Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Farmers protest: Supreme Court to decide whether right to protest is an absolute right

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The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to examine the issue whether right to protest is an absolute right, in a plea filed by Kisan Mahapanchayat, seeking space for protesters at Jantar Mantar and listed the matter to be heard on October 21.

A bench led by Justice A.M. Khanwilkar and Justice C.T. Ravikumar sought the Attorney General’s assistance. AG K.K. Venugopal submitted that the petitioners have challenged the validity of the Act before the High Court. 

The bench said, “Once a party approaches the court challenging the validity of an Act, where is the question of holding protest?”

To which, the Attorney General replied, “Your Lordship is right. You can’t arrive at two houses at the same time. He has chosen his forum.”

The AG also expressed disappointment at Sunday’s Lakhimpur Kheri incident before the Supreme Court. “Such unfortunate incidents should not happen. The protests must stop” said the AG. The Supreme Court opined, “When such incidents happen, no one takes responsibility.”

The Supreme Court on Friday had asked Kisan Mahapanchayat, a body of farmers and agriculturists, to file an affidavit, stating that they are not part of the group protesting on borders that have blocked the highways.

Following which, the Supreme Court was today informed by Advocate Ajay Choudhary, Counsel for Kisan Mahapanchayat, that they have filed an affidavit stating that they are not involved in any blockage on any route. “We have served copies to the AG,” he said. 

On October 1, the Division Bench of Justice A.M. Khanvilkar and Justice C.T. Ravikumar had passed the order on a plea, seeking directions to the authorities to stage a peaceful and non-violent Satyagraha at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi. 

The petition further prayed to provide space to at least 200 farmers/protestors of the Mahapanchayat at Jantar Mantar for organising Satyagraha and direction to the Respondents not to stop the agitators from proceeding towards Jantar Mantar to carry out the indefinite Satyagraha.

The petition is filed by ‘Kisan Mahapanchayat’, a body of farmers and agriculturists through Advocate Ajay Choudhary.

According to the petition, the action of the Respondents in detaining the petitioners or ‘Satyagrahis’ for the whole day when they are protesting peacefully and in orderly fashion as per Covid Norms proceeding for the designated place to hold Satyagrah as per the Standing Order of Delhi Police, is violative of Articles 14, 19 & 21 of the Constitution of India.

The action of the Respondents is also discriminatory and arbitrary as permission to protest has been granted to another farmer body while denying the petitioner to organise a staggered Satyagrah, which is the most non–violent, peaceful and truthful form of protest perfected and practised by Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi, alleged the petition.

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It said that on March 18, 2021, the petitioner made a representation to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reflecting about the issues about the agriculturalists and their hardships in case of corporatization of the agricultural farms. Later on April 9, 2021, the petitioner made a request to the Commissioner of Police, Delhi, seeking permission for holding a protest at Jantar Mantar on grievances that the farmers have regarding the agricultural laws enacted by the Union Parliament. On April 8, 2021 after meeting the ACP Dinesh Kumar, the undertaking in the prescribed format was submitted. However, the request of the Petitioner was rejected on 09.04.2021. 

The petition further stated that on April 11, 2021, the petitioner again submitted the request through mail as well as in person. However, the Delhi Disaster Management Authority, Delhi Government issued notification under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, imposing restrictions on public movement, owing to which the applications remained suspended till May, 2021. 

Due to the prevailing conditions in the country and some of core members also being afflicted with the CoronaVirus, the petitioner stalled their program of organizing Satyagrah for the time being till the situation improves. Later on 12.06.2021 the Petitioner again applied for permissions with requisite undertakings for Satyagrah at designated place of Jantar Mantar as the covid pandemic situation improved and the Central as well as the State Governments relaxed the norms about people gathering and congregations.

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It was specifically stated that they would sit for Satyagrah in limited numbers in strict compliance of Protocol declared by the Government. The Petitioner was given an audience to present their request in person on June 28, in which the petitioner explained their plan of peaceful a Satyagrah. However, their request was again rejected on June 30, assigning the flimsy excuse of Covid Pandemic, while the restrictions have been lifted on all activities subject to following Covid Norms.

On June 30, the Deputy Commissioner of Police, New Delhi District, rejected the request of holding an indefinite Satyagraha at Jantar Mantar on the premise of guidelines issued by the Delhi Disaster Management Authority dated June 26, prohibiting activities including political gathering up to July 5.

On July 2, the DDMA eased the restrictions further and limited public gatherings were allowed. The petitioner informed in advance to Delhi Police about their program of holding the Satyagrah at Jantar Mantar, in which limited persons would participate in full compliance of the Covid Protocols from 05.07.2021 . On this the petitioner was apprised that they would not be able to give any written permission, however, there would also not be any restrictions in holding of Satyagrah protest by the farmers. It was also mentioned that the number of Satyagrahis be limited to a maximum of 15 persons in a day and to be held in the time period of 10.00 AM to 4.00 PM. 

It is mentioned in the Petition that pursuant to such understanding the members of the Petitioner farmers union started their journey from Jaipur, Rajasthan and reached Delhi on 04.07.2021. However, the Petitioner was informed through a Whatsapp Message on behalf of Delhi Police at 4.52 PM that their request had been rejected . However , as planned and duly informed to the Delhi Police about their program of Satyagrah, the Petitioner members 15 in number sat on Satyagrah from 12 Noon to 5 PM on 05.07.2021 and also submitted a representation to the Prime Minister’s Office. However , on 06.07.2021 when the petitioner’s Satyagrahi farmers were going to Jantar Mantar , they were stopped at Patel Chowk Metro Station and taken to Parliament Street Police Station, where they were detained up to 7 PM. 

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The Petitioner again requested the Respondents 13.07.2021 to permit them to organize a peaceful Satyagrah to raise their grievance against the Government and demand rectification of their grievances. The requests of the Petitioner were denied on the one hand but were allowed to another farmer’s body Samyukt Kisan Morcha to organize staggered protest to the strength of 200 farmers on 21.07.2021, which smacks arbitrariness and discrimination by the Respondent Authorities, the Petition alleged.

“The Right of citizens to protest and gather peacefully without arms is a fundamental aspect of India’s democracy . While it is also the obligation of the government to protect civilians from violent protests, certain essential principles need to be kept in mind. The Right to protest is one of the core principles on which democracy survives and thrives,” the Petition reads.

The farmers are protesting against the passage of three laws — The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 and Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020.

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