Monday, February 26, 2024

Rally Rights

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While even political campaign rallies are generally categorised within the right to protest sphere, what relief does a common, apolitical citizen have when the rally’s side-effects infringe upon his human rights?

By Sujit Bhar

How much interference into a common man’s life can a political party have? Can it interfere to such an extent that his/her daily life, through its innumerable ills and hurdles, be pushed further into despair? What logic, even if legal, could political rallies blocking public thoroughfares, have, when the general, apolitical consensus is against such behaviour?

We have the right to protest, and the Supreme Court has made this very clear in its judgment on the use of Jantar Mantar in the National Capital as a rally point. Does this mean that political parties now have a carte blanche on disrupting traffic, including ambulances, disturbing peace with high decibel amplifiers and much more? If all the environment and social norms are put in place and enforced, no political rally would be allowed.

More importantly, can political parties’ campaign rallies be categorised within the definition of the right to protest? The arguments will probably go the chicken-and-egg way, but one has to look at certain parts of the country to realise that the entire objective of such massive rallies are nothing, but a show of strength. The right to protest argument flies out of the window.

Every July 21, The All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), led by its charismatic supremo Mamata Banerjee, holds a Shahid Dibas rally right in the middle of Esplanade—this is a rally to pay tribute to Youth Congress workers who had died in a police firing on July 21, 1993—in Kolkata’s busiest office and market area. The rally grows to such proportions that traffic comes to a standstill for almost the entire day, local railway services are heavily affected and highways are clogged. In short, it brings life as we know it to a standstill.

If that is a right accorded to some citizens of our country by law, then that very act also takes away many of the rights of other citizens of the area. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been unsuccessfully trying to fight AITC for many years in West Bengal, aided by massive financial support from the centre, has always wanted this high platform, again in the middle of town, the same place where AITC holds its massive rallies, near Victoria House, the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation headquarters.

Trinamool has always objected to this, saying that it would disrupt traffic. The argument for Trinamool was that this was a venue of the deaths of its workers in the shooting (actually it was a little distance from there) when Jyoti Basu of the CPI(M) was the chief minister of the state and that BJP’s claim to the spot was irrelevant and will only create chaos in the city.

The BJP, however, was bent on holding the rally (scheduled date was November 29) at that particular point. 

Recently, the Calcutta High Court’s division bench of Chief Justice TS Sivagnanam and Justice Hiranmay Bhattacharya gave its go-ahead to the BJP rally, overruling Trinamool Congress objections. The Court directed Kolkata Police to allow the BJP to hold a rally.

Earlier, the state government had moved the division bench of the Court to challenge Justice Rajashekhar Mantha’s verbal order allowing the BJP to hold its November 29 rally in front of Victoria House. The BJP had gone to court, before Justice Mantha, when it did not receive any reply from Kolkata Police to the party’s plea to permit the rally near Victoria House.

The government wanted the Court to hear the plea on November 28, but the division bench took up the matter for hearing earlier, following an appeal by the counsel for the BJP Billwadal Bhattacharya.

The government’s counsel, Kishore Datta, told the division bench that other than the Shahid Dibas rally, Trinamool never held any programme at the spot of the police firing (that, again, was an argument that shifts from the actual venue). He said rallies at Esplanade would disrupt traffic at the busy thoroughfare.

While delivering its order the division bench said: “Since the traffic system and movement of pedestrians are generally disrupted due to holding of such gatherings on a busy thoroughfare, the police can impose practical guidelines during issuing the permission.

“The police have to keep in mind that the law and order system of the city is not disturbed on the day,” the chief justice said. The order also clarified that only restrictions that were mentioned on the Kolkata Police website could be imposed. “Police will not have the liberty to impose any other restrictions,” the bench clarified.

The BJP welcomed the order and its spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya said: “It was an expected order from Calcutta High Court. Trinamool was desperate to stop the rally by Amit Shahji and the Court had understood the motive. The order proved that the Trinamool Congress is the most intolerant political party in the country.”

The Court, at one point, during hearings, had even threatened that it would disallow the 21 July function if the government protests too much.

The rally was ultimately held and Home Minister Amit Shah addressed the massive rally that ensued, taking the opportunity to kick-off the BJP’s 2024 campaign by promising CAA and other policy implementations.

The tone and content of the speeches made in no way showed any inclination to a protest and it is still not clear why this rally—or even the rallies held there by Trinamool Congress—were okay, despite immense public misery.

The social justice angle

While that is the crux of the news, the matter extends beyond a court’s decision to hold a rally or not. It could also extend to a possible violation of the right to free speech and expression and the right to protest, some of the fundamental pillars on which a democratic edifice stands.

Hence, the question is: Does a complete ban on holding political rallies violate people’s basic rights?

In January this year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a petition filed by the Andhra Pradesh government challenging a High Court order that stayed a government notification issued earlier that month banning political roadshows. The government said that this decision was taken after a number of deaths during successive such rallies.

The YS Jagan Mohan Reddy government had ordered that the police should not grant permission to large gatherings and processions on roads, including on national highways, except in exceptional cases. This order followed an incident of eight deaths in a stampede at a public meeting held by TDP on December 28 at Kandukuru in Nellore.

The government’s notification was challenged before a Sankranthi vacation bench of Andhra Pradesh High Court at Amaravati by CPI member, Kaka Ramakrishna, on the ground that it violated citizen’s rights to free speech and expression, guaranteed under the Constitution.

The vacation bench, in its January 12 order, stayed the operation of the notification till January 20. However, the government, without waiting to raise its grievances against the stay order before the High Court, requested a bench headed by CJI DY Chandrachud for an urgent hearing.

The Supreme Court bench had remitted back the appeal to the Andhra Pradesh High Court, and in May, the High Court struck down the G.O. No. 1 issued by the state government as it was in violation of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.

Where do people exist?

Ironically Indians, throughout their struggle for independence, fought tooth and nail to be able to openly express their perspectives on governance. The horrific incident of Jallianwala Bagh, where hundreds were massacred by the British, just because they held a peaceful protest against the imposition of the draconian Rowlatt Act, is shown as a shining example.

It is also decided that in a country with a ballot-based system of government, one should adhere to obligations or duties while practising or appreciating serene dissent.

It has also been laid out that it is a fundamental obligation for every citizen under Article 51A to safeguard public property and avoid violence during public protests. Invoking violence during public protests, therefore, results in an infringement of that fundamental obligation.

In the Constitution, Article 19(1)(a) says each individual has the privilege to express his/her own viewpoints, but with reasonable restrictions. Article 19(1)(b) gives the right to assemble peaceably and without arms.

Among the sensible restrictions and obligations of those holding the rally are the welfare of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morals, or in relation to the disdain of court, offence, or incitement to an offence.

The definitions are ambivalent, as far as public convenience goes. There has to be a point where decency and genteel public behaviour has a say in modern public discourse and action.

Public political rallies, decidedly, represent neither. This definitely calls for a debate.

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