Civil society groups initiate campaign against restriction of protests to Freedom Park in Bengaluru

A letter addressed by Horatada Hakkigaagi Janandolana to the chief minister and home minister of Karnataka contends that in a democracy protests are a form of dialogue between affected citizens and other concerned citizens. Thus, by restricting protests to Freedom Park and condemning them to invisibility, the possibility of key conversations is eliminated and the essence of protests is devalued.

ON Wednesday, Horatada Hakkigaagi Janandolana initiated a signature campaign for the right to protest and carry out processions anywhere in Bengaluru.

At present, protests in Bengaluru are only allowed in Freedom Park, a public park in the city.

Also read: Why is it Important to Preserve and Protect our Freedom of Speech, Expression and Right to Protest

Horatada Hakkigaagi Janandolana, which literally translates to Forum for the Right to Protest is a coalition of progressive and democratic groups and individuals in Karnataka, and includes Bahutva Karnataka, All India Centre Council of Trade Unions, The All India United Trade Union Centre, Karnataka Halli Makkala Sangha, Fridays For Future, Janawadi Mahila Sanghatane, Slum Janandolana Karnataka, Bengaluru Slum Janara Sanghatane, All India Students Association and The Collective.

The ‘restrictive’ law

The memorandum addressed by the forum to the chief minister of Karnataka, Siddaramaiah, and the home minister, Dr G.Parameshwara, explains that in August 2022, the Karnataka High Court heard a suo motu public interest litigation on a letter by the former judge of Karnataka High Court, Justice Aravind Kumar, seeking restriction on protests causing traffic jams and hardship to the residents in Bengaluru.

During the pendency of the petition, the police commissioner of Bengaluru passed the Licensing and Regulation of Protests, Demonstrations and Protest Marches (Bengaluru City) Order, 2021 (licensing Order), designating Freedom Park as the only place for protests in the city. 

Following the issuance of the licensing Order, the high court directed its compliance and disposed of the petition. 

According to the forum, the licensing Order that was brought into effect in January 2022 by the Bengaluru city police, restricts the fundamental right to protest by relegating all protests to Freedom Park and prohibiting protests and demonstrations without obtaining a licence under the licensing Order. 

The letter emphasises that the “restrictive order” has resulted in registration of several cases against persons who were only exercising their right to protest. 

These protests, according to the letter, include a May Day rally by workers, farmers against land acquisition in Devanahalli, Dalit-rights activists seeking internal reservation, powrakarmikas (sanitation workers) demanding their rights, residents of Malleswaram organising a walk on the Sankey flyover issue, and a pride march by the LGBTQI community.

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An advocate, speaking to The Leaflet on condition of anonymity, clarified that the decision of the high court does not mandate that the protests should be held only in Freedom Park, but it states that the licensing Order should be followed.

He further explained that the licensing Order delineates a procedure to apply for permissions for rallies and provides that while Freedom Park shall be the designated place for protests, the police commissioner can designate any other spot also based on the situation. 

Emphasising that the licensing Order stands between the citizens and their right to protest, the advocate opined that it should be amended to include more places.

In this context, the letter highlights that in a democracy protests are a form of dialogue between affected citizens and other concerned citizens. Thus, by restricting protests to Freedom Park and condemning them to invisibility, the possibility of key conversations is eliminated and the essence of protests is devalued, it says. 

The advocate also pressed for the restoration of the Regulation of Public Processions and Assemblies (Bengaluru City) Order, 2009 and the creation of a law that recognised the right to protest and regulate the same should be passed.

On May 13, the INC won the state assembly elections in Karnataka, defeating the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Given that various Congress leaders such as Rahul Gandhi have criticised the BJP government for “suppressing and preventing peaceful protests”, calling such actions “an insult to India’s soul”, the forum urges the new government to fulfil its responsibility to uphold the democratic values.

Reportedly, during the lead-up to the Karnataka assembly elections, the Indian National Congress (INC) had promised that it would withdraw all first information reports (FIRs) filed against those who participated in peaceful protests to save trees near the Sankey Tank if it came to power.

The ‘invisibility’ of protests

On the importance of protests in public places, the letter points out examples of protests that facilitated changes in the law, including the protests after the 2012 Delhi gang rape, which saw a strengthening of anti-rape laws, protests by garment workers in 2016 that resulted in the new Provident Fund Rules being scrapped, and farmers’ protests in 2021 that led to the withdrawal of the farm laws.

Also read: All India Trade Union Congress calls the Delhi Police’s act of arresting wrestlers undemocratic

It also stresses that protests against the arbitrary felling of trees have allowed Bengaluru its “magnificent green cover”. 

In conclusion, the letter demands the withdrawal of the licensing Order on account of it being violative of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a), and the right to peaceful assembly under Article 19(1)(c) of the Constitution. 

The letter also demands the withdrawal of the cases filed against persons, including workers, farmers, Dalits, women and members of other marginalised communities, for acting in violation of the licensing Order.

According to Vinay Sreenivasa, who is an advocate practising in Bengaluru, the right to dissent or disagree is vital to democracy. He remarked that Bengaluru is a city with a vibrant civil society, actions of which have contributed to several positive changes in the city.

Courts on the right to protest

These developments in Karnataka come close on the heels of the Andhra Pradesh High Court setting aside an Order issued by the state government under the provisions of the Police Act, 1861, prohibiting public rallies and meetings on roads throughout the state. 

Also read: Farmers have a right to protest but they can’t block roads indefinitely: SC

A division Bench of the high court comprising Chief Justice Prashant Kumar Mishra and Justice D.V.S.S. Somayajulu held that the government Order was arbitrary, excessive and also failed the test of proportionality.

Citing the reasoning of safety and traffic obstructions, the government Order authorised the concerned authorities to grant permission for public meetings only in exceptional circumstances. 

The Bench opined that the right to assemble peacefully and to protest peacefully in streets and public places could not be restricted by law. It observed that blanket prohibitions confer arbitrary power upon the authorities to refuse permissions for holding lawful meetings.

Also read: Kerala High Court’s view denying right to protest to children is legally unsound

In July 2019, a Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan lifted a blanket ban on protests at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, a preferred place for protests and demonstrations.

In October 2018, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had ordered the ban on agitations on the Jantar Mantar road on the grounds of the violation of environmental law. 

The Supreme Court adjudicated on various petitions, including the challenge to the Order of the NGT and the repeated imposition of Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) that acted as a blanket ban on all peaceful protests in central Delhi. 

The Bench directed the commissioner of police, New Delhi, to devise detailed guidelines in consultation with other agencies on regulating the demonstrations. It also directed authorities to examine requests and grant written permission for protests in the area, and not pass Orders continuously under Section 144 CrPC. 

In its observations, the Bench stressed that the right to protest is a fundamental right that “strengthens representative democracy by enabling direct participation in public affairs where individuals and groups are able to express dissent and grievances, expose the flaws in governance and demand accountability.”