Right To Protest: A Legal Banderilla
Introduction: What is a Protest?
This article explaining Right To Protest: A Legal Banderilla is written by Vikranta Pradeep Barsay a student of National Law University and Judicial Academy, Assam.
A quick search on the internet about the ‘Right to Protest’ will yield results that are disseminated primarily by news agencies while a concurrent search about the ‘Right to Life’ directs the searcher to legal blogs and official governmental and inter-governmental websites; this allows us to conclude that the act of protesting against an authoritative institution has gained significant traction in the last couple of years, wherein the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, believes that the growing demonstrations in nations like Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, Ecuador, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Spain, Hong Kong, and India expose a growing deficit of trust between citizens and its political institutions while threatening the social contract.
A protest involves three intrinsic elements:
a) A symbolic message to express a grievance about something/ someone beyond the protesting event to urge some action from the parties who are not participating in the protest (externalization of the protest message),
b) An actor who lies outside the routine, political strata, wherein it does not have any power to create changes to the social policy due to their inherent alienation from the political institutions, and
c) The third criterion, form, is the vaguest to pin-point since different protests cannot be put in a straight-jacket form; hence, forms of protests include rallies, marches, demonstrations, boycotts, pickets, blockades, strikes, civil disobedience, etcetera.
In a nutshell, a protest is a public demonstration by a group/ faction against existing political ideation by expressing their opinions to influence the incumbent government policy in an attempt to redress the grievances of the protesting public.
The activities within a protest can take any one of the six cardinal forms:
a) Symbolic and Sensory (artistic displays of protest),
b) Solemnity (rallies in the format of religious service),
c) Civil Disobedience,
d) Institutionalization (non-confrontational protests done in line with formal socio-political processes; for example, press conference),
e) Collective Violence (ex: damage to public property, verbal threatening, etcetera), and
f) Movement in Space (protests in the form of a procession like a march between two predetermined locations).
Introduction: Right to Protest and Democracy
India has had a long history of protesting against the British Raj in pre-independence India, wherein Mahatma Gandhi posited that a peaceful protest in adherence to ahimsa is the only way to oppose and criticize the views of the British government to protect the rights and liberties of the Indian citizens.
On February 12, 2021, the Human Rights Council convened a special session to discuss the incumbent human rights crisis in Myanmar where India posited that the rule of law and the democratic processes must be upheld to maintain peace and democratic stability, especially for the nethermost citizens of the country.
On January 26, 1950, India declared itself to be a sovereign, democratic and republic nation with the adoption of the Constitution of India. Democracy stands on two political provisions: a) The right of a citizen to freely elect its government in a fair and just election under Article 326 of the Indian Constitution, and b) The right of every citizen to participate in the sound governance of the incumbent government during non-election time.
Although a government may frame policies and legislation in the interests of its citizens, the latter must act as a watchdog to monitor the actions of the government, wherein any legitimate mistake by the government can be addressed by the former by consultation and discussions with the said watchdogs.
Sometimes the incumbent government may annul the interests of its citizens by following unconstitutional ideation where the former might refuse to even deliberate with the latter; in consequence, a protest may take any one of the aforementioned cardinal forms to strongly voice an opinion (ex: The 56-day fasting of Amarajeevi Potti Sreeramulu to voice an opinion to the Madras Presidency for the creation of a separate Telugu-speaking state in 1952).
Although the 16th President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln institutionalized the practices and principles of freedom in the idea of democracy by calling democracy as a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” he added that the peaceful assembly of people is the constitutional substitute for a revolution.
The aforementioned belief is seen in a socio-economically sundered society like India where public demonstrations involve even the ill-educated and powerless individuals marching in opposition to the government. In a nutshell, a protest is a tool to hold the incumbent government accountable for its actions in a democratic society by means of dissenting opinions.
A protest can be broadly delineated into two categories: Destructive and Non-Destructive, wherein the former has no consonance with the rule of law; additionally, the former uses unlawful, aggravated force to protest against the incumbent government’s policies that not only disrupts peace but also causes damage to life and property.
A lawful protest, which conforms to the rule of law is witnessed in five principal forms:
- Dharna: Akin to a sit-in, a dharna is a peaceful protest where the protesters garner the attention of the incumbent political establishment to provide a solution to their collective issues. Hunger Strike is a popular manifestation of dharna where the group of aggrieved protesters abnegates the consumption of food till the aggrieving institution accepts the demands of the aggrieved individuals.
- Strike: A Strike involves the mass expunging of one’s duties and responsibilities towards the superior authority (government, industry, employer, etcetera).
- Rally: A Rally is a march that is inspired by the furtherance of a socio-political idea, which may be absent in the policies of the country (ex: LGBTQIAP+ parades).
- Demonstration: A peaceful mass gathering of aggrieved people to draw the attention of the non-participants of the protest towards their particular socio-politico-economic grievance.
- Boycott: This is the oldest form of protest that dates back to December 16, 1773, when a group of American colonists stormed into three British ships and dumped 342 chests into the sea in accordance with boycotting British goods. A boycott is a concerted effort to abstain from the products and services of an institution (including a country) with a socio-politico-economic intention till the demands of the aggrieved party are met.
A peaceful protest requires two compulsory requisites within the statutes of the intended nation: a) The Freedom of Expression, and b) The Freedom of Assembly, wherein dissenting opinions and criticism against the incumbent government must be covered within the ambit of the former right of the citizen.
Although the Right to Protest peacefully is not recognized in any international statute, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 (henceforth, referred to as ICCPR, 1966) recognizes the aforementioned requisites in Articles 19 and 21 respectively.
Article 19 of the ICCPR, 1966, talks about the freedom of an individual to hold an opinion through any media of choice (written/oral/print) without any interference while respecting the rights and freedoms of others; additionally, the right to expression with Article 19 allows one to receive and disseminate information of all forms unless the respective nation feels that a reasonable restriction on the freedom is required to protect and maintain national security and public order.
Article 21 of the ICCPR, 1966, dictates that one has the freedom to assemble peacefully in conformity with the respective law of the land unless the said assembly threatens either public order and health or national security.
Protest and India
It is worth mentioning that India had signed and ratified the ICCPR, 1966, on April 10, 1979. Article 19, Clause A of the Indian Constitution upholds the fundamental freedom of speech and expression of the citizen of India while Article 19, Clauses B and D grant the fundamental freedom to assemble peacefully (without any arms) and to move freely within the territory of India respectively.
It is worth noting that a consolidated reading of the three provisions reveals that the Constitution of India champions the fundamental right to peacefully assemble anywhere within the territory of India where the assembly has the fundamental freedom to express themselves in any manner they see fit.
Akin to the ICCPR, 1966, the Indian Constitution does not explicitly mention the citizen’s right to protest peacefully; however, akin to the ICCPR, 1966, the joint reading of multiple provisions (Article 19, Clauses A, B, and D) reveals the intrinsic right to protest within India.
Justice B. S. Chauhan and Justice Swatanter Kumar posit that the right to protest peacefully is a fundamental right, which cannot be arbitrarily nullified by either the Executive or the Legislative; however, the State can make rules and regulations to reasonably restrict the fundamental right to protect public order and the rights of other citizens.
It is worth mentioning that three categories of persons in decreasing order of importance are allowed to declare the assembly of five or more persons as unlawful if and only if the said assembly disturbs public peace and order under Section 129, Sub-Section 1 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (henceforth, referred to as CrPC, 1973):
- Executive Magistrate.
- Officer-in-Charge of the jurisdictional police station.
- Any police officer of the jurisdictional police station whose rank is not below the rank of a Sub-Inspector (last option).
If the order to disperse by the aforementioned individuals is ignored by the protesting crowd, wherein the protesting crowd neither disperses nor appears to disperse following the orders of the aforementioned officials, then the said officials (in the same order of importance) can use force to disperse the unlawful assembly under Section 129, Sub-Section 2 of the CrPC, 1973; additionally, the said officials are empowered to detain certain persons from the unlawful assembly for the purpose of either disbanding the assembly or punishing the certain persons under Sub-Section 2.
In a nutshell, force may be used by either the Judiciary or the Law Enforcement Agency on an assembly within their jurisdictional area if and only it fulfills three conditions: a) The assembly is unlawful, b) The assembly was ordered to disperse owing to disturbances to public order, and c) The assembly ignored the said order. Under Section 129 of the CrPC, 1973, the force to disperse an unlawful assembly must be minimal in nature, wherein persuasive appeals are primordially made to the members of the unlawful assembly, followed by tear shells, lathi charge and guns.
Justice J. Mehta and Justice S. Sheth weighed in on the issue of firing by law enforcement agencies, wherein the bench held that the idea of shooting at the members of the public to maintain public law and order must be restricted as a last resort where the law enforcement agency should balance its authority with the constitutional liberty of the public while dissociating from the arbitrary threatening of civilian life.
An unlawful assembly may become violent where they pose a threat to public property and human life; however, peaceful unlawful assemblies do not perpetuate any large-scale damage to the liberty of others around them, wherein the law enforcement agencies are advised to resort to non-firing alternatives like tear shells and lathi-charge to disperse the said unlawful assembly since the latter does not violently threaten the lives of others around them, i.e. human life must be revered over the value of the moveable and immoveable property.
Although the officials within Section 129 of the CrPC, 1973, are barred from using excessive force to disperse an unlawful assembly, the highest Executive Magistrate is vested to invoke the help of the armed forces if and only if the continuance of the unlawful assembly threatens public security (Section 130, Sub-Section 1 of the CrPC, 1973).
It must be noted that the members of the armed forces must act per the orders of the Executive Magistrate, wherein the affirmative order of an Officer-in-Command to disperse an unlawful assembly is unauthorized if the said order is not validated by the Executive Magistrate.
The Executive Magistrate can order the Officer-in-Command to direct the armed forces under its command to detain certain individuals from an unlawful assembly in custody to disperse the said assembly under Section 130, Sub-Section 2 of the CrPC, 1973; additionally, the armed forces under the command of the Officer-in-Command must obey the orders of the latter (that are ordered by the Executive Magistrate of the highest rank) as it thinks fit under Sub-Section 3.
It is worth noting that Sub-Section 3 dictates that the armed forces ought to use minimal force to disperse an unlawful assembly where the said force must entail minimum injury to life and property.
It is worth understanding that the actions of the Executive Magistrate, Officer-in-Charge of a police station, police officer, Officer-in-Command of the Armed Forces (Military, Air Force, Navy, and other allied armed forces) and the army officers under the Officer-in-Command would not be questioned in any Criminal Court (Section 132, Sub-Section 1) when the said officials have acted in good faith in compliance with the provisions under Section 129 and 130 of the CrPC, 1973 unless the said questioning is sanctioned by either the Central Government (for members of the armed forces) or the State Government (for the respective Executive Magistrate and the law enforcement officials from within the state) under Section 132, Sub-Section 1, Clause A and B respectively.
also read- President’s Power of Dissolution
What is an Unlawful Protest?
Although the right to Protest peacefully assembly in a democratic nation allows the aggrieved individuals to come face-to-face with the political institutions in public areas to discuss any socio-politico-economic problems, it comes with the responsibility to safeguard the rights and liberties of those around the aggrieved individuals.
One must note that neither the validity (either right or wrong) nor the justification (either justified or unjustified) of the questions asked by the aggrieved protesters’ matters in the face of a peaceful protest since a particular grievance of a minority group may gain significant momentum and relevant acceptability when duly voiced in a public demonstration.
The ambit of ‘reasonable restrictions under Article 19, Sections 2, 3, and 5 allow the state to restrict fundamental freedoms of speech & expression, peaceful assembly, and free movement within the territory of India whose joint reading renders the fundamental right to protest peacefully ; hence, the state can reasonably restrict the right to protest peacefully in situations where either the public demonstration itself or the discussions within the protest threaten/ appear to threaten either one of the following:
1. Sovereignty and Integrity of India.
2. Security of the State (including the Union).
3. Existing Friendly Relations with the Foreign States.
4. Protection of Public Order.
7. Possibility of Inciting Violence among the masses.
8. Contempt of Court.
It is worth noting that the dangers from an expression within a protest to the interests of a community must be directly and proximally tied to the said expression, i.e. an anticipated threat from the said expression must neither be remote nor conjectural (far-fetched).
A five-judge constitutional bench (Justice S. M. Sikri, Justice A. N. Ray, Justice P. J. Reddy, Justice K. K. Mathew, and Justice M. H. Beg) in the case of Himat Lal K. Shah v. The Commissioner of Police, Ahmedabad & Anr. (1973) 2 SCR 266, held that the citizens of India are barred from protesting in whatever place they please since a prolonged occupancy of a public place may detriment the fundamental rights of other citizens to use the public place; however, the State cannot prohibit the right of assembly in every public place.
Every citizen of India has the fundamental duty to protect and uphold the sovereignty, integrity and unity of India (Article 51-A. Clause C of the Indian Constitution) while not only safeguarding public property but also abjuring violence (Clause I); hence, the recent rebellion led by Deep Sidhu at the Red Fort on January 26, 2021, was declared as an unlawful assembly due to its violent nature and the violation of the fundamental duties within Article 51-A of the Indian Constitution.
Although the protest at Shaheen Bagh, Delhi between December 2019 and March 2020 was a peaceful assembly, the blocking of an arterial road (public space) by means of a makeshift library and a large metallic rendition of the map of India on a scaffolding of metal and boulders violates the international principle of protecting the rights and freedoms of others during a peaceful assembly (Article 21 of the ICCPR, 1966);
Hence, the Supreme Court of India held that the indefinite occupancy of the Shaheen Bagh is unlawful since it hampers the freedoms of other proximal citizens of India leading to the breakdown of public order.
It is worth noting that peaceful assemblies and demonstrations can be upheld in designated public places alone, wherein the local administration can act within discretion to clear public places of prolonged and indefinite encroachments, which obstruct the rest of the people from exercising their freedoms in using the said public space.
A landmark case to decide the boundaries of a peaceful protest is the case of The Government of Tamil Nadu & Ors. v. P. Ayyakannu (2018) CWP. 8652/ 2018, wherein Justice K. K. Sasidharan and Justice R. Subramanian held that the right to protest ends at the border where the freedom of movement and the ‘right to not listen’ starts, i.e. an aggrieved protester does not possess the fundamental right to make an unwilling citizen witness a protest because the presence of a lawful assembly for a prolonged period may hamper the other person’s right to a peaceful and comfortable life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution;
Additionally, the inclusion of aural aggression during a protest may abrogate the freedom of an unwilling citizen of India to not listen to unpleasant and noise-laden protest that hamper the right of the said citizen to live in a pollution-free society under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
In a nutshell, the fundamental right to protest peacefully is limited by the rights and freedoms of those who are non-participants in the protest, wherein the peaceful protest that obstructs the freedom and liberties of others is unlawful. If the right to protest peacefully is left unrestricted, then the rights and liberties of different factions within India’s democratic structure will be skewed to favour the former over the latter, which is arbitrarily unjust and discriminatory.
Tenets of an Unlawful Assembly
Unlawful assemblies are any assemblies that cause unwarranted and unreasonable hardships to the general public; however, Section 141 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (henceforth, referred to as IPC, 1860) illustrates the forms of an unlawful assembly. It is worth noting that an assembly of five persons and above is necessary to designate the assembly as unlawful under Section 141 of the IPC, 1860, wherein an assembly of fewer than five persons cannot be viewed within the scope of the said legal provision.
Ex: If seven individuals are charged for an unlawful assembly under Section 141 of the IPC, 1860 and if three individuals are acquitted by the jurisdictional court of law, then the remaining individuals (four) do not constitute an unlawful assembly under Section 141 of the IPC, 1860 unless it can be proven that some other persons who cannot be identified are a part of the said unlawful assembly (taking the count above five).
An assembly of five and more persons becomes an unlawful assembly under Section 141 of the IPC, 1860, if and only if the persons within the assembly share either of the following common objects, which is deducible from the facts, circumstances, and membership idiosyncrasies of the said assembly:
- If an assembly overawes any public servant in either the Central Government (including the Union Parliament) or the State Government (including the State Legislative Assembly) by the use/show of criminal force, such that the said force makes the public servant fearful in exercising its lawful power, then the said assembly is unlawful.
- If an assembly creates a resistance in the execution of either a legal statute or a due procedure of law, then the assembly is deemed as unlawful.
Ex: An assembly in the nine districts of western Uttar Pradesh was resisting the arrest of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh at the hands of the law enforcement agencies; hence, the State Government declared the said assembly in the nine districts as unlawful.
- If an assembly commits an offense that is punishable under the law, wherein the law may exist either within the IPC, 1860, and the CrPC, 1973 or under the ambit of a Legislative statute of the Union Parliament and the State Legislative Assembly, then the assembly is deemed as unlawful.
- If an assembly either uses or shows criminal force on an individual to acquire the possessed property of the latter by depriving the owner of their constitutional right to property, then the assembly becomes unlawful. It is worth noting that the possessed property is not limited to the possession of the immovable property, rather it includes the incorporeal rights possessed by an individual that it is entitled to enjoy in accordance with the law of the land. If an assembly uses a force within the prescribed limits of the law to defend their rightfully possessed property against external aggressions, then the assembly will not be called unlawful.
- If an assembly compels an individual by criminal force to perform an act/ series of acts that the said individual is not legally bound to perform (performance of illegal acts), then the assembly is unlawful. it is worth understanding that the provision includes the omission of an act/ series of acts that the said individual is legally bound to perform (omission of legal responsibilities).
It is worth noting that an assembly may not start as an unlawful assembly, wherein certain circumstances may render the assembly unlawful in the moment. The common object of an assembly must satisfy a trilateral test to make it worthy of association with an unlawful assembly:
a) The common object satisfies the conditions within Section 141 of the IPC, 1860,
b) The common object need not be premeditated, wherein it can be a product of the spur of the moment, and
c) The common object must factually reveal itself on questioning the nature of the assembly, the behavior of its members, etcetera.
Although a peaceful protest is an inalienable form of criticism of the incumbent political in a democratic nation, it lies in a grey area where the rights of the aggrieved protesters in balanced with the rights and liberties of the non-participant citizens of the protest.
A protest may take any form from Symbolic and Sensory, Solemnity, Civil Disobedience, Institutionalization, Collective Violence and Movement in Space; however, every protest involves the public expression of a grievance by an aggrieved group to the incumbent political institutions beyond the realm of the protesting event in an attempt to influence public policy in favor of the said group.
International law and Indian statutes do not explicitly recognize the right to protest peacefully; however, two intrinsic elements of a peaceful protest: Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly, is recognized not only in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, under Articles 19 and 21 but also in the Indian Constitution under Article 19, Clauses A, B, and D.
It is worth noting that several judicial interpretations have pinpointed that the right to protest peacefully is limited by the liberties of other individuals and their right to not witness a protesting demonstration, additionally, the provisions under Section 141 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and Article 19 of the Indian Constitution dictate that a peaceful assembly becomes unlawful when it attempts to threaten either the public law and order or the sovereignty and the integrity of the nation.
In a nutshell, an assembly in a public place acts as a tool to hold the incumbent government accountable for their actions, but it becomes a banderilla to the very democratic order of the society when it arbitrarily obstructs the right and liberty of other citizens to use the same public place.
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