Shaheen Bagh–Public needs open spaces to express dissent

Syyed Mansoor Agha  

New Delhi: A Supreme Court bench has disapproved of the Shaheen Bagh sit-in on several counts.

The court was referring to the spontaneous protests broke in mid-December 2019 after the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA), was pushed through in parliament to grant migrants, except Muslims, instant Indian Citizenship. The law was laced with an open threat to be followed by NRC and to throw-out all who fail to prove their citizenship. General public that felt these were discriminatory laws gathered in Shaheen Bagh to hold sit-in protest. However after the COVID-9 pandemic broke out in the last week of March, the protest was suspended (not called off). It was believed that the pandemic would affect people more in crowds than those who were maintaining safe distance of six feet with each other.

The court case

In mid-January, a lawyer filed a petition in Delhi HC complaining about commuter’s difficulties because of a blockage on Kalindi Kunj-Shaheen Bagh ‎stretch due to sit-in. The sit-in covered hardly 100 meters stretch on one side of the double road. Another road parallel to Yamuna (Pushta road) remained opened. In fact, blockage was caused after Kalindi Kunj-Noida Road was blocked on the UP-side of Yamuna barrage at a point over 2 Km from the protest site.

The HC disposed of the petition with the observation, ‘Delhi Police has powers to control traffic… should take a call based on ground realities.’ The litigant went in appeal. The SC verdict came six months after clearing the road and prayer of the plaintiff/appellant had virtually become infructuous. However, a three-judge bench on Wednesday (7 October) ruled that public protests must be “in designated areas alone” and “public ways and public spaces cannot be occupied… and that too indefinitely”.

It said, “democracy and dissent go hand in hand, but then the demonstrations expressing dissent have to be in designated places alone”. The Shaheen Bagh protest, it said, “Was not even one of the protests taking place in an undesignated area, ‎but was a blockage of a public way which caused grave inconvenience to commuters.”

The facts

Surely, creating “inconvenience to the commuters” is “grave” but, with due respect Sir, it is not graver than the agony created by CAA and the threat of NRC. The intended ‘chronology’ unveiled in the Parliament pushed our women with their infants and old ‘Dadis’ to sit in protest 24×7 facing chilling cold and discomfort. The threat of losing citizenship of millions is no lesser pain to be snubbed. For commuters alternate routes were open. But is there any alternative if citizenship is stripped? Everybody knows, the NRC has made the lives of hundreds of families turn into hell in Assam. Why let it engulf the whole country and hound a community!

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Sit-ins continued for so long because of the apathy of ‘authorities’. If they had not turned deaf ear to the voice of women, durations of ‘Shaheen Baghs’ would have been shortened. The attitude of the government, due to political reasons, made un-interrupted sit-ins a “necessity”. In such situations, the Higher Courts of several countries have invoked Bracton’s maxim, ‘that which is otherwise not lawful is made lawful by necessity’. Necessity to raise voice against the threat of neutralisation of citizenship of millions should not lose sight.

Designated Spots

Expressing disappointment on the ruling, Indian Express writes,  “The Shaheen Bagh (in Delhi) and similar sit-ins (at other places) had come up to express opposition to a discriminatory ‎citizenship law. The anti-CAA mobilisations were largely spontaneous, .. sheltered under portraits and banners of the founding fathers and ‎held up the tri-colour and the Constitution as they addressed the government and demanded the rollback of a law.”

 “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 .. the court looks back at them now with an unseeing ‎eye.” The edit further said, “In a democracy, protests cannot be ‎shaped and designed to fit … government’s convenience or taste.”

Shaheen Bagh was not mastered by any parochial or political entity. It was governed by the common concern for the protection of basic constitutional values such as equality, equity, fraternity, liberty, justice, freedom, and unbiased polity, which is secularism. These fundamentals, the bedrocks of democracy are at stake. Those who have grown up with blurred vision and cherish the ideology of “We or Our Nationhood Defined’ cannot absorb these fundamentals. The Shaheen Baghs have become necessary to remind the nation that the regime is bent upon demolishing the soul of the Indian constitution. It was the motive that it did not remain exclusive. The SC has acknowledged, “It gained momentum across cities to become a movement of solidarity for the women and their cause‎.” Shaheen Baghs attracted enlightened people to become its part. Such protests are nuances for those who want their daily routine to go flawlessly and have no concern for these ideals.

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Discrimination

Mr. T M Krishna, author and activist wrote in the Indian Express on October 8, “Public order and social ‎tranquility are not objective notions and are often manipulated by the state.‎” “Protests or processions by ‎Dalits, minorities, women, are viewed with disdain but none will question protests ‎by powerful caste lobbies, political parties or the religious majority.‎”

The pressure to crush voice against the regime is growing. To get permission for a protest from the Police has become a tiresome process. Police hands are tied by political bosses. In such conditions the court direction, “the demonstrations expressing dissent have to be in designated places alone‎” will help in muzzling the voice of depressed sections. As indicated social media may be another platform to raise public voice, but it has been captured by disgraced trollers and biased IT cells.

The country has seen countless rallies and sit-ins since before independence. The protests essentially occupy roads and public places to be heard. They need slogans, songs, beating drums, and playing shells to awake the ruler. The protests will lose their objectivity if caged at ‎‎“designated” spots chosen by the state and bound with the police-permission. ‎It will give another tool to suppress free dissent in the hands of a regime, already bent upon to silence dissension. It may be suicidal for democracy.

Shaheen Bagh showed that Muslim Women are not caged. They have a sense of their social obligations and courage to stand for. They have the stamina to struggle for the basic values of Indianness. We regret this verdict hurts their self-esteem. We request Hon. SC to review the impugned verdict.

 (Contributor is Chairman, Forum for Civil Rights; email: syyedagha8@gmail.com)

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