The Right to Freedom: Recalling a Forgotten Clause of the Constitution of India

Take away the right to assemble and the right to form associations and unions and the door will be open to tyrannical forms of government. That's a key lesson to remember on Constitution Day.

Since his return to state politics, Ghulam Nabi Azad has frequently said that whereas he wants land ownership and work opportunities, especially in the government sector to remain confined to erstwhile “state subjects”, he cannot guarantee the restoration of special status to Jammu & Kashmir.

He has argued that such restoration can happen only in one of two ways: either through an act of parliament, or via the intervention of the Supreme Court – which is due to hear petitions concerning such restoration.

What may or may not happen to the revoked “special status” that had been granted to the erstwhile state as a condition of its formal accession to the dominion of India is not my primary concern here.

Time will tell.

However, on this anniversary of the day when the Constitution of India was adopted in 1949, it just might be apposite to recall that the constitution inscribed a third democratic way for citizens to pursue public demands, voice grievances, or express disapproval of policy decisions made by the governments of the day—a way designed to nudge the institutional mechanisms of our democracy into aligning with public needs and perceptions.

That way was codified in Article 19-22 under the rubric “right to freedom.”

Clause 19(1) – specifically (b), (c) – speaks to the citizen’s right to “assemble without arms” and to form “associations and unions.”

Clearly, the purpose of the right to assemble and to form associations and unions is intended to furnish the citizenry a collective public avenue peacefully to question governmental actions and policies, and/or to place demands either for redressal of grievances or new policy initiatives.

It must be obvious that without this right, the very idea of a constitutional democracy would not but be farcical and untenable in principle, given that democracy, after all, was born of the ideal of “government by the people, of the people, for the people;” and, in the case of our republic, the fact that it is “we the people” who are enshrined as having “given to ourselves” the constitution.

Take away that right and what must follow is a complete denial of the “right to freedom” –  leaving the way open yet again to tyrannical forms of government.

Were it to be argued that the right to public protest should be understood to pertain only to colonial times of subjugation, one would have to explain why such a right was inscribed in the constitution of free India by our framers.

Not for nothing did the chief architect of the constitution instruct the mass of the republic’s socially and economically dispossessed populations to “educate, organise, agitate” in order to seek their just democratic/ constitutional dues from the state.

Nothing reminds us more forcefully of the potential of peaceful assembly and principled democratic protest than the quite recent year-long agitation by the farming community—a happening that has already gone into the history of memorable democratic people’s movements world-wide.

It was the undented democratic unity and peaceful resolve behind the rational force of the case the protesting farmers made to the nation which, after all, obliged the Modi government to roll back the three farm laws that had sought to insert private corporate control over land ownership, production, storage, and sale of farm products.

Theoretically, therefore, Ghulam Nabi Azad would concede that such a course can be adopted by opponents of the reading down of Article 370, provided, needless to say, there be genuine and sufficient collective desire and preparedness to do so.

If an impressive, peaceful Bharat Jodo Yatra is possible against the anti-people economic policies and record of the current regime and against the climate of bigotry and hate it has fostered, why shouldn’t a peaceful mass movement be possible to seek the reversal of the scrapping of J&K’s autonomy – provided, of course, that the demand is backed by wide mass endorsement?

It may be noted that even as we write, many peaceful agitations by groups of people in both regions of the Union Territory of J&K on issues related to non-payment of salaries, interminable procrastination in the filling of vacant posts, and sundry broken promises, continue to be underway, including an unprecedented one by displaced Pandits – a social group that has rarely in history been known to protest collectively on the street.


Clearly, it seems a sign of our times that only such public demonstrations as may support government policies or measures are thought to be in sync with constitutional prerogatives.

Any public protest, however peaceful and cogent, that challenges such policies or measures has come to be regarded, not just by the executive of the day but by wide sections of the urban elite, as somehow violative of public order and good governance.

That this occurrence goes hand in hand with a general disapproval of dissent suggests indeed a lurch away from constitutional principles – one that now seems to afflict not just state institutions charged with the task of shoring up the “right to freedom” but wide sections of the media as well.

The irony of course is that members of the current ruling establishment who had once mounted stirring public agitations against authoritarian tendencies seem now ready and willing to emulate those they once debilitated through a succession of collective protest movements.

Recall the Hindutva agitations of the 1990s in pursuit of achieving a bhavya (opulent) Ram temple at the site where a mosque had stood, obliging finally even the top court to agree that, notwithstanding the “criminal act” of having demolished a bona fide mosque that had been functional for over four centuries, the land site had best belong to Ram Lalla.

The legitimacy of peaceful protest

In most Western democracies, of course, people’s collective movements remain an article of faith within their democratic systems.

Recall the numbers of young Americans who refused the draft for fighting the Vietnam war, not to speak of the anti-Vietnam war movement in toto that relentlessly put their own government in the dock over the unjustified assault on a small country of some 30 million people who had done nothing to the United States to deserve the devastation visited upon it.

And, as we have noticed several times, British citizens have the right to peaceful assembly and protest even in front of 10, Downing street, the residence of the British prime minister, no less.

Why is it then that not just Ghulam Nabi Azad but Indian elites in general seem to have come to subscribe to the official view that any form of public protest (think of the women of Shaheen Bagh) is now tantamount to an “anti-national “ act which must be, and increasingly is, put down under the severest of laws in the criminal code?

As we celebrate our constitution this day, it may be a salutary thing to ponder the provisions that our framers provided for in order that the republic does not veer away from the fundamental, emancipatory vision of the Indian constitution, reducing “we the people” to a conformist herd, allowed only to nod “yes.”

The harmful restrictions sought to be put here on the right to collective assembly and peaceful protest are completely against the letter and spirit of India’s democratic constitution.

What a pity that Ghulam Nabi Azad, who has served many terms in parliament, seems unable to recognise   this reality.