Right to Peaceful Assembly

  • ARTICLE 19-

Article 19 of the Indian Constitution is one of the most important articles constituting the ‘basic freedoms’ guaranteed to every citizen of India. Article 19(1) provides that all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, assembly, associations, movement, residence and practicing any trade, business, occupation or profession. Article 19 (1)(b) guarantees to all citizens of India rights “to assemble peaceably and without arms”. This right includes the rights to hold meetings and to take out processions.

The right is however subject to the following restrictions. :-

          1) The assembly must be peaceful and harmonious;
          2) It must be unarmed and not threatening the safety of the people;
          3) Reasonable restrictions can be imposed under clause 3 of article 19.

The right to assembly embodies the very idea of a democratic government. Article 19(1)(b) thus includes the right to hold meetings and to take out processions. However, this right is not absolute but restrictive in nature. The assembly must be non-violent and must not breach public peace. Disorderly and/or riotous assembly will not be protected under Article 19(1)(b) and clause 3 of article 19 would then come into picture. Reasonable restrictions imposed under Article 19(3) are in the interests of sovereignty and integrity of India or public order. Article 19(b) has always been an issue of debate in the country. It has been reviewed, studied and interpreted numerous times by the Supreme Court. Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure also talks about unlawful assemblies. Section 144(6) gives the government the power to make an assembly of 5 or more people in certain cases an unlawful assembly. Chapter viii of the Indian Penal Code lays down that the conditions when an assembly becomes ‘unlawful’. According to this section, an assembly of five or more persons becomes an unlawful assembly if the common object of the persons comprising the assembly is-

    (a) to repel and resist the execution of any law or legal process,
    (b) to commit any sort of mischief or criminal trespass,
    (c) to obtain the possession of any property using force,
    (d) to impel and coerce a person to do what  he is not legally bound to do or omit which he is legally entitled to do, 
     (e) to overawe, that is, to appall and astonish the government by means of criminal force or show of criminal force or any public servant in the exercise of his lawful powers.

  • CAN THE STATE RESTRICT A CITIZEN’S RIGHT TO PROTEST?

 The question that arises in most of the cases relating to Article 19(1)(b) is that can the state restrict a person’s right to protest? In a landmark judgment given by the Supreme Court on the incident that took place on the midnight of 4-5th June, 2011 at Ramlili Maidan, Delhi where Baba Ramdev and his supporters were carrying on a protest against corruption and black money. Their protest was against the government who failed in taking effective steps to curb the menace of black money and corruption in India. The apex court has held that the protest was peaceful. Satyagraha which is beyond the concept of ‘passive resistance’ forms the essence of democracy. Saytagraha is not aggression but non-violence and its force lay in truth and the ability to struggle for it. Supreme Court in this judgment has upheld the right to peaceful protest as a Constitutional right and the right to assemble and demonstrate by holding dharnas is the basic features of an effective democratic system. People in a democracy have a right to raise their voices against the decisions and unreasonable actions of the government or to express their opinion on any subject of national importance. The government is obliged to respect and encourage the exercise of such rights. However, recently political powers have resorted to the use of police powers to stop the people from exercising their constitutional right of peaceful assembly. In this case also, police powers were used to dictate that the size of the protest must be small and not very large. Also, section 144 of the CrPC was unlawfully imposed. In this regard, the Supreme Court observed that the decision to forcibly evict people sleeping at the Ramlila Maidan at midnight of 4-5th June 2011 taken by either the police independently or on consultation with the Ministry of Home Affairs was arbitrary, abuse of power and improper. It was an invasion of legal protections available to the people present there. Thus the restriction was unwarrantedly executed and showed the might of the State.

However, after these observations this judgment took a strange turn and said that it is the obligation of every protestor to obey every lawful order. Neither the imposition of section 144 nor the withdrawal of permission or the forceful eviction of the protestors were lawful so why should the protestors have had accepted such an order? A protestor who organizes a peaceful protest within his constitutional rights is equally entitled not to accept an illegal order denying his right to protest. He should not run the risk of being punished if the order is held to be unlawful. But what the judgment hints at is that every time a person’s fundamental right to protest is intercepted by the State, he must immediately accept those orders or he would have to suffer the punishment.

But, a citizen cannot be compelled to relinquish is fundamental right just because the State decides to restrict his right to protest. The judgment upheld the right to protest as a fundamental right of speech and assembly but it presented a highly doubtful proposition by saying that once the right to protest is denied the protestor must accept this denial or run the risk of contributory negligence to the police oppression. This part of the judgment needs to be extensively discussed and debated upon to find out its flaws and should probably be reconsidered.

 

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