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Right to Protest in India

Many newspapers and news channels have been reporting about farmers protesting against the Farmers Bill 2020 and marching towards the capital city from Punjab and Haryana. There are those who categorize it as a political conspiracy, while others describe it as a genuine protest to prevent the final enactment of the bill due to some apparent flaws.

The protest was taken on a massive scale and the farmers succeeded in getting a meeting with the officials, but they weren't the only ones suffering. The residents must have also endured a lot of hardships.

Protest-a fundamental right

The purpose of protest by a group, community, or individual is to express their disapproval or defiance of the actions, policies, statements, etc of the state, government, or organization. The majority of protests are driven by political waves, which are also a sign of the collective organization of people to force the state or government to address their issues and take steps to overcome them. In general, protests work in two ways. First, it shows the community or group, or individual that they disagree with the policy, and second, it helps governments identify their own shortcomings and work to make them better.

Historically, protests date back to the pre-independence period:

  • Indian protests have a long and illustrious history. In the past 72 years, India was a colony ruled by the Britishers
  • After independence, the people of that country became free citizens after a long series of protests by freedom fighters.
  • Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Known also as the father of the Indian nation, Mahatma Gandhi taught Indian citizens how to protest peacefully.
  • Whether it was the Swadeshi Movement of 1905 or the Satyagraha of 1930, these movements have shaped the history of the nation as a peaceful protest against colonialism.
  • Indians fought tirelessly to express their views on colonial policies and to show dissent against British colonization and to speak out against the government.
In a democratic country, one must adhere to their duties or responsibilities when exercising their right to peaceful protest.

Constitutional Protections available to Right to Protest

Indians fought energetically in every fight to openly express their perspectives on frontier approaches and to challenge English colonization and the public authorities.

In a country with a vote-based system of government, one should adhere to obligations or duties while practicing or appreciating serene dissent.
  • A fundamental obligation for every citizen under Article 51A is to safeguard public property and to 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) explains this right to freedom of speech and expression.
  • It includes that each individual has the privilege to express their own viewpoints however exposed to reasonable restrictions
  • The right to assemble peaceably and without arms is under article 19(1)(b). Thus the right to peaceful protest is given to Indian citizens by our Constitution.
  • The right to assemble peaceably on article 19(2) imposes reasonable restrictions and without weapons and to freedom of speech and expression as none of these rights are utter in nature.
  • The sensible restrictions are obligatory in the welfare of the sovereignty & 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, offense, or incitement to an offence.

Public as Watchdog of the Government

The public acts as a watchdog and monitors the government's every move. As a result of injustice or misuse of power, the public has often acted as a watchdog, and protests have been held. In India during the Emergency, people of all political persuasions protested against the misuse of power.

For example:
  • During the Emergency, Arun Jaitley, who was then an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad student leader in Delhi, gathered a crowd to burn a statue or dummy of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which led to his arrest.
  • Other BJP leaders, including AB Vajpayee, LK Advani, and Narendra Modi, participated in the protests against the Emergency, together with Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and followers of Jayaprakash Narayan (Lok Nayak), like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar. In reality, many of these leaders were students at the time and rose to high posts or office in the future.
  •  Also in 1973, the Chipko movement in the upper Alaknanda valley in India began a precedent for non-violent protests in India that was followed by the Andhra and Telangana movements.
According to the Supreme Court in Ramlila Maidan Incident v. Home Secretary, Union of India & Others (2012), "Citizens have a fundamental right to assembly and peaceful protest that cannot be taken away by an arbitrary executive or legislative act". Gang rape in Delhi in 2012 caused tremendous public outrage, and the citizens expressed their clear displeasure with that event.

Anna Hazare began a hunger strike at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in 2011 that led to Sharad Pawar's resignation from the group of ministers charged with reviewing the draft Jan Lokpal bill.

For what reason is it fundamental for upholding democracy?

The government introduces many policies from time to time in the interest of the citizens and the overall improvement of the country. People in the country monitor these policies, and it is through them that opinions on these policies can be formed. Since the citizen is more like a watchdog for these policies, any mistakes or shortcomings can be addressed by them and solved by peaceful demonstration.

During colonial rule, various communities organized public meetings, dharnas, protests, etc. as a means of protesting the British rule and demanding independence from Britain. On the other hand, the state is also required by the Constitution to ensure the Fundamental Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression by respecting and responding to protests. But protests shouldn't be inspired by intentionally disrupting the state's normal functioning.

As demonstrated in the recent Bharat Bandh on account of farmers' protest on December 8, 2020, the protestors went over the top with their actions. It disrupted cab services, stopped a train, and also prevented an elderly woman from going to the doctor. Such protests are unethical and unfair when they are inspired by such political movements.

It is not only a fundamental right granted by the Indian Constitution but also a moral duty to protest injustice. By now, it is pretty obvious that the constitution safeguards the Right to Protest. In some instances, it can be considered a treasure to secure the right of free expression and peaceful protest, and it should be protected at all times.

However, these rights are not absolute and should be subject to reasonable restrictions as provided under Article 19(2), which is crucial for the sovereignty and integrity of the country. Fundamental rights do not exist in isolation, and the rights of protestors and commuters need to be balanced together.

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