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Undefined term 'law and order' being used for not allowing protests in Delhi: Letter to CJI

Counterview Desk 
In an open letter to Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, about 135 civil rights leaders and concerned citizens have expressed their dismay over the manner in which the administration under the Government of India is increasingly seeking to disallow protests and expression of dissent. 
Stating that the most recent occasion was the cancellation of the NGO coalition  Campaign Against State Repression (CASR) decision to observe 10th December 2023, the day the world celebrated the 75th anniversary of Human Rights Day, the letter said, “Space for dissent is disappearing right in front of our eyes, to the point that we are seeing a cornering of people’s space for any democratic discourse.”
The letter appeals to CJI to take this matter into suo moto cognizance in the matter in order to “defend the democratic rights and spaces of people, to uphold the liberty and dispel justice by preserving the rights and freedom of the Indian people, including the right to dissent, to express freely.”

Text:

We write this letter to you as a members of democratic-minded civil society and activists who are working on issues concerning democratic ethos of the people and the protection of their civic, democratic, and constitutional rights. We write this letter to you as an appeal, as well as a query regarding people’s right to freedom of speech and expression, a right that has been fought hard to achieve by our great people and forbearers and is also protected under the constitution. This right, along with the overall democratic rights of our people, some of them guaranteed under the Indian Constitution, are seeing an overall deterioration that alarms us.
Recently, a concerning trend of cancelling permissions for any programme focused on any social critique has emerged, along with the banning of peaceful protest gatherings and public meetings on various issues concerning democratic and Constitutional right of the people. The most recent case occurred on 10th December 2023, when the world celebrated the 75th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “Human Rights Day.” The Parliament Street Police Station chose to deny the permission for a gathering to mark this occasion and discuss the event, less than 14 hours before the event even though the permission for the same was sought for 12 days prior on 28th November. The organizers of the gathering, Campaign Against State Repression (CASR), a coalition of 40 democratic progressive organizations, was informed about cancellation of the permission with less than 24 hours’ notice, on 9th December at around 9:15 pm. It is pertinent to mention that this is not the first time that police has resorted to such measures. On 15th March of this year, the same organizers were holding an indoor public discussion on “Media Blackout in Kashmir" to discuss suppression of free press, freedom of speech and expression, and the attack on journalists in Kashmir. Police cancelled the permission of the event with a 2 hours’ notice and barricaded the Gandhi Peace Foundation (GPF) venue at ITO, despite the fact that the event was to be addressed by Justice Hussain Masoodi, retired from the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, along with former legislators, renowned democratic rights activists and academics. Furthermore, a similar event by the name of “Bharat Bachao National Convention" held at HKS Surjeet Bhawan in New Delhi had to seek permission from the Delhi High Court after the Delhi police cancelled its permission and coerced the venue administration to cancel the bookings in March, 2023. Police permission of all these events and many more events/gatherings have been cancelled on grounds of vague arguments of “law & order/security.”
French philosopher and democrat, Jean-Jacques Rousseau proclaimed, “to renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights [and duties] of humanity." Even the Hon’ble Supreme Court itself has stated that “citizens have a fundamental right to assembly and peaceful protest which cannot be taken away by an arbitrary executive or legislative action,” in Ramlila Maidan Incident v. Home Secretary, Union of India 2012. Yet, the practices of the Delhi Police continue to push in the direction where democratic spaces are curtailed with impunity and the notions of liberties and dissent are attacked. When CASR sought permission for its gathering at Jantar Mantar, one of the historic spots of democratic gatherings for Indian democracy on 10th December, it was denied. When CASR-affiliated organizations chose to protest against this arbitrary action and mockery of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the protestors were attacked by police and the BSF, with horrifying scenes of police personnel openly threatening to fire on women and LGBT activists in front of the Rashtrapati Bhawan and the Lok Sabha in session! In front of the residence of the head of state of the Republic of India, the President herself, a student of journalism from Delhi University was separated from the protestors, brutally beaten by the police and was missing while in police detention for 7 hours, with no one aware of his whereabouts, for no actionable cause. When peaceful gatherings for civil discourse are sought at private venues, the police barricade the events and threatens the venue owners. When peaceful gatherings for democratic rights are sought at public spaces designated for such activities like Jantar Mantar, the permits are cancelled strategically at night to ensure no alternative is found. When these actions are protested by the people, we are assaulted, beaten with the butts of guns, detained, abducted and even threatened with our lives.  After all this, the women and LGBT persons who participated in the protests and gave their own contact details to the police received phone calls at their residences, not at the contacts they gave but directly to their families. Their family members were told by police officers to discourage their daughters from participating in protests and the police resorted to using patriarchy against adults to silence dissent. 
Recently, a concerning trend of cancelling permissions for any programme focused on any social critique has emerged
Dear sir, you once said, “dissent is the safety valve of democracy" and have reiterated the need of democratic ethos. Yet, space for dissent is disappearing right in front of our eyes, to the point that we are seeing a cornering of people’s space for any democratic discourse and dissent. Dr. Ambedkar, in his famous address to the Constituent Assembly of India on 25th November 1949 said, “when there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods.” When dissent is curtailed to such an extent where constitutional methods are robbed from the people, will the safety valve not break and lead to the protest that occurred on 13th December 2023 by Neelam Azad, Amol Shinde, Manoranjan D, Sagar Sharma, Lalit Jha and Vishal Sharma? In light of such developments, curtailment of a constitutionally-sound protest mere 3 days prior, how is it that their protest is reduced to a concern of ‘security breach’ and draconian ‘anti-terror’ law like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 are utilized against them?

The recent events themselves are part of a larger chain of affairs that are creating the realization that space for democratic dissent does not exist in India. From the arresting of Delhi University’s Dr. G.N. Saibaba in 2016, the mass arrests in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad case of democratic rights activists in 2018, the snapping of internet and phone connectivity in Kashmir in 2019 to initiate the longest internet shutdown in any country claiming to be a democracy, the arresting of prominent journalists from Kashmir and rest of India under anti-state charges, the mass arrests of democratic activists of the anti-CAA protests during the COVID-19 lockdown along with the glorification of the bulldozering of their homes to the present, a grim picture is painted for the people of India regarding democratic rights. Even when some of the most oppressed and exploited sections of the country, the Adivasis of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra etc., engaged in prolonged peaceful mass movements against mining-based displacement and rapid militarization of their lands, the people are met with fake encounters, abductions and uprooting of their homes for exercising their democratic rights, demanding fair Gram Sabhas and the implementation of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996. In Silger, Chhattisgarh, the youth and the women conducted one of the longest sit-in protests where thousands of Adivasis of Bastar gathered to protest the police open-firing on Adivasis for opposing rapacious mining and militarization of their homes. From Srinagar to Silger, all democratic dissent is attacked with varied degrees of violence and branded with the tag of Maoists and separatists. Journalists arrested, a people being violently displaced for the sake of corporate interests, internet shutdown bringing life back to the dark ages, academics in jail and retired judges forbidden from speaking in the country’s capital, where is the safety valve for democracy?
We would like to draw your attention to this alarming situation. If a retired High Court judge and former legislators are not allowed to speak in a conference, if people are not allowed to gather and protest peacefully even at places like Jantar Mantar, one could only wonder, what right to freedom of Speech and Expression do the poor people from far away regions of the country have. We would like to know whether a blanket and sweeping powers can be granted to police and administrative bodies to cancel permissions without any reasonable justification expect other than a vague and an undefined term such as “law and order". Have the constitutional guarantees been so broken and weakened that a mere two-line order citing three-word reason can stifle our rights guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution? Do the oppressed and exploited not have the right to defend their liberty? Are we not humans? Or is it that India, claiming to be the world’s largest democracy, not a signatory to United Nations Declaration of Human Rights? We want to remind you and your fellow members of the judiciary of the words of John Rawls, a jurist you will surely remember from your days of legal education. “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought… Laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust…… for this reason, justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others….. therefore, in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.”
These are some of many questions that are affecting us and various sections of the country. If the people are not allowed to raise their concerns, their disagreement and their views, how are we supposed to grow into a more democratic society and progress? If people are stopped from peaceful protests, what is to come next and towards which trajectory are we heading. Suppression of freedom of expression of the people and democracy are not coherent and one shall be the end of the other. Going by the words of our great martyr and freedom fighter Bhagat Singh “the sanctity of a law can only be maintained as long as it is the reflection of the will of the people" and these unjust and arbitrary orders are not one.
Therefore, we appeal you to take this matter into suo moto cognizance, to defend the democratic rights and spaces of people, to uphold the liberty and dispel justice by preserving the rights and freedom of the Indian people, including the right to dissent, to express freely. We hope that some positive steps will be taken by the Supreme Court of India to direct the police and administrative bodies to stop stifling dissent in the name of “law and order".
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*Click here for signatories

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