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Deface at Your Own Peril

Deface at Your Own Peril
A wall in RK Nagar assembly constituency in Tamil NaduPhoto UNI
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Above: A wall in RK Nagar assembly constituency in Tamil Nadu/Photo: UNI

In Tamil Nadu where elections are a riot of colours and noise, it remains to be seen how much of a difference the apex court orders will make this time

By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai

In the run-up to the general election, the Supreme Court has issued a tough diktat to the Tamil Nadu government—take every step necessary to prevent defacement of natural landscapes and public buildings with political slogans and photographs of leaders of various political parties.

On March 25, a bench headed by CJI Ranjan Gogoi pulled up the state government for filing a counter affidavit which was “not in the spirit of March 8 order of the Supreme Court”. In its March 8 order, the apex court had expressed serious concern over the issue and asked the state government to take all steps to prevent disfigurement and defacement of natural features like hillocks and hill faces, rocks, public installations and buildings with political slogans and photographs of politicians.

The orders were passed on a special leave petition (SLP) filed by an organisation called In Defence of Environment and Animals (IDEA) against a March 3, 2017, judgment of the Madras HC on this issue. ‘Elephant’ G Rajendran, the managing trustee of IDEA and a practising advocate of the Madras HC, represented IDEA and approached the Madras HC with a prayer seeking a direction to the Tamil Nadu government to prevent encroachments by anyone by any means including religious symbols and political graffiti, advertisements by private parties on natural resources like mountains, hills, hillocks, rubble, avenue trees and on the central median of national and state highways.

IDEA had, in fact, filed this petition and the subsequent petitions on this subject in the Madras HC from 2006 itself, and the High Court had passed various orders from time to time and also formed a committee to take note of the grievances raised in these petitions. The petitions were finally disposed of on March 3, 2017, when the Madras HC said that suitable action has to be taken against persons who disfigure walls and natural resources. At the same time, the Madras HC also obs­erved the following: “But the manner in which the petitioner was making allegations against the political parties appears to be totally uncalled for. The petitioner must have self restraint with regard to his feelings, while exercising freedom of speech and expression. Making these sorts of allegations would rather waste the time of this Court and would abuse the process of law. Due to lack of official staff and other government machinery, it may not be possible for the state government to take steps immediately and it will take some reasonable time to carry out the exercise.” It was against this order that IDEA thought it fit to appeal in the Supreme Court, and the apex court passed the March 25 order.

The bench comprising CJI Ranjan Gogoi and Justices S Abdul Nazeer and Sanjiv Khanna told advocate Yogesh Khanna, representing the state of Tamil Nadu: “You (Tamil Nadu government) cannot allow the defacement of the entire environment with political slogans, pictures of politicians. This has to stop now.” The bench gave this direction on March 8 and gave the Tamil Nadu government two weeks’ time to revert to the apex court on what action it had taken to stop defacement of the natural landscape with political party colours, flags, advertisements, billboards, etc. The petition has, along with the state of Tamil Nadu, arraigned the Union of India, the Chief Election Commissioner of India and general secretaries of political parties including the AIADMK, DMK, BSP, BJP, CPI, CPI(M), INC, NCP, and pollution control board authorities, etc.

Rajendran argued that the defacement was not restrained to one particular place but could be seen on bridges, central medians of roads, highways, hills, rocks, etc. “Ninety percent of the ads are done by political parties. The concerned authorities have not taken any action and not come forward to prevent it. The authorities should travel to the places pointed out by me and see for themselves,” said Rajendran.

Earlier, the Madurai bench of the Madras HC had, on March 22, banned political meetings in all urban centres of the state. The Court ruled that political meetings and rallies seriously affect public movement and also affect children and elderly people. Moreover, the public meetings of political parties also create hardship for the free and fast movement of ambulances and thus endanger the lives of people who are in urgent need of medical care.

Though political parties at the top level have as of now desisted from reacting to the two judgments, leaders at the middle level and cadres at the grassroots level have strongly opposed them. “I am surprised and saddened by these judgments. There is already a state government act which prohibits disfigurement of public places. But you cannot reach lakhs and lakhs of people only through print, television and online media. You have to use public places for popularising your candidate. In a country like India where uneducated people constitute a vast chunk of our population, curbs like this will hamper political activities,” said PV Kalyanasundaram, former organisation secretary of the DMK. Echoing the same viewpoint, P Rajan, a political activist of a local Tamil nationalist outfit, said: “Banning political rallies in cities and giving extreme consideration to protecting natural res­ources in the name of so-called environmental protection are nothing but elitist. In my view, these are all nothing but making politics and elections the sole domain of a select few.”

Women activists, too, have criticised the orders. “Even in this age of television and Facebook and WhatsApp, nothing can replace the public rallies and public meetings wherein you can get the personal touch. Now the judiciary is robbing that and it’s unacceptable. Banning rallies in cities in election season is against the spirit of democracy,” said a feminist who did not want to be named.

But the police are happy. “Banning rallies in cities and urban centres minimises our tension to a large extent. There is always palpable tension over the visit of high-profile leaders to Tamil Nadu and the required security blanket for them. Now this judgment is a huge relief because we can now function in an organised manner and thus ensure foolproof security to the visiting VIPs of all the political parties who are facing serious life threat. Moreover, this arrangement will eliminate the hardship for the common man,” said a senior police officer overlooking the security arrangements for visiting VIPs to Tamil Nadu.

But in a state where every election campaign is a riot of colours and noise, it remains to be seen how much of a difference the court orders will make this time.

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