Disapproving of the manner in which a sit-in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was organised in the Shaheen Bagh area of Delhi from December 2019 to March 2020, the Supreme Court Wednesday ruled that public protests must be “in designated areas alone” and “public ways and public spaces cannot be occupied… and that too indefinitely”.
The bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Aniruddha Bose and Krishna Murari, ruling on a petition for removal of protesters whose actions had led to traffic chaos in and around the Capital, said “while appreciating the existence of the right to peaceful protest against a legislation… we have to make it unequivocally clear that public ways and public spaces cannot be occupied in such a manner and that too indefinitely.”
The bench said “democracy and dissent go hand in hand, but then the demonstrations expressing dissent have to be in designated places alone”.
The Shaheen Bagh protest, it said, “was not even one of protests taking place in an undesignated area, but was a blockage of a public way which caused grave inconvenience to commuters”.
It said “we cannot accept the plea of the applicants (who sought to intervene in the matter in defence of the protesters) that an indeterminable number of people can assemble whenever they choose to protest”.
“We have, thus, no hesitation in concluding that such kind of occupation of public ways, whether at the site in question or anywhere else for protests, is not acceptable and the administration ought to take action to keep the areas clear of encroachments or obstructions,” the bench said.
The verdict also dwelt on the merits and demerits of technology impacting social movements.
Writing for the bench, Justice Kaul said “we live in the age of technology and the internet where social movements around the world have swiftly integrated digital connectivity into their toolkit; be it for organising, publicity or effective communication.”
“Technology, however, in a near paradoxical manner, works to both empower digitally-fuelled movements and, at the same time, contributes to their apparent weaknesses. The ability to scale up quickly, for example, using digital infrastructure, has empowered movements to embrace their often-leaderless aspirations and evade usual restrictions of censorship; however, the flip side to this is that social media channels are often fraught with danger and can lead to the creation of highly polarised environments, which often see parallel conversations running with no constructive outcome evident,” the order stated.
“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 commuters,” it stated.
The ruling came on an appeal filed by advocate Amit Sahni. He had first approached the Delhi High Court, highlighting problems caused by the protests which led to the closure of the Kalindi Kunj-Shaheen Bagh stretch, including the Okhla underpass, from December 15, 2019.
Sahni contended that public roads could not be encroached upon in this manner and sought a court direction to clear the roads.
The High Court, which heard the plea on January 14, 2020, disposed it the same day without any specific direction. It said Delhi Police had all the powers, jurisdiction and authority to control traffic in the larger public interest wherever protests or agitations were on. The High Court said it was up to authorities to take a call based on ground reality and the wisdom of police, especially in situations that could change every 10 minutes.
The Supreme Court, however, said it is “of the view that the High Court should have monitored the matter rather than disposing of the Writ Petition and creating a fluid situation”.
The bench noted the inaction of the administration. “No doubt, it is the responsibility of the respondent authorities to take suitable action, but then such suitable action should produce results. In what manner the administration should act is their responsibility and they should not hide behind court orders or seek support therefrom for carrying out their administrative functions.”
“The courts adjudicate the legality of the actions and are not meant to give shoulder to the administration to fire their guns from. Unfortunately, despite the lapse of a considerable period of time, there was neither any negotiations nor any action by the administration, thus warranting our intervention,” the bench said.
“We only hope that such a situation does not arise in the future and protests are subject to the legal position as enunciated above, with some sympathy and dialogue, but are not permitted to get out of hand,” it said.