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Demonstrations of dissent have to be in designated places alone: Supreme Court

New Delhi: In a precedent-setting judgment that is set to affect the way India protests against the establishment, the Supreme Court on Wednesday held that the demonstrations like the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protest were not acceptable, protests cannot occupy public spaces and public ways and most importantly "demonstrations expressing dissent have to be in designated places alone".

The landmark judgment came in a batch of petitions that had originally sought the removal of the Shaheen Bagh protests site but had later also sought for some guidance on such forms of protests after the hearing and the protest site was suspended due to the Delhi riots and the pandemic.

A bench of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Justice Aniruddha Bose and Justice Krishna Murari ruled: "We only hope that such a situation does not arise in the future and protests are subject to the legal position as enunciated above..."

Interestingly, a country that has similarly disallowed protests at public spaces other than "designate places" is Singapore, where any demonstration or protest has to be organised in a particular place called the Hong Lim Park and only with government permission.

Moreover, the top court while in essence settling the dispute of Right to Assembly vs Right to Mobility, said such forms of protests while common during the colonial rule in India could not be equated with protests in a "self-ruled democracy". The court said: "Our Constitutional scheme comes with the right to protest and express dissent, but with an obligation towards certain duties."

In addition, the court referred to the Shaheen Bagh sit-in and said that it was "not even in an undesignated area" but had "blocked a public way which caused grave inconvenience to commuters". It said: "We cannot accept the plea of the applicants that an indeterminable number of people can assemble whenever they choose to protest."

The court also held that the administration should have taken appropriate action in removing the Shaheen Bagh protest and noted that it should not have waited for court orders before removing what it called "encroachments or obstructions". In the 13-page judgment, the court said: "The courts adjudicate the legality of the actions and are not meant to give shoulder to the administration to fire their guns from. Unfortunately, despite a lapse of a considerable period of time, there was neither any negotiations nor any action by the administration, thus warranting our intervention (in the Shaheen Bagh matter)."

The court also thanked the interlocutors it had appointed in an effort to find an "out of the box" solution and go for mediation. It significantly also noted the role of social media and the Internet in the current age of organising protests and movements.

"Technology, however, in a near paradoxical manner, works to both empower digitally fuelled movements and at the same time, contributes to their apparent weaknesses," the court said, adding that the Shaheen Bagh sit-in had seen the effects of both. He said the flip side of this technology was that "social media channels are often fraught with danger and can lead to the creation of highly polarised environments, which often see parallel conversations running with no constructive outcome evident".

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