Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] The Right to Protest in a free society

The right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly is a fundamental right bestowed upon the citizens of India by the founding fathers of the Indian constitution.
By IASToppers
February 18, 2020

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Meaning of quashing dissent in a democracy
  • Interpretations of rights
  • Dissent is inspired from Indian independence movement
  • Watchdogs of the government
  • Foundations of Democracy
  • Conclusion

The Right to Protest in a free society

For IASToppers’ Editorial Simplified Archive, click here

Introduction:

India in the current times is witnessing unprecedented public protests. Thousands continue to assemble on the streets to demand that the government rethink the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens.

Meaning of quashing dissent in a democracy:

  • Public protests are the hallmark of a free, democratic society, whose logic demands that the voice of the people should be heard by those in power and decisions should be reached after proper discussion and consultation.
  • For this, the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are necessary.
  • Any arbitrary restraint on the exercise of such rights — for instance, imposing Section 144, shows the inability of the government to tolerate dissent.
  • It shows not the propensity of people to riot but rather the incapacity of the government to discuss, deliberate or listen.
  • An unreasonable limitation on protest is an affront to the very people in whose name a government is allowed to temporarily govern.

Interpretations of rights:

1. Right to protest is a fundamental right:

  • Indians must be grateful to the courts for having reiterated that the right to protest is a fundamental right as the word ‘protest’ is not explicitly mentioned in the constitution.
  • One may read the relevant articles of the Constitution, particularly Article 19, altogether non-politically.
  • In general meaning, the right to free speech and expression may be taken to mean that everyone has a right to express their personal opinion on any matter; the right to associate to mean the right to form self-regulating clubs, professional associations or societies; and the right of peaceful assembly to mean the right to have a picnic in a park or to participate in a religious festival such as the Kumbh Mela.
  • Important as these rights are — in authoritarian, illiberal states, even these rights are not guaranteed — this view is too narrow because in a democracy each of these embodies active not passive citizenship.

2. Rights constitute our political freedoms:

  • In broader sense, these rights constitute our political freedoms. The right to free speech and expression transforms into the right to freely express opinion on the conduct of the government
  • The right to association becomes the right to associate for political purposes — for instance, to collectively challenge government decisions and to even aim, peacefully and legally, to displace the government, to not merely check abuse of power but to wrest power.
  • This is the basis of our multiparty system where opposition parties are valuable adversaries, not enemies, and compete healthily for political power.
  • Finally, the right to peaceably assemble allows political parties and citizenship bodies such as university-based student groups to question and object to acts of the government by demonstrations, agitations and public meetings, to launch sustained protest movements.
  • Hence, each of these rights has two interpretations:
    • On the first, these are exercised largely by people for private purposes, free from government interference, in a classically liberal, non-political public space.
    • On the second, rights are strongly associational, exercised to influence or gain power, and are therefore fundamentally political rights basic to a democratic society.

Dissent is inspired from Indian independence movement:

  • Indian constitution has got its values from the historically distilled lived experience, referred to as its spirit.
  • It flows directly from our history. Undoubtedly, the background of the Indian Constitution is formed by its anti-colonial struggle, within which the seeds of a political public sphere and democratic Constitution were sown.
  • The Indian people fought hard and long to publicly express their views on colonial policies and laws, to dissent from them, to shape minds and form public opinion against them, to speak to and against the government, to challenge it.
  • People not only signed writ petitions but staged dharnas, held large public meetings, peaceful protests and demonstrations and even, for instance in Gandhi’s Satyagraha, launched civil disobedience movements.
  • None of these are literally found in the Articles of the Constitution but are presupposed by it and give it ideological backing reaffirming that India is a democratic republic.

Watchdogs of the government:

  • This cluster of inter-related political rights (expression, association, assembly, petition and protest) is meant to ensure that even when the government works in our interests, we don’t sit back and allow it to conduct business as usual.
  • We act as watchdogs and constantly monitor its acts, for even such governments can falter and then it is up to us, through consultation, meetings and discussion, to recognise and rectify its mistakes.
  • If an elected government strays from the constitutional course, go against the interests of the people, become unresponsive and refuse to listen.
  • In that case, pressure against the government must be built by still stronger public methods. Protests may take the form of street assemblies — the occasional, temporary gathering of a group to parade or demonstrate or become a sustained movement, necessary to complement or reinforce more conventional forms of politics.

Foundations of Democracy:

Democracies are founded on two core political rights.

1. Freely elect their government:

  • The first, the right of every citizen to freely elect their government and when dissatisfied with its performance, to vote it out of power in a legitimately held election (Article 326).
  • This remains the only proper constitutional procedure to get rid of a government and rightly so. Indeed, peaceful transfer of power is one of the great strengths of democracies.

2. Political participation:

  • The second core political right is to politically participate not only during but between the elections.
  • The right to protest, to publicly question and force the government to answer, is a fundamental political right of the people that flows directly from a democratic reading of Article 19.

Conclusion:

  • Having said this, one must not forget the responsibilities we have as being the citizen of the country, and refrain ourselves from the urge to baselessly oppose government every time just to exercise the right to dissent. The government must welcome the qualified demands and constructive criticism of the people, and in any case the right to dissent must not be quashed.
[Ref: The Hindu]

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