New Delhi: It took just 15 minutes for the Supreme Court to deprive Indian citizens of a precious right – one which they have enjoyed all these years.
Against the backdrop of the recent violence in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery water dispute, a bench comprising Justices Dipak Misra and Uday Umesh Lalit passed an order Thursday stating that “it is the duty of the states to see that no agitation, damages or destruction takes place.”
But their order also appears to impose unjustified curbs on the right of citizens to peacefully agitate against its decisions.
Ironically, the bench passed its order after briefly hearing the petitioner’s senior counsel, Adish C. Aggarwala, who himself did not pray for such sweeping curbs on the right of citizens to peacefully protest against the court’s orders.
The writ petition which the bench heard was filed by a social activist from Kanyakumari, P. Sivakumar, who wanted the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments to be ordered to stop the ongoing violence over the Supreme Court’s September 12 directive on the Cauvery dispute.
The bench cited the Supreme Court’s 2009 judgment in Destruction of Public and Private Properties In Re versus State of Andhra Pradesh and Others. In that case, the court was concerned with the destruction of public and private property in the name of agitations, bandhs, hartals and the like.
Thursday’s order reproduced paragraph 12 of that judgment, which laid down guidelines for measures to be taken by the authorities for preventive action and which added teeth to the process of enquiry and investigation if there are reports of violence during protests and agitations.
The Supreme Court laid down guidelines in that judgment, after carefully going through the reports submitted by two committees which the court had set up. The first committee was headed by a former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice K.T. Thomas, and included senior advocate, K. Parasaran, former CBI Director, R.K. Raghavan, and the then solicitor general, G.E. Vahanvati. The second committee was headed by eminent jurist Fali S. Nariman, and included the then editors-in-chief of the Indian Express, the Times of India, Dainik Jagran and Prannoy Roy of NDTV.
The 2009 judgment, cited in the latest order, did not seek to curb the right to peacefully protest against a court ruling or judgment.
But in its September 15 order, without hearing all the parties and the civil society, the Supreme Court concluded thus:
“The fundamental purpose is that there cannot be any agitation when it relates to an order passed by the court. We have already indicated that any grieved party is under an obligation to take recourse to legal remedies for mitigation of grievances.”
The order is silent on how the availability of legal remedies would eclipse the right to agitate or protest peacefully against an order passed by the court.
The bench admits in its latest order that the 2009 judgment pertains to situations where “agitations take place in violation of norms”, i.e. are violent. Then it goes on to say as follows:
“We reiterate that neither any “bandh” nor any agitation [emphasis added by The Wire] can take place when [the] court has passed an order. It is to be complied with and, in any case, if there is difficulty, the concerned parties can approach the court. The people cannot become law unto themselves and, therefore, it is obligatory on the part of the authorities of both the States, to prevent such actions.”
The use of the words “any agitation” may be construed to include even a peaceful agitation against an order of the court, unless the bench comes out with a clarification denying such an interpretation.
If in 2009 the Supreme Court saw fit to curb violent protests after considering two reports of committees comprising eminent persons, it did not take much time to now conclude that a citizen’s right to agitate against a court order – even peacefully – is the root cause of destruction of public and private property.
Of course, it is possible to suggest that the bench might not have intended to curb peaceful agitations. But by citing the availability of further legal remedies to those aggrieved by a judgment as reason enough to restrict any agitation, the court suggested that it had in mind the need to curb even peaceful agitations against its orders.
The word ‘protest’ is defined as an expression or declaration of objection, disapproval, or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid. The meaning of the word ‘agitation’, however, is wider, as it includes persistent urging of a political or social cause before the public. It is, another definition suggests, the act of attempting to stir up public opinion for or against something.
It is one thing to say that such protests or agitations ought to be peaceful and non-violent; but to restrict any agitation against a court order on the grounds that further legal remedies are available may constitute a serious violation of the democratic rights of citizens, say observers.