Breaking: No blanket ban on demonstrations in Central Delhi, Supreme Court

Breaking: No blanket ban on demonstrations in Central Delhi, Supreme Court

Murali Krishnan

The Supreme Court today held that there cannot be a complete ban on holding demonstrations in Central Delhi.

However, the Court held that the government can regulate the same by way of guidelines.

The judgment was delivered by a Bench of Justices AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan in a petition by NGO Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan seeking directions to allow demonstrations in Central Delhi.

Advocate Prashant Bhushan had appeared for the petitioners, while Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta represented the Central government. ASG Mehta had assisted the court upon a request made by the Bench.

It was the contention of the petitioner that the police and the authorities restricted demonstrations by continuously imposing Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).

Delhi police had been regularly issuing prohibitory orders for several years as soon as the previous order expired. These repetitive orders of the Delhi police amounted to an abuse of power and hindered the citizen’s Fundamental right to protest, the petition stated.

Such restrictions were violative of Article 19, it was submitted.

It was further contended that apart from Jantar Mantar, there are other areas in the capital where demonstrations were earlier allowed, but have been gradually restricted over time.

On the other hand, ASGs Tushar Mehta and Atmaram Nadkarni argued that mere apprehension of breach of peace was sufficient to prohibit any demonstration or dharna etc. It was also submitted that Section 144 of the Cr.P.C. permitted anticipatory action and, thus, even on anticipation that a particular demonstration may lead to breach of peace, was sufficient to invoke the provisions of Section 144 Cr.P.C. and pass appropriate prohibitory orders.

It was further argued by them that there was  a due application of mind by the Assistant Commissioner of Police who had gone through the reports and drew the conclusion therefrom that unrestricted holding of public meetings, processions/demonstrations was likely to cause problems like obstructions to traffic, danger to human safety and disturbances of public tranquillity.

Great emphasis was laid on the fact that New Delhi was the capital city and entire activity of Central Government was mainly located in Central Delhi area which was covered by the prohibitory orders passed, namely, Parliament House, North and South Block, Central Vista Lawns and its surrounding localities and areas. The submission in the aforesaid context was that the area covered by prohibitory orders was a sensitive area and such demonstrations as well as public meetings etc. could not be allowed in a routine manner.

The Court held that the petitioners had the fundamental right to protest under Article 19(1)(a) and (b) of the Constitution.

“Undoubtedly, right of people to hold peaceful protests and demonstrations etc. is a fundamental right guaranteed under Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(b) of the Constitution.”

It then went on to explain why such protests, especially in the Jantar Mantar area, had resulted in “pathetic conditions”.

“We feel that the pathetic conditions which were caused as a result of the processions, demonstrations and agitations etc. at the Jantar Mantar were primarily because of the reason that authorities did not take necessary measures to regulate the same.”

Had adequate and sufficient steps been taken by the authorities to ensure that such dharnas and demonstrations are held within their bounds, it would have balanced the rights of protestors as well as the residents, the Court held.

“For example, the dharnas and protests were allowed to be stretched almost on the entire Jantar Mantar road, on both sides, and even across the width of the road. Instead, a particular area could have been earmarked for this purpose, sufficiently away from the houses etc. so that there is no unnecessary blockage of roads and pathways. Likewise, the demonstrators were allowed to go on with non-stop slogans, even at odd hours, at night, and that too with the use of loudspeakers etc. The authorities could have ensured that such slogans are within the parameters of noise pollution norms and there are no shoutings or slogans at night hours or early morning hours.”

Further, the Court also noted that such dharnas, agitations and processions could be prohibited on certain occasions like during visit of foreign dignitaries or other such sensitive occasions. The authorities could also ensure that the protestors do not bring their trucks/buses etc. and park those vehicles in and around the residential buildings, are not allowed to pitch up their tents and stay for days together or bathe or wash their clothes using Delhi Jal Board tankers or defecate in the open or on pavements and do not create any unhygienic situations.

The court also took into account the fact that areas like Ramlila Maidan are situated in Old Delhi and is a part of very congested area and it has its own limitations when it comes to using this area for such purposes.

It, therefore, held that a limited part of Jantar Mantar area should be earmarked for holding peaceful public meetings, processions etc, at least to small groups and, in such a manner, that there is no disturbance or inconvenience of any nature whatsoever, insofar as residents are concerned.

It also directed the Commissioner of Police, New Delhi in consultation with other concerned agencies, to devise a proper mechanism for limited use of the area for such purposes but to ensure that demonstrations, etc. are regulated so that they do not cause any disturbance to the residents of Jantar Mantar road or the offices situated there.

Similar direction was passed with respect to demonstrations in Boat Club area as well.

Read the judgment below.

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news