Justice Anand Venkatesh
Justice Anand Venkatesh
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State should exercise restraint while dealing with peaceful protests over basic necessities, Madras HC

Meera Emmanuel

In an order passed last week, the Madras High Court highlighted that State authorities must exercise restraint in acting against peaceful public protestors, particularly when the protest is triggered by demands for basic necessities or fundamental rights.

Justice Anand Venkatesh made pertinent observations to this effect while allowing a plea to quash a criminal case filed on charges of unlawful assembly against thirty-two persons. These persons were accused of being part of a public protest over a shortage of drinking water. The Madras High Court emphasised,

If criminal proceedings are going to be initiated against people who are resorting to a peaceful protest, demanding for basic necessities, then such criminal proceedings will have to be interfered by this Court in exercise of its jurisdiction under Section 482 of Cr.P.C.”

The order was passed in response to a plea filed by one among the thirty-two accused, who was slated to join the Police force as a Grade II constable. However, after the case was registered against him, his selection was cancelled. Subsequently, he challenged the criminal proceedings before the Madras High Court, contending that the same amounted to an abuse of the court process.

During the course of submissions, the Madras High Court was informed that a peaceful agitation over shortage of drinking water had prompted the Village Administrative Officer to file a police complaint. The thirty-two persons accused were arraigned on the basis of hearsay, it was further submitted. The petitioner claimed that he was not even aware that his name was added as an accused in the case.

The State countered these submissions, justifying the registration of the case by contending that the protest was called without notice. The Additional Public Prosecutor contended that the protest, in turn, had obstructed traffic and caused public hardship, necessitating the registration of a complaint.

The Court, however disagreed with the hard stance adopted by the State authorities. Justice Venkatesh observed,

Food, water and shelter are the three basic necessities that a human being must possess in order to make a decent living in the society. When persons are deprived of drinking water for a long time, the only manner in which the people can show their protest is by resorting to a peaceful agitation. It is an admitted fact that the accused persons resorted to a peaceful agitation and sat in the middle of the road demanding for drinking water. When a man is pushed to desperation, sometimes he tends to overact to the situation. These are matters where the administration is expected to act in a matured and balanced manner and the agitation must be taken in the right spirit and steps should be taken to provide drinking water to the people.” 

He proceeded to opine further,

The nature of agitation that was conducted by the accused persons is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. It is true that the agitation could have caused hardship to the general public for sometime. That does not mean that the administration will proceed against the agitators and commence a criminal prosecution. This is not what is expected in democracy and this does not reflect any maturity on the part of the State machinery. In the considered view of this Court, the State ought not to have proceeded further with the prosecution and it should have left the agitators free after ensuring them with drinking water supply.”

In view of these observations, the High Court allowed the plea and set aside the criminal proceedings pending before the Judicial Magistrate.

This Court finds that the entire proceedings is an abuse of process of Court and it requires the interference of this Court in exercise of its jurisdiction under Section 482 of Cr.P.C

In the result, the proceedings in STC No.376 of 2018, on the file of the learned Judicial Magistrate, Kangeyam is quashed in entirety not only for the petitioner but also for all the accused persons who have been made to face a criminal prosecution unnecessarily.”

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