Ban on protests at Town Hall untenable

Ban on protests at Town Hall untenable

The decision of the BJP-controlled Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) to impose a blanket ban on protests at the Town Hall is a retrograde step which hits at the very root of the right to expression, enshrined in the Constitution. In the post-Independence era, the Town Hall and another popular protest site, Mysore Bank Circle, together emerged as the cradles of democratic participation, enabling people from all walks of life to raise their voices against the government of the day and shape the future of the state in many ways. In the recent past, the steps leading to the iconic Town Hall have turned into ground zero for demonstrators both for and against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), more so for the latter. With the anti-CAA protests showing no signs of abating, BBMP’s move is a clear attempt to curb people’s dissent on the issue. 

Without alluding to any facts and figures, the BBMP claimed that it suffered huge losses as nobody any longer books the Town Hall auditorium because the entrance is blocked by activists. This seems only a ruse to deny protesters their space. If revenue were indeed a concern, the civic body could have allowed sit-ins only on days when the hall was not booked, instead of imposing a total ban. Another argument is that frequent demonstrations at this busy intersection, which links South Bengaluru to the central business district, is an irritant as it holds up traffic. There are suggestions that rallies should be confined to only Freedom Park or Maurya Circle on Race Course Road, and should be disallowed in any other part of the city. Shrinking the number of protest sites in a large city like Bengaluru is another way to gag the public. Besides, the central location of Town Hall gives protesters visibility, which the government seems unable to tolerate.

While CAA-related agitations at the Town Hall have been peaceful, with no reported instance of blocking the road, a balance should nevertheless be struck between the right to protest and the freedom from nuisance. However, it must also be acknowledged that there can be no rally or demonstration free from a certain amount of public inconvenience.  The BBMP’s decision falls into a set pattern. Recently, Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao had banned the assembly of more than four people under Sec 144 CrPC, only to be rapped by the High Court. The government should realise that the best way to end protests is to engage the people in dialogue instead of taking an obstinate stand and trying to stifle their voice. Dissent, as Supreme Court Justice DY Chandrachud, is the safety valve of democracy. Highhanded actions of authorities carry the danger of breaking that safety valve.

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