The protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act by the women of Shaheen Bagh inspired similar sit-ins across the country. In Shaheen Bagh, the protestors occupied a city road and turned it into a vibrant political arena, where activists, writers, musicians, politicians etc spoke and performed in solidarity with the opposition to a discriminatory citizenship law. Shaheen Bagh was an organic protest of local residents that did not ally with any political party or take orders from a single leader. With its emphasis on constitutional values and invocation of the secular spirit of the Freedom Movement, the peaceful sit-in was an innovative experiment in public action. On Wednesday, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled that an indefinite “occupation” of a public road was unacceptable.
In ‘In defence of commons’, musician, author and activist, T M Krishna writes that “the Shaheen Bagh protests were necessary to push back a government that is bent on demolishing our constitutional soul, using every Machiavellian trick in the book”. It represented a battle for the nation’s constitutional commons, such as equality, equity, fundamental rights, liberty, justice and secularism. He argues that a nuanced reading of such protests is necessary so that they are not dismissed as public nuisance, especially when staged in public spaces.
He writes: “Society is not a level-playing field and every institution, including the judiciary, does not treat every protest with the same yardstick… Public protests or processions by Dalits, minorities, women, trans people are viewed with disdain but none will dare question protests by powerful caste lobbies, political parties or the religious majority.”
In fact, a Permission Raj looms over public protests as the state through its various arms try to stifle dissent. He writes: “It is also essential to realise that protesting is often a spontaneous act and cannot be bottled by allocations and permissions. A vital quality of protest is public awareness and participation; consequently, public roads cannot be off-limits. Unless we are shaken awake from our slumber by slogans, cheers, demands, songs and hundreds walking the streets, those of us who complain of disruption will never notice the farmer or labourer.”
While India became a democratic country in 1947, many citizens have been denied the freedoms promised in the Constitution. Common people will have to apply collective pressure for the state to respond to their concerns and act against injustice. Krishna writes: “In this tussle, public spaces are crucial to empower people, make them heard, and bring some parity into the discourse. Therefore, the occupation of highways by citizens whose lives have been torn apart by sexual, corporate and political violence is an important tool and to treat it as a public annoyance is majoritarian browbeating.” He concludes that “the Supreme Court had the opportunity to expand the contours of its order keeping in mind reality with all its unevenness, but it remained silent and forgot that democracy thrives in the poromboke!”
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