr. quotes Socrates by saying, that it is “necessary to create a tension in the mind (of the people as well as the governments) so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realms of creative analysis and objective appraisal.” He says that protests give rise to ‘understanding and brotherhood’. He was inspired by Gandhi’s civil disobedience and philosophy of non-violence. These philosophers and leaders believed and proved that ‘norm shift’ can only be brought by peaceful and direct action.
Simon Jenkins, a renowned British author, says, that, “streets are a sacred political space, the last resort and are liberty rampant. But they are consistently shown to be as licensed unreason”. The status of public spaces in the history of political discourse, in every country across the globe, is symbolic and has a communicative value. Many a time, the ability to protest at a particular site is directly related to the communicative value of the protest. Judgments in foreign jurisdictions like ‘Brown v. Tasmania’ and ‘Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organizations’ go on to even legally recognize the special status of streets as public places and their significance in a protest.
The judgment in Amit Sahni grants arbitrary powers to the state and its authorities. They can now decide whether a protest site is a public place or not. It also grants them the power to allot ‘designated spaces’ for protest. Resultantly, these spaces will be far from the public eye. Use of established public spaces for assembly and communication between citizens on matters relating to important public questions will eventually wither away and democratic freedom will be curtailed.
The judgment of the court, although cautiously, lays down an alternative to physical protests in the form of online protests. However, dissent is more powerful when it is visible. Physical protests have a symbolic value and a visual impact. Streets are many a time, the only meaningful avenue for democratic expression.
Democracy must begin with ordinary people and must be centered around ordinary people. The present government’s attempt to discredit social movements and protests as unorganized and led by incompetent organizations who are devoid of a clear message, is threatening. Protests on the streets allows for new political imaginations. It challenges the presence of elites in elections and pitches in for a Rule of Law and representative democracy. The question is, will protests ever be the same anymore?
- Anurag is a student of National Law University, Visakhapatnam and can be contacted at [email protected]
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