The Supreme Court has spoken on the Shaheen Bagh sit-in, in response to a petition that sought removal of the protestors, whose protest had blocked traffic and the public way. It is disappointing to hear what the apex court has to say. The Shaheen Bagh protest is long over, it ended in March. But in the national capital, and in small towns across the country, where, taking inspiration from Shaheen Bagh, similar sit-ins had come up to express opposition to a discriminatory citizenship law, the anti-CAA mobilisation has left a mark — or scar. These were largely spontaneous, mostly leaderless protests which sheltered under portraits and banners of the founding fathers and held up the tricolour and the Constitution as they addressed the government and demanded the roll-back of a law that specifically excludes Muslims from its promise of fast-tracked citizenship to religious minorities. In its response, the government sought to label the protests as anti-national, and even criminalise them. If the government turned a deaf ear to the protesters of Shaheen Bagh — which is also why the sit-in continued for as long as it did — the court looks back at them now with an unseeing eye. Public protest, it said Wednesday, must be “in designated areas alone” and “public ways and public spaces cannot be occupied… and that too indefinitely”.
With due respect, the court response shows a constricted view of the public sphere. Even though it had two reports by the interlocutors it appointed to go to Shaheen Bagh, it doesn’t see, in the geography of the anti-CAA protest, the bigger picture. Certainly, it is unexceptionable that sit-ins must not inconvenience commuters and citizens who wish to go on with work and play. But in a democracy which assures the right to dissent, this is surely a negotiation, not inflexible rule. The anti-CAA protests in Shaheen Bagh and in the mini-Shaheen Baghs — in Wasseypur in Dhanbad, Park Circus in Kolkata, Subzibagh in Patna, or Mohalla Bhandaridih in Giridih, to name just a few — had a specific and shared characteristic: They were located in Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods, even as they invoked and invited larger solidarities, across communities. It is not surprising that in its effort to make itself heard, and to make the government listen, an embattled minority should have sought the comfort of its own neighbourhoods.
The onus was on the court to understand why the protesters converged at Shaheen Bagh, or Mohalla Bhandaridih, and not elsewhere. And to understand, too, that in a democracy, protest cannot be shaped and designed to fit its, or the government’s, convenience or taste. A public space must host not just consensus, it must not just be common ground — it must also give expression to new needs and demands to break old inequities and discriminations. It must be where criticism can be heard of power and of powerful institutions. The public space must be where the public can stand up, safely and peacefully, and point out that they are being ignored or minimised, as in the citizenship law. The court has done well to underline the power of dissent in a democracy — it should have underlined that dissent, by its very definition, cannot be made to order.
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