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The right to protest is fundamental

The Modi government appears ignorant of the constitutional guarantee that the right to protest flows from the right to free speech and the right to life and liberty.
Last Updated 28 February 2024, 23:51 IST

Punjab’s farmers have hit the streets again. The sight of tractor convoys and waving farm union flags evoke the images of 2020-21 when an extended farmers protest took a violent turn.

This time, the Narendra Modi government seems confident the agitation will be short-lived, yet the images of farmers being tear-gassed and lathi-charged leads to serious questions about the Centre’s problem-solving approach or lack of it.

The Union Agriculture Minister is offering to initiate talks, but the grim crackdown on the protesters and the invoking of national security provisions by the Haryana government (later withdrawn) reveal the Modi government’s persistent tendency towards bullying unilateralism. 

Whether it was CAA-NRC protests, or the women wrestlers’ protest in Delhi or student protests in Jawaharlal Nehru University, or sedition charges being slapped on climate activist Disha Ravi, or attempting to block critical accounts on X, the Modi government, in blind pursuit of its one-leader-one-party-one- religion agenda, repeatedly reveals its vindictive intolerance of the fundamental right to protest.

The Modi government appears ignorant of the constitutional guarantee that the right to protest flows from the right to free speech and the right to life and liberty.

Democracies live by the dictum, ‘shout, don’t shoot.’ Protests function as a safety valve. Precisely because protest and dissent can be freely aired, and disagreements can be voiced through open debate,  citizens in a democracy do not need to take recourse to violence.

In a democracy, an electoral majority is an instrument to find consensus and to engage and deliberate with those of diverse and contrary views. Elected representatives are not meant to work only for those who agree with them but they must also engage with those who don’t.

Politics in its ideal form is not just about capturing power. The best definition of politics is a continuing process of negotiation with diverse interests and earning the trust of interlocutors.

Protest is the very essence of democracy, the most fundamental aspect of freedom of speech and expression and an extension of the fundamental right to make decisions about one’s life.

In fact, the freedom to protest is a reflection of the faith in the institutions of the Indian Republic. By their act of protest, agitators are displaying their trust that democratic institutions will listen to them and deliver solutions.

But the Modi government seems uninterested in the democratic method of dealing with protests. Today, the BJP’s social media army is busy painting farmers as “sponsored agents”, “non-farmers” and “anarchists.” The protest epicentre being Punjab, the Sikh religious identity is being harped on.

A Bengal BJP leader recently hurled the epithet ‘Khalistani’ at a Sikh police officer. Coming from a leader of the ruling party at the Centre, this sends a terrible message and has the potential to destroy all attempts to build bridges.

While the AAP government in Punjab has aligned with the protests, in neighbouring Haryana, the BJP government has unleashed overwhelming force against them.

One protester lost his life. The vast numbers who are on the streets are not ‘Khalistani’ radicals, but small farmers desperate because farming is no longer proving to be a viable means of livelihood. Instead of extending sympathy and empathy, the BJP is trying to demonise them.

First demonise, then ostracise, then unleash State machinery and imprison protesters and dissenters – this is the BJP’s modus operandi. University student protesters in 2016 were dubbed ‘tukde tukde gang’, sedition charges were slapped, and they were hauled away to jail.

Protesters against CAA-NRC in 2019-20 were called ‘anti-nationals’, terrorism charges were slapped and many, even Jamia Milia scholar Safoora Zargar, pregnant at the time, were slammed in overcrowded Tihar jail cells.

In 2023, women wrestling champions protesting against alleged sexual harassment by then wrestling federation chief and BJP strongman Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh were first painted as ‘opposition party agents’, then ignored, and then humiliatingly dragged away by police.

This is in contrast to the manner in which past dispensations have tolerated protests. In 2012, India Gate in Delhi became the site for massive citizens’ protests after the horrifying gangrape of a 23-year-old paramedical student on a Delhi bus.

The protest led to several amendments in sexual crime laws. The 2011 India Against Corruption movement led by Anna Hazare was allowed to stage huge rallies at Ram Lila Maidan and unleash anti-UPA government slogans.

In sharp contrast, when Manipur citizens groups brought their demands to the Centre, they were largely ignored. No top central functionary has so far systematically engaged with Manipuri civil society. Kuki groups have been dubbed ‘narco-terrorists’ by some sections of the ruling party. 

Statist extravaganzas of the G-20 kind, where the public are kept at bay and the national capital barricaded away for the benefit of international VIPs, is the Modi government’s preferred playground.

The public’s right to air grievances by providing equal space in the urban landscape is dictatorially restricted. The reason for this lies in the nature of the current establishment: Modi’s outsize personality cult means the ‘supreme leader’ can never be questioned nor his administration ever opened to debate.

Protest or disagreement must be stamped out, protesters called names and robbed of credibility. 

Yet, the BJP itself owes its own existence to the fact that earlier governments did not attempt to outlaw its protests or street political activity.

L K Advani and A B Vajpayee led numerous padyatras and dharnas in the 1980s. Then Prime Minister VP Singh did not outlaw the turning point in the BJP’s growth, namely the 1990 rath yatra led by L K Advani, nor were subsequent yatras stopped by other governments.

Yes, governments are tasked with the maintenance of law and order, but in a democracy, when peaceful or controllable protest is forcibly dampened down, there is the danger that uncontrollable violence can erupt.

The right to protest, whether of farmers, sportswomen, students or opposition parties, is fundamental to a functioning democracy. Let’s not forget that independent India was born from decades of Gandhian satyagraha or disciplined non-violent public protest.

(The writer is a Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha), Trinamool Congress)

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(Published 28 February 2024, 23:51 IST)

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