Mission Smart Cities has a brand new dimension. These cities may soon be protest-mukt. Who wants their fingerprints, handwriting and even DNA samples to be taken, only for marching on the road against injustice? Rules have just been framed for the new Criminal Procedure (Identification) Act 2022 which allows policemen to record the biometrics of those arrested and even merely detained. Those preventively arrested, or charged only for violating Section 144, which prohibits the assembly of five or more persons, are exempt, but only if they have no other offence registered against them.
That’s cold comfort. The police are no respecter of laws, let alone caveats. Even seven years after Section 66A of the IT Act (concerning “offensive’’ online posts) was struck down by the Supreme Court, the police continues arresting people under it. Secondly, seldom are protesters charged only with Section 144 violations. The police’s treatment of peaceful protesters depends on the orders they get and their own prejudices. If they’ve been told to teach the protesters a lesson, or they themselves have little tolerance for the protesters, their behaviour may well provoke resistance, which is an offence in itself.
Under the new law, the police can store your biometrics till you are acquitted. But to get them deleted, you need an order from a magistrate. Given the pace at which our legal system works, once you’ve been acquitted, would you want to return to court?
Currently, images of Iranian women burning their headscarves on the streets, with men supporting them, are flooding our mobiles. Last week, thousands marched in Paris demanding the president’s resignation. In June, thousands of Londoners protested against rising prices. Forget the advanced democracies of the West. In Pakistan, last week, thousands of tribesmen rallied in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for peace and an end to terrorism in the region.
Alas, such images are rare in India, although not for a lack of causes. Food and gas prices are at a record high; all through the rains, our metros have been flooded; potholes claim lives every day. Yet, we aren’t out protesting. In recent years, one can only think of a few peaceful street protests in which thousands participated: The protests against Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide in 2016, the kisan long march in Maharashtra in 2018, the anti- CAA/NRC protests across cities in 2019-2020, and the farmers’ protests in Delhi in 2020-21. However, these were restricted to specific sections, even if others joined in for some time.
One reason for the lack of street protests is that the streets are no longer available. Till the 1990s, peaceful morchas of students, teachers, and even journalists, would snake their way across main roads. Posters would be put up across the city; pamphlets distributed en route. That era ended after the authorities designated one specific area in every city for protests. Rendered invisible, out of sight of the public, with even wall-posters banned, the protesters became out of mind even for the authorities.
A more recent change has been the criminalisation of peaceful protest. Earlier, even if detained, protesters were let off in a couple of hours, with no charges filed. But the advent of the BJP government at the Centre saw criminal cases filed against peaceful protesters. The progress of these cases reveals that the police have no intention to prosecute; yet, the accused must take every court date seriously.
Taking to the streets to protest peacefully is a fundamental right in a democracy. Our Constitution guarantees it; our Supreme Court has upheld it more than once. For the world’s largest democracy to treat peaceful protesters as criminals does it no credit.
Today, the only ones who actually take to the streets, that too occasionally, are political parties, whose members are willing to court arrest. For others, planning a silent demonstration (not even a morcha) outside the corner designated for such demonstrations involves taking police permission, not a pleasant exercise.
There is one section though, that’s never faced a problem marching through the streets, Section 144 be damned. Ruling party supporters make up this special class of citizens. The rest of us may as well keep our heads down, choosing to see nothing, feel nothing, like the walking dead described by revolutionary poet Paash: “Sabse khatarnaak hota hai/murda shaanti se bhar jaana/…sab kuch sehan kar jaana/ghar se nikalna kaam par/aur kaam se lautkar ghar aana.’’ (The most dangerous thing is to be filled with the peace of the grave; bear everything; leave home for work and return home from work.)
The writer is a senior journalist