BY : AKSHYA GURNANI
While agreeing that citizens have a right to protest, the Court pointed out that there are also other public rights such as the right to movement and mobility.
In the ShaheenBagh protests matter, the Supreme Court today reserved its judgment on the aspect of balance between the citizens’ right to protest and other rights of the public.
The Bench of Justices Sanjay KishanKaul, Aniruddha Bose and Krishna Murari took up for hearing a clutch of petitions that had sought clearance of the protest site at Delhi’s ShaheenBagh, where protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act were being staged.
However, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the protest site was ultimately cleared. When the Court took up the matter for hearing today, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta suggested that in light of the developments, the petitions may not survive now. However, barring one petitioner, none of the others agreed to withdraw their petitions.
Advocate MehmoodPracha, representing an intervenor, argued before the Court that there are some aspects regarding the protest that are crucial and need to be looked into. He pointed out that the ShaheenBagh protests were peaceful for months together, and that the State machinery was misused to curb the movement.
He submitted that citizens have an absolute right to protest. This point was countered by SG Mehta, who said the right is not absolute and is subject to reasonable restrictions. While agreeing that citizens have a right to protest, the Court pointed out that there are also other public rights such as the right to movement and mobility that exist, and a balance has to be drawn between these.
When Pracha suggested that guidelines regarding protests be laid down, the Apex Court said that a universal set of guidelines may not suffice, as circumstances largely differ from one case to another. The Court added that in a parliamentary democracy like India, there is always an avenue for debate and discussion. The Court further noted that it has the benefit of the report filed by the interlocutors appointed to carry out a possible mediation between the protestors and the authorities.
It also observed that in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has changed drastically. Whether the efforts of the interlocutors sufficed or not could not be seen, the Bench said. Having said that, Justice Kaul expressed the Court’s appreciation for the efforts put in by interlocutors – Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde and Advocate SadhanaRamachandran – and said that the Court would pass an order having the benefit of the report submitted by them.
The Supreme Court then proceeded to reserve its order.
In March , a PIL had been filed before the Supreme Court seeking a direction for the immediate evacuation of protesters at ShaheenBagh and other protest sites in the country, on account of the Coronavirus outbreak.
The plea stated that the entire population of Delhi was under an emergency situation and was extremely vulnerable to the infectious Coronavirus disease. It was added that the protesters had no right to endanger the lives of thousands of innocent people in the name of exercising their fundamental right to protest.
Later, a letter had been addressed to the judges of the Supreme Court on behalf of anti-CAA protestors who were evicted from ShaheenBagh, whereby protest was registered over their “forcible and vindictive removal” by the Delhi police.