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Above: A demonstration organised by the Jat Arakshan Samiti at Jantar Mantar in May 2015 demands reservation. Photo: Anil Shakya

Does a ruling of the Tribunal banning meetings at this iconic site and directing them to Ramlila Maidan curb civil liberties or are residents right in demanding freedom from nuisance?

~By Saurav Datta

Based on complaints by some residents, a bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) recently imposed a ban on all rallies and public protests at Jantar Mantar in the centre of Delhi. Delivered by Justice Raghuvendra S Rathore and Dr Satyawan Singh Garbyal, it imposed a spatial restriction by directing protesters to hold meetings and rallies at Ramlila Maidan near Ajmeri Gate, six kilometres away from the seat of power.

The NGT ban came after a group of residents of Jantar Mantar Road filed a plea with it last year protesting against these rallies. The ban has come primarily on three grounds: One, Jantar Mantar is not an authorised site for protests; Jantar Mantar Road is marked as a residential area in the Delhi Master Plan and hence, cannot be allowed to be used for other purposes; the protesters cause pollution, particularly noise pollution, because of unregulated use of loudspeakers and amplifiers, drums, etc. Issues of littering, sanitation, and even cow protection groups bringing cows and carts to the area have been mentioned in the NGT order.

The Tribunal said: “It is amply clear that the petitioners are suffering because of gross violation of laws and non-performance of duty by authorities. The environmental condition at Jantar Mantar Road—in relation to noise pollution, cleanliness and waste management—has grossly deteriorated. Besides constant dharnas, noise pollution and health problems due to unhygienic conditions generated by agitators… is unique in the case.”

Varun Seth, the lead petitioner who stays at 6, Jantar Mantar, reportedly spoke of his family’s travails over the last five years when public protests had become the worst. Besides the noise pollution, he listed issues of safety, hygiene and traffic. “They come in numbers, create havoc with slogans, walk around semi-nude, urinate on walls, and leave behind a mess… obviously I want them out of here,” he told The Indian Express. “There was a family emergency once but we couldn’t get out because some people protesting for OROP had parked cars outside our house. We can’t invite people over because there might be 500 or 5,000 people here. My children can’t go out and skate or cycle, my father can’t go out for a walk… it’s a nuisance,” he said. “If Jantar Mantar is the protest site, then go inside the monument. Or go to India Gate or Ramlila Maidan… don’t encroach on my privacy. Is this what living in Lutyens’ Delhi is like?”

However, some say the judgment has curbed the public and civil society’s right to seek accountability from the government and powers-that-be. Also, under Section 144 of the CrPC, permanent prohibitory orders are imposed in Raisina Hill and surrounding areas. This  prohibits, without written permission, an assembly of five or more persons; carrying of weapons, banners and placards; shouting of slogans, speeches, processions and demonstrations; picketing and dharnas.

Jantar Mantar has been the site of many protests every day. Some recent ones include: The agitation by Tamil Nadu farmers demanding drought relief funds and loan waivers, the “Not in My Name” rallies against the recent lynching of Muslims and other incidents of communal and caste-based violence, protests following the killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh and those by ex-servicemen for months demanding OROP. What’s more, it had become a tradition for the nearby Gurudwara Bangla Sahib to generously supply protesters with food. National media and television cameras too covered these events in central Delhi as Parliament House was nearby.

Women demonstrators near Jantar Mantar drying their laundry at the roadside. Photo: UNI
Women demonstrators near Jantar Mantar drying their laundry at the roadside. Photo: UNI

Until the early 1990s, the Boat Club lawns near India Gate used to be given out for large protests. However, two events changed that. The first was the laying of a siege to the venue for many days by the Bharatiya Kisan Union led by Mahendra Singh Tikait and the second was a major protest by the BJP during the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid stand-off, which the Narasimha Rao government foiled.

After these developments, it was decided that no protests would be allowed at the Boat Club lawns and they would be held at Jantar Mantar, from where protesters would be allowed, upon receiving prior permission, to march up to Parliament Street police station. The arrangement worked well for nearly a quarter of a century. It provided protesters, including political parties, an opportunity to also interact with the media. As the site was close to parliament, often senior political leaders also joined the protests and ministers could come and give assurances to the protesters. It is doubtful whether they will now come all the way to the Ramlila Grounds.

With the police laying down three rows of barricades just outside Parliament Street police station, it also allowed for great visual effects as the protesters would climb atop these or were allowed to break the first cordon and face water cannons before courting arrest. The large courtyard of the police station provided adequate space for keeping protesters in detention for some time.

UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai warned against the practice of allowing protests to take place only on the outskirts of the city where their impact will be muted.

There has been criticism of the NGT ruling which relied only on the claims of residents of the area and did not go by reports of independent experts or government bodies to gauge the level of noise and other pollution. It ignored what the Central Pollution Control Board and New Delhi Municipal Corporation said—that noise levels were kept under the permissible limits and adequate facilities were provided for public hygiene.

Also, in a report to the UN General Assembly in 2016, former UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Maina Kiai had stated: “Assemblies are an equally legitimate use of public space as commercial activity or the movement of vehicles and pedestrian traffic. Any use of public space requires some measure of coordination to protect different interests, but there are many legitimate ways in which individuals may use public spaces.” He warned “against the practice whereby authorities allow a demonstration to take place, but only in the outskirts of the city or in a specific square, where its impact will be muted”.

Major metros such as Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata too have grounds such as Azad Maidan, Marina Beach and Brigade Parade Ground respectively for massive public protests. Though they are located in the heart of the city, police departments have given permission for the same, and municipal and pollution control bodies maintain strict vigil.

But in Delhi, the question remains—how to balance the rights of residents with the civil liberties of citizens.

Also Read: NGT bans protests at Jantar Mantar

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