The imposition of Section 144 of the CrPC across large parts of the country, including Bengaluru, is a clear signal from the government that it will do everything in its power to stifle the growing voices of dissent against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019. Section 144, which prohibits the assembly of four or more people, effectively frustrates any attempt to hold even peaceful demonstrations without risking arrest. It is meant to be imposed in small pockets where the police apprehend trouble and not over large swathes of the state or the country, as has been done in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. While there could be some justification for certain restrictions in violence-prone areas, there is absolutely no reason to curb the constitutional rights of the people where protests have been largely peaceful. The whole of Mumbai protested, and peacefully. While the police are well within their rights to bring the situation under control if there is trouble, banning protests altogether on the assumed fear of violence, goes against the citizens’ right to protest and does not bode well for democracy. The police highhandedness against peaceful protesters – the case of how historian Ramachandra Guha was detained in Bengaluru, for instance, the instructions to students not to criticise CAA on social media, the suspension of internet services in many areas, including in the national capital, advisories to media houses by the government and such other measures suggest that the ruling dispensation will go to any extent to gag views contrary to its own.
The fact that in many places huge crowds ignored the ban to stage protests should, however, be a lesson to the government that it cannot force the people into silence. Though the resultant violence in some areas is unfortunate and deserves condemnation, the government has itself to blame for being bull-headed and mocking its critics instead of taking the people into confidence. The Modi government’s idea of peace is to impose several regressive and undemocratic restrictions on the people, including house arrests, and then claim the situation is normal, as is the case with Kashmir. Perhaps, no other government since Emergency has displayed such arrogance and disdain towards the right to liberty of its own people.
The CAA has invited adverse international reactions and the curbs placed on the freedom of speech is sure to show up India, the largest democracy in the world, in poor light globally. All the states that have imposed Section 144, including Karnataka, must immediately lift the prohibitory orders and allow peaceful demonstrations. In a democracy, the people have a right to agitate on any subject. It is the government’s constitutional obligation to protect this right of the people. By muzzling citizens, the government is committing a grave sin against the Constitution.