Curbing the right to protest

Brute force: The government is systematically suppressing democratic protests

Curbing the  right to protest

June, 2011: Past midnight, armed police swoop down on sleeping supporters of yoga guru Baba Ramdev, who was protesting against corruption; many injured, one dies after being hospitalised for over a month with multiple fractures.

August, 2011: Police not only cane anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare’s supporters demanding a strong Lokpal - a watchdog against corruption, but also clamp restrictions like shifting the venue of Anna’s fast from Jantar Mantar in the heart of Delhi to Ramlila Maidan, capping the number of protesters and even arresting Anna and releasing him after a public outcry.

December 2012: Police burst teargas shells, use water cannons and lathicharge youngsters protesting against the gang-rape of a student; protesters denied access to India Gate area; Metro stations in Central Delhi shut down to check mobility. 

These are only some of the overtly repressive measures adopted by the government to quell what were essentially democratic and peaceful protests (barring one incident) in the national capital in the last two years. Lacking imaginative ways to tackle mass protests, the police, conventional both in their thinking and strong arm tactics, unleashed brutal force on the demonstrators.

These acts of muzzling democratic expression of dissent using brute force is not confined to Delhi alone. There are any number of instances across the country. This has been happening repeatedly in Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh, against people and students demanding a separate state. The police was let loose on those protesting against the molestation of a girl by a gang provoked by a TV crew in Guwahati in July 2012. Not to speak of police booking cases for merely forwarding mails of a cartoon in West Bengal or against Facebook posts criticising how Mumbai was shut down after octogenarian Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray died.

The Anna-led campaign against corruption, in a way, brought in a new phase in the protests seen across the country. Inspired youngsters volunteered to march to Jantar Mantar and Ramlila Maidan to join thousands of others. An unaware government was caught on the wrong foot. The police prescribed a list of “ dos and don’ts” and asked Anna to restrict the number of protesters at Jantar Mantar. When he refused, his fast venue was shifted to Ramlila Maidan.

Action against Ramdev supporters was brutal. Thousands of policemen descended on the Ramlila Maidan shortly after midnight, woke up hundreds of his supporters, caned them and drove them out of Delhi. A 55-year old woman supporter, Rajbala, succumbed to injuries.

After a lull for more than a year, the Delhi police again struck, having no clue on how to deal with the spontaneous protests by students and women’s groups who came out on the streets in thousands following the gang-rape and murderous assault of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student inside a running bus on December 16. The protesters occupied the India Gate-Raisina Hill area, the power corridor of the capital where the President’s official residence Rashtrapati Bhavan, Parliament House, Prime Minister’s Office and most key ministries are housed.

They were evicted from there as the police declared it a no-go area. All surrounding Metro rail stations were shut down. This did not douse the spirit of the youngsters. A majority of them aged under-25, angry, determined and articulating pent-up grievances, were merely demanding justice for the victim, safety of all women, an accountable governance and a rule of law that works. It was a leaderless agitation but not rudderless. It was a symbol of a growing impatience against a situation and the protests spread nationwide.

As if the police action was not enough, an oblivious union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde compared the young protesters to Maoists. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took nearly a week to make a statement, and when he did it he left the nation disappointed as his condescending query, “ Theek hai?” (“Was it okay?”) at the end was also aired in an unedited broadcast. UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, who leads the coalition government, took even longer to speak on the issue.

A growing trend?

Going by these and other protests curbed across the country, a pertinent question arises: Is muzzling peaceful and democratic protests becoming a new trend in gagging voices of dissent, a democratic right of every citizen? Is it correct to curb the freedom of expression of those protesting while exercising their fundamental right under the Constitution? Is there no other way of tackling just protests, addressing legitimate concerns? Should restrictions be imposed on people who do not need restrictions? Should the government abrogate its responsibility of not causing inconvenience to others by banning or severely constraining public protests? As a banner questioned, “is this world’s largest democracy, curbing our right to protest?”Are we becoming intolerant as a state?

Retired police officer Prakash Singh says a pattern may be  emerging in police repression of mass protests. “The government seems to be becoming intolerant to protests. There is something seriously wrong with the entire issue, including controlling the situation. Also, the question is whether the police acted on their own or did what they did at the behest of somebody. I am uncomfortable with all these…did they allow themselves to be manipulated? ”

Singh, who took the issue of police reforms to Supreme Court, said: “The way in which they tried to lathicharge people, be it on Ramdev supporters or the anti-rape demonstrators, showed lack of planning and foresight and it was unimaginative. As for dispersing the crowd, they could have established a line of communication with the protesters, even if there were not leaders and confined the protesters to a certain area at India Gate instead of lathicharging them. It was downright unprofessional.”

Another retired IPS officer V K Gaur said the police assault on peaceful protesters was wrong, more so because the police caned those who fell down and those who were running away; as per police manual, this was not done. “The police behaviour showed lack of training and lack of leadership,” the former DG of Border Security Force added.

According to Suhas Chakma of Asian Centre of Human Rights, "The repressive measures used by the State to quell protests is nothing new in India. The civilians are routinely killed in disproportionate use of firearms while controlling peaceful protests. According to National Crimes Record Bureau, a total of 740 civilians were killed in police firing from 2008 to 2010, including 239 persons in 2010, 184 in 2009 and  317 in 2008. The protests which were hitherto limited to peripheries have reached the epicentre of India - New Delhi... The response remains the same - colonial and repressive."

The government may have contained one more protest for now. It is only the beginning of more to come. And the  administration must learn to manage them.


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