Striking a balance between the democratic right to protest and the need to spare people the inconvenience resulting from blockades, a bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Aniruddha Bose and Krishna Murari said staging protests is a constitutional right and emphasised that an issue being sub-judice could not be a deterrent for an agitation on the same. It said pendency of petitions challenging the CAA before the apex court would not take away the right of citizens to protest against its enactment.
However, it also stressed that blockade of public spaces and roads, popular means of protests against colonial rulers, cannot be resorted to in a self-ruled democracy as the Constitution, while conferring certain rights, has also obligated everyone to perform fundamental duties.
“Democracy and dissent go hand-in-hand, but then demonstrations expressing dissent have to be in designated places alone. The present case was not even one of protests taking place in an undesignated area, but was blockade of a public way which caused grave inconvenience to commuters. We cannot accept the plea of the applicants that an indeterminable number of people can assemble whenever they choose to protest,” it said.
Writing the judgment for the bench, Justice Kaul said, “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 areas clear of encroachments or obstructions… We hope such a situation does not arise in future and protests are subject to legal position as enunciated above, with some sympathy and dialogue, but are not permitted to get out of hand.”
Referring to the blockade of an arterial road near Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh by anti-CAA protesters for months, the bench said while the hand of God in the nature of the Covid pandemic led to dispersal of the protesters, the authorities should act promptly in future.
The blockade of Kalindi Kunj stretch of a busy road continued from December 15 to March 24 when cops got the site cleared following the outbreak. Quoting Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Lippmann’s words — “In a democracy, opposition is not only tolerated as constitutional, but must be maintained because it is indispensable” — the bench said it respects right to peaceful protest of citizens against a legislation, but made it clear that “public ways and spaces cannot be occupied in such amanner and that too indefinitely”.
The bench observed, “We live in the age of technology where the social movements have swiftly integrated digital connectivity into their tool kit, be it for organising, publicity or effective communication.”
Watch Protesters can’t block roads or public spaces, rules Supreme Court