Dealing with protesters in democracy

It is Jantar Mantar in the national capital where masses gathered to voice their dissent against the government of the day. Some call it the “heart of India’s space of dissent”. There are other places as well. The famous Ramlila Maidan from yoga guru Ramdev had to escape wearing a burqa. Mahendra Singh Tikait brought Delhi to a grinding a halt as farmers trooped in hundreds in 1988. Shaheen Bagh can now be added to the list of sites in Delhi for protests, even though temporarily, for staging a sit-in lasting 58 days.

As the Delhi elections are now the epicenter of anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests at Shaheen Bagh could be cleared of women and men who have been there days braving harsh winters. There’s a plea in the Supreme Court seeking removal of protesters from the place as they are alleged to be causing public inconvenience. If not there, then where else can a sit-in, which is so integral to democracy, by a few hundred people be allowed in Delhi?
The apex court took up the matter on Monday and issued notices to the Centre, Delhi government and the Delhi police seeking their replies but refused to pass any order. While posting the matter for February 17 the court made clear to the agitators that they cannot block public roads and cause a problem to others. “If you want to protest, there can be some area where you protest. You cannot block a public road. Can you block a public area? There must be defined areas of protest,” the Supreme Court said.

An appeal filed by an advocate, Amit Sahni, said that since December 15, when the protests began, the traffic on Kalindi Kunj-Shaheen Bagh stretch had been impeded. The apex court told the petitioner, “If it has lasted 58 days you can wait one week more.” He had earlier approached the Delhi High Court seeking directions to the police to ensure smooth traffic flow on that stretch of road.

Being fundamental to democracy, non-violent protest needs to be allowed as it provides a “vital corrective” to majority rule which aims “to override the rights of minorities”.

Allotting space to those squatting at Shaheen Bagh in a remote part of Delhi would imply that the government neither wants to see them nor hear their voices. Once out of public gaze, even the media may lose interest after a point. In other words, they’d be ignored. That the protesters cannot afford. They also have to ensure sizeable numbers. If shifted, will protesters throng the new address in equal numbers?
 
Democracies all over the world allow freedom to protest. It is only when dissenters cross the line by disrupting normal life that they are crushed. So far that line has not been crossed at Shaheen Bagh.