Context: Thousands of farmers have assembled at the Singhu border between Delhi and Haryana to protest against the Centre’s new farm laws.
Constitutional Protections available to Right to Protest
- Article 51A makes it a fundamental duty for every person to safeguard public property and to avoid violence during the protests and resorting to violence during public protests.
- Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution elucidates that right to free speech and expression. It includes that every person has right to express their personal opinions but subjected to reasonable restrictions.
- Article 19(1)(b) states about the right to assemble peaceably and without arms. Thereby, right to peaceful protest is bestowed to Indian citizens by our Constitution.
- Freedom of Assembly [Article 19(1)(b)]
- Every citizen has the right to assemble peaceably and without arms.
- It includes the right to hold public meetings, demonstrations and take out processions.
- This freedom can be exercised only on public land and the assembly must be peaceful and unarmed.
- This provision does not protect violent, disorderly, riotous assemblies, or one that causes breach of public peace or one that involves arms.
- This right does not include the right to strike.
- Article 19(2) imposes reasonable restrictions on the right to assemble peaceably and without arms and to freedom of speech and expression as none of these rights are absolute in nature.
- The reasonable restrictions are imposed by the state on 8 grounds namely: in the interests of the sovereignty & integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
Can a State restrain citizens from exercising Right to Protest?
Right to Protest
- In Ramlila Maidan Incident v. Home Secretary, Union of India & Others (2012), the Supreme Court had ruled that, “Citizens have a fundamental right to assembly and peaceful protest that cannot be taken away by an arbitrary executive or legislative action.
Right to criticize
- In the case of S. Rangarajan v. P. Jagjivan Ram, it was affirmed that it is appropriate to form and convey an opinion in a manner which does not cause defamation to the other individual to whom such critique is addressed and is secured under the freedom of speech and expression.
- The decision added that democracy calls for open discussion and policy criticism.
By enforcing Article 19(2) of the Constitution, the State can enforce reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right to freedom of speech and expression based on eight grounds.
- Defamation: Refers to statements which injures a man’s reputation.
- Contempt of court: Restriction may be instituted on the freedom of speech and expression if it surpasses the reasonable limit and amounts to contempt of court.
- Decency or morality: Sections 292 to 294 of the Indian Penal Code provide for situations where freedom of speech and expression is limited in the interests of dignity or morality.
- Security of the state: Under Article 19(2), fair limitations on the freedom of speech and expression can be placed in the context of State’s security.
- Friendly relations with other states: The intention behind the provision is to prevent unrestricted malicious publicity against a foreign friendly state that can disrupt India’s good ties with that state.
- Incitement to an offence: Added through the 1951 Constitution (First Amendment) Act. Freedom of speech and expression cannot provide citizens with a privilege to incite people in committing offence.
- Sedition: Sedition supports all those activities, whether through words or writing, determined to disrupt the State’s tranquility and drive misguided individuals to subvert the government.
- Public Order: Introduced by the Constitution Act (first amendment). That which perturbs public peace or tranquility perturbs public order. ‘In the interest of public order’ involves not only utterances meant explicitly but also those which appear to contribute to disorder.
- In addition to the above 8 limitations, the rights to freedom under Article 19 of the Indian constitution are revoked during the time of National Emergency proclaimed by the President of India.
- Furthermore, during the time of action of the National Emergency, the President is authorized to suspend citizens’ right to move to the Supreme Court to implement their personal freedom
- Peaceful Protest is not only a fundamental right granted by Indian Constitution but protesting against injustice is also a moral duty.
- Right to protest is the core on which India’s democracy survives but it cannot be absolute and is subject to reasonable restrictions.
- Freedom of speech, right to assembly and demonstrations by holding ‘dharnas’ and peaceful agitation are the basic features of a democratic system, therefore, right to protest is a constitutional right.
Other Legal Provisions
• Under Section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code (1973), a magistrate can restrain an assembly, meeting or procession if there is a risk of obstruction, annoyance or danger to human life, health or safety or a disturbance of the public tranquillity or a riot or any affray.
• Under Section 141 of the Indian Penal Code, as assembly of five or more persons becomes unlawful if the object is:
(a) to resist the execution of any law or legal process;
(b) to forcibly occupy the property of some person;
(c) to commit any mischief or criminal trespass;
(d) to force some person to do an illegal act; and
(e) to threaten the government or its officials on exercising lawful powers.