The Allahabad High Court had, suo motu, taken cognisance of the UP government’s vindictive move to put up roadside posters naming and shaming and giving photos and details of individuals accused of damaging public property during the anti-CAA protests in Lucknow in December 2019. The court deservedly reprimanded the Adityanath government for “undemocratic functioning”, for violating the individual’s fundamental right to privacy and the assurance of Article 21, that no person shall be deprived of life and personal liberty except by procedure established by law. It directed the government to take down the posters “forthwith” and set a date for it to submit a compliance report to the court. When the UP government appealed the decision of the Allahabad HC, however, the Supreme Court merely remarked that the state’s action was not “covered in law” and referred the case to a bigger bench. This is disappointing. Surely, it should not require a larger bench to see the obvious: That the UP government’s move is an attempt to intimidate and hound the protester, that it is guilty of trying to undermine the presumption of innocence until proven guilty by due process of law — a cardinal principle of criminal jurisprudence.
Taking its cue from the apex court, the UP cabinet has cleared the draft Uttar Pradesh Recovery of Damage to Public and Private Property Ordinance 2020 — it proposes to legalise its invasion of the privacy of citizens and its invitation to mob justice in a state that has seen frequent episodes of vigilante violence. In a sense, the UP government’s moves, first to name and shame protesters and then to provide legal cover for it, are only in keeping with its conduct so far, ever since the eruption of protests against the new citizenship law. The brutality of the police crackdown in December 2019, the indiscriminate slapping of grievous charges against protesters, and the death toll, are all an indictment of a rampaging state trying to look strong by using force to crush basic liberties. But the apex court’s ostensible reprieve to the UP government is a let-down.
The Supreme Court has shown a disturbing lack of urgency in habeas corpus cases relating to Kashmir recently, and in matters of hate speech and sedition, yet it remains the citizen’s best hope for protection of individual liberties against state trespass and transgression. It must be hoped that the larger bench which will hear the UP government’s challenge of the Allahabad HC ruling in this week, will make amends for the impression of delay and miscarriage of justice in the case so far.
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