The word Democracy in essence means the “power of people”, being a democracy, India has its government chosen by the citizens, i.e. the people of the country chose their representatives to govern the nation. Being the largest Democratic Republic, the Indian government has some duties towards its citizens, such as providing them with some fundamental rights which are vested in the constitution itself.
When we talk about our fundamental rights, we refer to the right to protest and from these protests, inconvenience is caused to the public at large.
Protests are generally done against injustice, oppression and the abuse of power by various government authorities around the world. In India, we see a lot of protests done by the people as a reaction to opinions publicly heard or as an attempt to get a desired change. Against government backlogs, disagreements with government policies, and other issues which are not accepted by the citizens of the country.
During those protests, many people join in expecting them to be peaceful but as time passes, maybe due to certain circumstances these peaceful shows of disagreement lead to public inconvenience like the destruction of public property.
We have seen in the past few years, whether it may be in the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, the Farm laws in 2020 or the Agnipath Scheme in 2022. But at the root of it all in India, what we lack is awareness about public rights and their usage. There is also a lack of awareness on the part of the people with respect to the reasonable restrictions that the government can impose on the citizen’s fundamental rights.
Right to Protest
Karl Marx, a German philosopher, claimed that the socio-political history of humanity has been one of conflicts, clashes, protests, and dissents. It is a privilege that protest could be either exercised as a result of democracy or without it.
The conclusion of certain protests, whether it was the Chipko Movement in 1973, the Narmada Bacho Andolan, or the Nirbhaya Movement in 2012—are some of the most potent peaceful protests that took place in India before and after independence. These protests have caused a very paradigm shift in the past.
The right to protest is one of the major fundamental rights, as it acts as a watchdog over the government’s work, along with providing feedback to the Government about their policies and actions through which they can be improved.
Furthermore, it makes sure that the government doesn’t act against the general welfare or that it doesn’t overpower the citizens of the country. The right to protest is one of the most significant Fundamental Rights. Though this Right to Protest is not a specific right under Fundamental Right, it can be inferred from the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(a) and (b) of the Indian Constitution.
Article 19 (1):
Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech etc.
(1) All citizens shall have the right
(a) to freedom of speech and expression;
(b) to assemble peaceably and without arms;
(c) to form associations or unions;
(d) to move freely throughout the territory of India;
(e) to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India; and
(g) to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business
Ever since the pre-independence era, the right to protest has held enormous value as it acts as a watchdog, constantly monitoring the actions of the government and ensuring justice. Aside from that, it strengthens democracy through direct engagement in public affairs.
It allows marginalised groups to express their views on how government programmes or social concerns work. Protests have historically fueled constructive social change and the advancement of human rights, and they aid in the identification and defence of civic space around the world. It also improves accountability.
They enable individuals and organisations to express dissatisfaction and complaints, exchange ideas and opinions, expose governance flaws, and openly demand that governments and other powerful institutions address concerns and hold themselves accountable for their activities.
The remarkable beauty of this right is seen in the case of Mukesh & Anr v. State for NCT Of Delhi & Ors. popularly known as the Nirbhaya Case. Where every citizen of the country stood together without any discrimination based on caste, colour, creed, sex or religion and read aloud the Preamble, sang, cheered, and raised slogans to bring justice for the victim.
There is nothing that could be more peaceful than that. The aftermath of the protest was so powerful that the Government authorities made an amendment which is called The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013. Hence, we could say that Protest led to significant changes in society but these rights come with terms and conditions.
Article 19(2) of the constitution of India authorises the Government to impose reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
However, in some instances, these protests have adverse effects on society when people disregard their obligations to the country and harm public resources when the government authorities do not agree with the demands of the protesters.
For an instance, recently, the Delhi Police notified the Delhi High Court that it had registered more than 500 cases involving property damage sustained during rallies against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in 2019 and 2020 and had begun the necessary legal proceedings against those implicated.
The police have given notices to 60 defendants stating that they must pay Rs. 57 lakh in damages caused by the CAA protests. Similarly, thousands of farmers gathered together in September 2020 to protest against the Center’s three farm laws.
During the protest, the country suffered losses of approximately Rs 60,000 crore as a result of the farmers’ revolt against the three farm laws. It can be said that the roads should have been cleared because the farmers now have no reason to complain as the government has repealed the farm laws.
A top trade group had disclosed in a covert statement that the protest demonstrations and the resulting supply chain disruptions resulted in a business loss of around Rs 50,000 crore.
The National Highway Authorities of India (NHAI) has reported losses of Rs. 2,731 crores in Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan. Nitin Gadkari, the Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, revealed the information to the Parliament during the winter session when he said that demonstrations began to affect toll collection in September 2020 just a few days after the protest started.
During the protest against the Agnipath policy which came to force in September 2022, during the protest there was an alleged reported loss of 1000 crores caused during the chaos of the protest as trains were set on fire and railway tracks were removed.
Another civil inconvenience caused during a protest can be seen in the case of Amit Sahni v. Commissioner of Police and Ors. (2020). In this protest, the apex court who is the interpreter of the law said that this protest cannot be allowed to cause such “inconvenience” to the general public by blocking public roads which causes traffic and other public inconveniences.
India is one of the biggest democracies in the world, it should make sure that the rights of its citizens are not quashed by the state or others. The right to protest is one of the most significant rights among other rights, as it works as a watchdog to the government agencies along with providing feedback to the government most importantly this right helps the citizen to fight against the misuse of the powers.
These rights sometimes get unhealthy for the public at large and even the government as they can cause nuisance i.e civil or criminal nuisance. Sometimes these nuisances lead to damage to public property, as seen in the protest of the Agnipath scheme, the Farm bill protest and various other protests.
However, during the Sahaheen Bagh protest – which was one of the more peaceful protests, there was still public inconvenience caused which may have been intentional or unintentional. The civil nuisance occurred under the premise of the right to mobility, occupying public property, trespass, etc.
Even though protest while happening, sometimes becomes unhealthy to society but for a democracy to function at its best and in order to provide a fair option to the public, there should be a right present which is superior to the policies.
The UN Human Rights Council also states that the State shall facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association and that the State’s obligation to facilitate includes the responsibility to provide basic services, including traffic management. This is stated in the joint report of the Special Rapporteur on these rights.
Citizens and the protesters, the interests of both groups need to be effectively managed and protected. Police must treat protesters and counter-protesters equally.
Protest always has both positive and negative impacts, but in the end, we could say that these protests lead to many significant changes in society and hence are a necessary part of a democratic ecosystem.
By Ayush Parashar, 2nd Year B.A. LL.B (Hons.), Faculty of Law, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara