Is It a Crime To Peacefully Protest Against the Government's Policies?

With several eminent activists and academics named in the Delhi Police's supplementary chargesheet, it is best to be told in black and white who may speak and who may not.

Reading through reports of the supplementary chargesheet filed by the Delhi Police in the northeast Delhi riots case, it seems about time that the justice system of the Republic clarified to the uninformed citizen whether, after all, the constitution of India forbids any peaceful protests to be held against any policy decision of the government of the day, or to express an opinion about what may seem the coloured approach of the police forces in dealing with such protests.

For example, in the riots case, the Delhi Police has still not taken any cognizance of the role of some ruling party stalwarts in fomenting violence, all of that caught on video evidence, not to speak of filing any FIRs against them, or naming them in any chargesheet.

This question has been piquantly raised not only by many law-abiding citizens but now by one of the country’s most celebrated senior police officers as well in a letter addressed to the Delhi Police in regard to the riots.

Also read: Labour Rights Activists, Artists Questioned by Police Criticise Delhi Riots Probe

Indeed, the explicit contents of Julio Ribeiro’s letter, when viewed in the context of the supplementary chargesheet, may suggest that he also qualifies for a similar indictment.

If the situation in Kashmir, for example, is any guide, it would seem that no political force other than the ruling party has the right to openly express its views on issues that concern Kashmiris of all hues.

The courts now must tell us whether this turn of events in that Union Territory also has the sanction of constitutional law, and is consistent with the fundamental rights chapter of that document.

It is best to be told in black and white who may speak and who may not.

Many Kashmiris look to know whether it is fine for the government to be in talks with the Nagas who seek not just a separate flag, a separate constitution, but also a reorganisation of territories in the Northeast, or to sit on the negotiating table (even if through video conferencing) with the Afghani Taliban in Qatar, but to still keep locked up many Kashmiri mainstream leaders for fear that they may express their views once out in the open.

Also read: As Complaints Go Unprobed, Muslim Riot Victims Accuse Delhi Police of Bias

Not to speak of engaging them in talks of any kind, other than to get them to sign bonds pledging that they will not oppose the reading down of Article 370 and 35A a measure that was taken without the least regard for their opinion in the matter. Some democracy that.

The chilling effect of the supplementary chargesheet filed in the Delhi riots case in which patriotic individuals who think deeply about the health of what used to be a pluralist democracy are sought to be arraigned for having voiced their opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) legislation, and for calling peaceful protests on that issue requires that the justice system now at the highest level make it known authoritatively where the constitution and the law stand on such matters.

In our democracy, generations have been brought up on the criticism that the Left parties everywhere seek just one-party rule. We need to know whether one-party rule, even if de facto for now, however, from the Right is constitutionally different and has some natural validation.

We also need to be told whether it is criminal to seek reforms in the police forces that would bring their thinking and operations in line with the principle of equality before the law a question that Ribeiro has asked with clarity and concern.

Note what an ex-chief of the CBI has tweeted on the death of the dedicated social worker, Swami Agnivesh. Should it be a question as to how such prejudiced individuals in the police forces manage to scale the very heights of their profession?

Indian constitutional democracy screams for answers.

Badri Raina has taught at Delhi University.