Politics

NGT Ban on Jantar Mantar Protests a Blow for Democracy, Say Activists

 Close proximity to Parliament and the presence of a police station nearby made it a perfect place for protests for nearly twenty five years. 

New Delhi's iconic Jantar Mantar protest venue. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi’s iconic Jantar Mantar protest venue. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: The ban imposed by the National Green Tribunal on protests at Jantar Mantar in the heart of New Delhi has not gone down well with social activists and environmentalists, who have decried the move as an attempt to curb protests and dissent.

“I think it is ridiculous. Democracy and protest is also important in a society. The rich of Delhi are not so privileged that they cannot have some sound. People also live where these protests will move. They also need to have their noise levels protected. If NGT says that no protests should be allowed at Jantar Mantar because it is noisy, then every part of India should have a right to noise protection. Otherwise you are dividing India between Lutyens’ Delhi and the rest of Delhi,” said Sunita Narayan, environmentalist and director general of Centre for Science and Environment.

The tribunal had directed the Delhi government, Delhi police and New Delhi Municipal Council to stop all protests at Jantar Mantar and to remove the protesters sitting there to Ramlila Ground.

Hearing a plea filed by residents of Jantar Mantar road, who had claimed that processions and agitations “violate their right to live in a peaceful and healthy environment, right to silence, right to sleep and right to life with dignity,” an NGT bench headed by Justice R.S. Rathore had directed the respondents to remove all make-shift and temporary structures, loud speakers and public address systems from the road and to “forthwith” shift the protesters and those sitting on dharnas at the venue to Ramlila Maidan. The bench also held that the protests were in violation of environmental laws including Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and upheld the right of the residents of the surrounding area to live peacefully and comfortably.

Real issue is of giving spaces for protests

Questioning the logic behind the order, civil rights activist and co-convener of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, Anjali Bharadwaj, said “the issue is not of noise pollution but of what kind of space people are getting to express themselves freely and it links to our fundamental right of speech and expression. From the civil society perspective it would be very regressive to shut down this space which is close to Parliament.”

As to whether Jantar Mantar was really witnessing high levels of noise pollution, she questioned if there was any empirical data to support the claim. “If the NGT is worried about pollution at large, more measures can be taken about cleanliness of the area. But when it comes to noise pollution, I am not sure that if evidence based analysis has been done to see if the noise pollution at Jantar Mantar is more than on other roads and streets of Delhi,” said Bharadwaj.

Having herself organised and participated in several protests at Jantar Mantar, Bharadwaj said “in a democracy it is the question of what is the space that citizens have for putting forth their dissenting points of view and for protesting against the policies of the government of the day and any kind of exploitation and wrong that might be happening.”

Shifting protesters detrimental to a democracy

“Shifting people to Ramlila Maidan and therefore further and further from the heart of where the decision-making is done is very detrimental to a democracy,” she said and added that the answer lies not in shifting people away but opening more places for protests and demonstrations.

“Even at Jantar Mantar, people had been given just this small space of protest which was clearly inadequate. It is itself very restrictive and big protests cannot be held there. It is crowded because the government does not allow protests in more venues. The answer to one space getting crowded is not to shift people away but to open more spaces.”

As for some protesters, like those seeking ‘One Rank One Pension’ and have been occupying Jantar Mantar for a long period of time, Bharadwaj said “what needs to be considered is that their voices have not been heard. Obviously, no one is there just for fun, they are there because they believe the need to convey something to the government which has not been heard.”

Seeking opening of “more spaces within the mainstream or closer to the centres of power” for protests, she said, the government can always impose some restrictions when it wants to but there is no reason why people can’t hold demonstrations and meetings in all spaces in the city. “It is because such meetings are not allowed elsewhere that people are having to congregate on that road.”

Need to challenge the order

Since an appeal against an order of the NGT can only be filed in the Supreme Court, Bharadwaj said she was hopeful that “civil society will think of moving a higher court to address this issue because already there is a strong feeling that there are not adequate number of spaces in the Capital for people to come from a vast country like ours and to convey what they feel about the policies of the government if they are in disagreement.”

Incidentally, many believe that the NGT order also needs to be challenged because it has upset a system which had been put in place to provide some place for protest close to Parliament while keeping the larger demonstrations at Ramlila Maidan.

Until the early 1990s, the ‘Boat Club’ lawns near India Gate used to be given out for large protests. However, two events had changed that. The first was the laying of siege to the venue for a large number of days by the Bharatiya Kisan Union under its leader Mahender Singh Tikait. The second was a major protest announced by the BJP there during the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid stand-off, which the Congress-led Narasimha Rao government had foiled with a firm hand.

A perfect protesting venue for many reasons

After these two developments, it was decided that no protests would be allowed at Boat Club lawns and protests would be held at Jantar Mantar from where the protesters would be allowed, upon receiving prior permission, to march up to Parliament Street police station. The arrangement worked well for nearly a quarter of a century. It provided protesters, including political parties, an opportunity to also interact with the media at Jantar Mantar or Parliament Street. Since the place is close to Parliament, often senior political leaders were also able to join the protests with ease and at times ministers were also able to come and give assurances to protesters.

With the police laying down three rows of barricades just outside Parliament Street police station, it also allowed for great visual effects as the protesters would climb atop these or were allowed to break the first cordon and face water cannons before courting arrest. The large courtyard of the historic police station building provided adequate space for keeping protesters in detention for some time.

Over the years, there have been a number of unfortunate incidents, resulting in injuries or the loss of life. One of these incidents happened when the assistant commissioner of police, Parliament Street, Ashok Hari, who was a very popular figure among protesters because of his deft handling of protests, was killed when a reversing water cannon ran over him outside the police station during a protest. Occasionally there were also incidents of stone pelting in which vehicles of office-goers parked in buildings at Parliament Street were damaged. Then there was the alleged suicide by a protester during a demonstration by Aam Aadmi Party at Jantar Mantar.

But despite all these incidents, Jantar Mantar has remained the main protest venue of Delhi. Just like the Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park in London, it has become synonymous with the rights of people to protest against government policy or injustice. The NGT order has changed this set up for the time being and now only an intervention by the Supreme Court can help restore the right of people to protest in the area.