Democracy and dissent go hand in hand, but dissent must be expressed in designated areas: SC on Shaheen Bagh

The Supreme Court ruling on the legality of the Shaheen Bagh protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has held that democracy and dissent go hand in hand, but demonstrations expressing dissent must be in designated places only.

Public spaces cannot be occupied indefinitely by protesters, causing inconvenience to commuters, the Court held.

A three-judge bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul also rejected the argument of intervenors that an indeterminable number of people can assemble whenever they choose to protest.

“We have, thus, no hesitation in concluding that 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 the areas clear of encroachments or obstructions”, a bench which also comprised Justices Aniruddha Bose and Krishna Murari, said.

Justice Aniruddha Bose, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Krishna Murari

The bench added that India, as we know it today, traces its foundation back to when the seeds of protest during our freedom struggle were sown deep, to eventually flower into a democracy.

“What must be kept in mind, however, is that the erstwhile mode and manner of dissent against colonial rule cannot be equated with dissent in a self-ruled democracy. Our Constitutional scheme comes with the right to protest and express dissent, but with an obligation towards certain duties”, the bench pointed out.

Commenting on the use of technology, the Court said in the age of technology and the internet social movements around the world had swiftly integrated digital connectivity into their toolkit; be it for organising, publicity or effective communication.

“Technology, however, in a near paradoxical manner, works to both empower digitally fuelled movements and at the same time, contributes to their apparent weaknesses”, the Court said.

According to the Court, the ability to scale up quickly, for example, using digital infrastructure had empowered movements to embrace their often-leaderless aspirations and evade usual restrictions of censorship; however, the flip side to this was that social media channels were often fraught with danger and could lead to the creation of highly polarised environments, which often see parallel conversations running with no constructive outcome evident.

Both these scenarios, the Court said, were witnessed in Shaheen Bagh, which started out as a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, gained momentum across cities to become a movement of solidarity for the women and their cause, but came with its fair share of chinks – as has been opined by the interlocutors and caused inconvenience to commuters.

Chastising the inaction of the Delhi police, the Court said in what manner the administration should act is their responsibility and they should not hide behind the court orders or seek support therefrom for carrying out their administrative functions.

“The courts adjudicate the legality of the actions and are not meant to give a shoulder to the administration to fire their guns from”, the bench said.

The bench was delivering its judgment on a petition by advocate Amit Sahni, who alleged inaction on the part of the Delhi Police and administration in clearing the public road along the Shaheen Bagh area in Delhi.

Sahni pointed out the sheer inconvenience faced by lakhs of commuters because of blocking of the arterial road that connected Delhi with other cities in the National Capital Region (NCR).

Read the Judgment