The right to protest is a fundamental building block of any democratic society. By hitting at this right the Government wants to carry out its tyrannical activities without having to face any resistance.
Ms. Disha Ravi, a 22 year old young woman residing in Bangalore was arrested and flown to Delhi for her alleged participation in a `toolkit’ conspiracy to spread disaffection and cause widespread havoc in the country sometime ago. She was in judicial remand for several days and was eventually granted bail by a Sessions Court in Delhi on February 23, 2021. The decision has been praised as an affirmation that democratic rights are alive and well in the country, and arbitrary actions by the Government can indeed be remedied by judicial intervention by many sections of society. Much has been written about due process and that the law must run its course and many other pronouncements have been made by various experts on matter of policy and statecraft.
While the decision above must be welcomed, one cannot also avoid noting that in the country today large numbers of persons languish under lock and key facing an uncertain future as they have been detained under such undemocratic laws as the UAPA. The less said about regions such as Kashmir and some regions of the North-East where virtual martial law prevails under the provisions of the feared Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the better. It has been remarked by many organisations world over that India has some of the most dreaded and feared laws anywhere in the world. Although nominally a democracy, what prevails is the arbitrary autocracy of the ruling parties, of the Government, of the Cabinet and of the Prime Minister. Even under the provisions of the Constitution, there are little avenues of relief to strike down such draconian laws. Almost as if to prepare the grounds for the bail for Ms. Ravi, Mr. Varavara Rao, a revolutionary octogenarian poet who had been detained under the UAPA for more than three years, whose health is in shambles, who had even contracted Covid while in prison, and who had to lie on a hard floor without basic facilities, was granted six months of medical leave. Many other human rights activists and those who work with some of the poorest and most marginalised sections of society have been languishing. Senior detainees have been denied spectacles and even a straw to drink water. Such is the nature of `due process’ and `course of law’ in the country.
Whereas in the case of Ms. Ravi the charges levelled were found to be absurd because she could not have participated in any physical wrongdoing or rabble rousing. Such charges were levelled against several protestors a year ago during the Shaheen Bagh and anti-CAA protests, even though there was no supporting evidence. Simply because of the egregious nature of the charges, Courts did not find it fit to grant bail even in cases where the circumstances were found to be unfair. The case of a pregnant activist, Safoora Zargar, who was denied bail for a significant period made it to the headlines at that time. Such being the case, it is fair to ask whether the judiciary is really working as it is supposed to, which is the application of the law and of the mind without bias and with fairness.
It may be pointed out that something is considered a law only if it is universally applicable. Except in cases of flight risk or significant danger to the public, it is the case that for most minor offences the granting of bail should be essentially taken as a basic right. The right to protest is a fundamental building block of any democratic society. By hitting at this right the Government wants to carry out its tyrannical activities without having to face any resistance. Today, the main targets of such harassment are those who organize workers and peasants and those educated persons who understand what is what. Most of the protests in the country are against arbitrariness of the Government and its rush to deprive the weaker sections of the population of what little they have as in the cases of, say, the Farmer Acts. There is a widespread perception that the Government only works in favour of a handful of monopolies and major corporate houses. Anyone who is opposed to their plans are declared anti-national or a terrorist or a troublemaker and promptly put away. Today we need to unite and demand a free and fair judicial system that is free of arbitrariness and comes to the defence of the Right to Protest.