BY ANJUMAN ARA BEGUM
Public protests have always been a symbol of democratic and informed societies that represent people’s engagement into affairs that affect their lives. On most part, protests speak volumes of the people’s participation in national public affairs. More over, they help enable an environment where accountability and good governance can be promoted thereby allowing rightful spaces for peoples’ grievances and dissent. For the marginalized sections of the society, protesting is the only solution that ensures State attention towards mainstreaming their issues. Yet we all know that in reality, there is a high prevalence among government and non-state actors to undermine the culture of protests and treat it as a matter of inconvenient or threat.
Locally, there is an effort by certain sections of the citizens that have demanded the “banning of protests” at the site of Dighali Pukhuri, which is approximately 60 bigha pond and considered one of the most iconic sites of Guwahati. It is no secret that demonstrations or famously known “Dharnas” are viewed with much disdain in conflict-ridden places like Guwahati. Currently there is a struggle between two contrary narratives. The first which deems that cultural and tourist sites should not be used for non tourist like activities like peoples’ dharnas and demos. The second narrative recognizes expressing public dissent through protests as democratic right however proposes that it should be carried out at a State owned site.
Dispur Last Gate has been named as an alterative location for such activities. This has created buzz in people who have expressed mixed opinions. For instance a ban supporter says, “I don’t support public protest in Dighali Pukhuri. Let it remain a place of serenity and beauty.” Another supporter of ban on public protests muses that “It has become routine for the ‘professional agitationists’ that results to nothing except traffic congestion.”
Such statements raise many concerns particularly if we have to consider the right based perspective. ‘Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly’ is a constitutional right and any expression is not required to be popular to be promoted or restricted if unpopular. It can only be restricted under conditions prescribed in the Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. The Indian State cites that “reasonable restrictions” includes issues like public order, national security, friendly relations with a foreign country, public morality matters and hate speech. Please note that here even sedition is not a ‘reasonable ground’ to restrict freedom of expression and for peaceful assembly. The right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest are crucial in a participatory democracy like India to foster a culture of political debate among the common people and are absolutely necessary for the promotion of public accountability as well as transparency in administration. Therefore, this right must be provided safeguards and should definitely be prioritized over the assumed public inconvenience.
In other countries, protests are regulated through advance permission or notice requirements, content restrictions and in certain instances protests of political natures are completely banned.
In countries like USA, excessive noise pollution or disruption, obstructions of sidewalks or doorways, or harassment of unwilling passers-by are the grounds for police to intervene for the event closure. Obviously, any incitement of violence or lawlessness forced an immediate police intervention and police authorities may impose traffic rules, reasonable timing, place and manner restrictions. However, officials should not be directing a route that doesn’t reach out to the targeted audience of the protestors. In the UK, no permission or notice is required if the protests are static in nature however, in cases of march and moving demonstrations, notices are required. And extended time frame protests are banned in specific location like the Parliament Square.
The restriction of a public space would definitely violate freedom as alone inconvenience cannot be considered a sensible and reasonable ground. The public inconveniences can be minimised or eliminated through efficient management and enforcement of the local traffic rules. And for that we must learn from some best practices. On 15-16, February, 2003, worldwide protests were organized in 800 cities in the wake of US war on Iraq. In Rome alone there was a protest of three million people on 15th February, 2003 which became a Guinness record. Madrid witnessed a protest of some one and a half million people, while London saw one of its largest protests in face of one million protestors. Not to forget the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York, the Umbrella revolution in the streets of Hong Kong and the Nuit Debout protests in Paris’ Place de la République, all examples which paved the path for enriched public opinion and encouragement of informed, engaged and inclusive societies on a global scale.
There is a need for awareness about the dos and the donts for both the protesters and the administrations. Excessive noise pollution, hooliganism, road obstructions, harassment of pedestrians or passersby, property vandalizing and setting people and public sites on fires are all offences that should provide zero grounds for impunity of the violators. Remember that for long Guwahati has been a vibrant and active society where democratic practices such as like protest meetings and dharnas have affirmed its informed citizenry. Let us take immense pride in ourselves for being such a people.
And this ever growing city is lacking in efficient crowd and traffic management strategies. Therefore efforts must be made for improving these issues, rather than resorting to banning protest spaces. The protests against public affairs are carried out with an aim to reach a target audience and Dighali Pukhuri over a period of time has become a strategic space that provides an ambience of concerned people. Having the presence of institutions like the local High Court, Guwahati Press Club, Rabindra Bhavan as well as educational institutions like Cotton College too in the vicinity has added advantage to the protesters.
The key factor is that our local civil society must not be deprived from accessing “Dighali Pukhuri site” whenever needed for registering protests and it must be seen in the light as a matter of right. Transferring the protest site to Dispur Last Gate, in reality, amounts to the restriction of constitutional freedom of expression and right to peaceful assembly.
Anjuman Ara Begum works with FORUM-ASIA (www.forum-asia.org) and can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org