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Farmers And Their Right To Protest: What Does Law Say So Far?

India has been a country of non-violence and civil disobedience, with the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi gaining popularity with each passing day. The government and farmers’ leaders must come to an agreement through talks, annihilating fear of farmers and arriving on common ground through mutual consensus.

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Till 75 years ago, Indian masses had not seen any formal access to human rights. This is why Fundamental Rights were given to citizens after 1947, to keep the government as well as the people accountable. In addition to freedom of speech, expression, profession and residence, the Constitution of India also guaranteed the right to peaceful protest. Acknowledging the condition in India, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in a recent tweet said the right to peaceful assembly and freedom to express should be preserved in online as well as offline mode. With the farmer protest still in the forefront, some are sympathising with the farmer’s cause, while others are strongly critical of the same.

This is not the first time we have seen the “Right to Protest” on the forefront. Several demonstrations in the past have led to many changes to the constitution. For instance, Potti Sreeramulu went on a hunger strike for the creation of Andhra Pradesh back in the early 1950s. The protest by the farmers in New Delhi is viewed by some experts in a similar light, as a right to demand what they desire from the government, while others see this as a brute attack on a civilised society by blocking the roads and traffic. This ongoing protest has adversely affected the livelihood of people and caused hardship to common man living in cities and towns.

In fact, the Supreme Court in “Maneka Gandhi vs The Union of India (1978)” case ruled that every citizen must have the right to participate in the democratic process, which allows exercising ones rights to make a choice, as well as free and general discussions on public issues which are absolutely essential. From the legal angle, the Constitution of India, guarantees the right to peaceful protest, which is strongly protected under Article 19, though the word “protest” is not mentioned explicitly:

Article 19(1)(a): Freedom of Speech and Expression.

Article 19 (1)(b): Right to protest peacefully without arms.

Article 19 (1) (c): Right to form associations and Unions.

However, these provisions extend to peaceful protests only, and any violence in the name of protest is held to be unconstitutional. These Supreme Court conclusions reaffirm the constitutional guarantees to legal and non-violent protest in judgements such as “Ramlila Maidan Incident vs. Home Secretary, Union of India & Others, (2012)”. Here, the apex court held that citizens have a fundamental right to assembly and peaceful protest, that cannot be removed from arbitrary executive or legislative action.

When seen in the light of these provisions, the nature of rebellion and their actions India saw at the Red Fort in Delhi on the 26th of January were far from peaceful. In fact, Article 51A (Fundamental Duties) states it is the duty of every Indian citizen to safeguard public property, preserve the environment as well as composite culture, among other duties. While one cannot be sued in the court of law for violation of these ideals, it is a part of the code of ethics every Indian is expected to follow. Red Fort is a quintessential part of Indian history, and has served as the focal point for addressing the nation by political leaders across the years.

In fact, the Constitution of India has itself stated that Fundamental Rights are not absolute and subject to certain limitations. If people were given complete freedom without any control, it will negatively affect society. The rights are therefore subject to reasonable restrictions under

Article 19(2), Part III of the Indian Constitution, where Indian state can impose restrictions in the name of maintaining societal stability and national security. The following are those situations where restrictions can be imposed on the people:

1. If the friendly relations we share with a neighbouring country are threatened.

2. In case of violation of public order.

3. If there is contempt of court.

4. If India’s sovereignty and integrity are threatened.

The Supreme court in the case of the “Railways Board Vs Niranjan Singh”, noted a similar limitation on the right to protest. The judgement indicates that the protest and assembly does not apply to the right of infringing someone else’s property. The judgement thus reiterates that all reasonable restrictions are imposed on the interests of India’s state security, friendly relations with foreign countries, and public order. It cannot be arbitrary in nature.

Given the history of farmers protest in Delhi, “Chakka jam” in the National Capital on the 6th of this month had a foreshadowing of violence. These ongoing protests have gained the attention of international media, with celebrities in India and abroad talking about the same. The Ministry of External Affairs in a press release this month declared “Some of these vested interest groups have also tried to mobilise international support against India. Instigated by such fringe elements, Mahatma Gandhi statues have been desecrated in parts of the world. This is extremely disturbing for India and for civilised society everywhere.” Thus, any protest which promotes violence and instigates people in any form is illegal and unethical in the Indian context.

India has been a country of non-violence and civil disobedience, with the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi gaining popularity with each passing day. The government and farmers’ leaders must come to an agreement through talks, annihilating fear of farmers and arriving on common ground through mutual consensus.