The right to protest in public places is not absolute and public places cannot be occupied indefinitely for such protests, the Supreme Court ruled that in a case highlighting the troubles faced by general public due to the road blockade at shaheen Bagh in south Delhi by protestors who were opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act(CAA). Dissent and democracy go hand in hand but protests must be carried out in designated areas, a three- judges bench, headed by justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul ruled. The Citizenship (Amendment) ACT, 2019 was passed last year which seeks to grant citizenship to non- muslim migrants belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Jain communities who came to the country from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan on or before December 31, 2014. The passage of CAA led to nationwide protests calling the CAA and the National Register of Citizens discriminatory. A women led protest 24/7 sit- in protest was also initiated in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi. The Shaheen Bagh protest result in the closure of the Kalindi kunj Shaheen Bagh stretch, including the Okhla underpass from 15. 12. 2019. It was submitted that the public roads could not be permitted to be encroached upon in this manner and thus a direction be issued to clear the same. The interlocutors made appreciable effort and submitted a report on 24.02.2020 which highlighted that the nature of demands was very wide and that it did look difficult to find a middle path towards at least facilitating the opening of the blocked public way. The second report suggested that the views reflected in private conversations with the protestors were somewhat different from the public statements made to the media and to the protesting crowd in attendance. While the women protestors had sat in protest inside the tent, there was a huge periphery comprising mainly of male protestors who all seemed to have a stake in the continuance of the blockade of the road.
The Shaheen Bagh protest perhaps no longer remained the sole and empowering voice of women, who also appeared to no longer have the ability to call off the protest themselves. There was also the possibility of the protestors not fully realizing of the protestors not fully realizing the ramifications of the pandemic, coupled with a general unwillingness to relocate to another site.
The court noticed that the Constitutional scheme comes with the right to protest and express dissent, but with an obligation towards certain duties. Article19, one of the cornerstones of the Constitution of India, confers upon its citizens two treasured rights which is freedom of speech and expression and right to assemble peacefully without arms that enable every citizen to assemble peacefully and protest against the actions or inactions of the State.
These rights are subject to reasonable restrictions, which, inter alia, pertain to the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India and public order, and to the regulation by the concerned police authorities in this regard. Noticing that in this age of technology and the internet, social movements around the world have swiftly integrated digital connectivity, publicity or effective communication, the court said that technology, however, in a near paradoxical manner, works to both empower digitally fuelled movements and at the same time, contributes to their apparent weakness.
The Court said that both these scenarios were witnessed in Shaheen Bagh, which started out as a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, gained momentum across cities to become a movement of solidarity for the women and their cause, but came with its fair share of chinks- as has been opined by the interlocutors and caused inconvenience of commutors.
While interpreting the constitutionally guarranteed right to protest and to assemble in the Shaheen Bagh case, the Supreme Court does reiterate that protection of the rights should be balanced.