A Full Bench of the Supreme Court held that although the citizens of the country have a fundamental right of dissent, the protestors cannot disrupt the public order.
Brief Facts of the Case
There have been protests against the enactment of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi. Amidst various petitions filed, the Supreme Court-appointed two intermediates, an advocate and a mediator to meet the protestors. Their report consisted of demands that do not have a middle ground to open the blocked public way in Delhi.
The pandemic regulations forced the protestors at the Shaheen Bagh site to clear. Some police action was also initiated to remove the various tents and other structures of the protest.
There was an absolute right to peaceful protest, both in respect of space and number of people. He submitted that the right under Article 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(b) of the Constitution of India are only restricted by the provisions of Clauses (2) & (3). Thus, the only applicable aspect would be ‘public order’, but such restriction must be reasonable.
Although the State cannot impose any unreasonable restrictions, a right to hold meetings on public streets was subject to the control of the appropriate authority. This is of the time and place of the meeting and also subject to considering the maintenance of public order.
The Bench noted that under Article 19(1)(b) the citizens have the right to assemble peacefully without arms. It enables every citizen to assemble peacefully and protest against the actions or inactions of the State.
These rights are subject to reasonable restrictions to the regulation by the concerned police authorities to maintain public order.
While appreciating the existence of the right to peaceful protest against legislation, the public ways and public spaces cannot be occupied indefinitely.
Democracy and dissent go hand in hand, but the demonstrations expressing dissent have to be in designated places alone.
In the present case, it was not even one of the protests taking place in an undesignated area. It was rather a blockage of a public way which caused grave inconvenience to commuters.
The Court opined that such protests cannot be accepted. An indeterminable number of people cannot assemble whenever they choose to protest.
The Bench stated that occupation of public ways, for protests is not acceptable. The administration of the premises requires to take action to keep the areas clear of encroachments or obstructions.
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