“Democracy thrives on listening, arguing and even dissent.”– Pranab Mukherjee
The year had been exceptionally monumental for India owing to the widespread CAA- NRC protest, the migrant exodus, Indo- China clashes and the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. Towards the end of the year, India witnessed another historical event- the farmers protest, which has been called the largest protest in history. It is a multi faith, multi caste, multi-generational movement being led by more than one lakh farmers from Northern India.
What is the farmers’ protest about?
In September 2020, the Government of India passed the three farm reform bills– The Farmers’ Produce Trade And Commerce (Promotion And Facilitation) Bill, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, in the Monsoon Session of the Parliament.
On this blog, the constitutionality of these laws is discussed here and here. These are two different perspectives.
Since the implementation of the bill, thousands of farmers, mostly hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana, are asking the government to repeal the said bills. The Farmers’ Union from Punjab and Haryana contend that the new bills would undo the minimum support price (MSP) system. Over time the farmers believe that big corporate houses and private investors will dictate terms and they will end up getting paid less for their crops. They are primarily skeptical that minimum government intervention in agriculture would leave them at the mercy of the greedy corporations.
The farmers are demanding the reversal of these bills and in light of the same they have come out in large numbers to protest against the bills. Since November, thousands of farmers have been living on the outskirts of New Delhi in sprawling tent cities patrolling and creating awareness about their demands. The protest reached a climax on the Republic Day of 2021. What was planned to be a peaceful and orderly protest turned out rather brutal. Chaos erupted when the protesters broke through the police barricade and clashed with the police at several places in Delhi. It has been over 100 days and four months but the farmer’s protest is still very much alive.
These protests have garnered a lot of attention by various public figures and activists nationally as well as internationally. There has been an array of public figures supporting the farmers on social media much to the dismay of the supporters of the Government and the farm bills. The pro-government protesters burnt photos and effigies of prominent international celebs who spoke in support of the farmers including climate activist Greta Thunberg, pop singer Rihanna and American lawyer, Meena Harris.
Article 19 of the Indian Constitution and Right to Protest.
Protest is something very intrinsic to a democracy like India. The Constitutional Importance of Protests in a democratic society has been discussed here on this blog. The road to Indian freedom was one full of dissent, anti-government demonstrations and glorious protests. In December 1948, the Constituent Assembly debated the Fundamental Rights Committee Report during which K M Munshi made a profound statement: “As a matter of fact, the essence of democracy is criticism of the government.” With regard to this, the Constitution of India through Article 19 grants the citizens the following rights : Article 19(1) (a) confers to every citizen, the freedom of speech and expression; Article 19(1) (b) assures citizens the right to assemble peaceably and without arms. It is pertinent to note that, Article 19(2) imposes ‘reasonable restrictions’ on the right to assemble peaceably and without arms. These restrictions are imposed inter-alia in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of the state, the security of the country, public order, defamation or incitement to offence.
The Supreme Court of India has time and again reaffirmed this constitutional guarantee through various cases. Notably, in Ram Leela Maidan Incident v. Home Secretary, Union of India, ((2012) 5 SCC 1) the Hon’ble Supreme Court opined that the citizens have a fundamental right to assembly and peaceful protest without any arbitrary interference by the legislative or executive. It was held that,
“Freedom of speech, right to assemble and demonstration by holding dharnas and peaceful agitations are the basic features of a democratic system. The Government has to respect and, in fact, encourage exercise of such rights. It must serve the ends of the constitutional rights rather than to subvert them.”
India is largely an agricultural country, with more than 80% of the population engaged directly or indirectly in agriculture. Farmers are increasingly apprehensive of the farm laws and are hence exercising their democratic right to protest. However, this right extends to non-violent, peaceful protests only, and any violence in the name of protest is held to be unconstitutional. When seen in the light of these provisions, the nature of the protest that was seen at the Red Fort in Delhi on the 26th of January were relatively non-violent. Article 51A (Fundamental Duties) states that it is the duty of every Indian citizen to safeguard public property, preserve the environment as well as composite culture, among other duties. While Fundamental Duties are non-justiciable it is a part of the code of ethics every Indian is expected to follow.
Article 19 and Freedom of Speech
Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution ensures that all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression. The farmer’s protest has gained considerable traction from people on social media. With this regard, Disha Ravi, a 22 year old activist was arrested on charges of ‘sharing and spreading an incriminating toolkit’ on farmers’ protest, that allegedly led to the violence in Delhi on 26 January. Ravi denied being part of a global conspiracy and was later granted bail by the Delhi Sessions Court. The Additional Sessions Judge rightly pointed out that,
“Citizens are conscience keepers of government in any democratic nation. They cannot be put behind bars simply because they choose to disagree with the State policies. The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments.”
The power granted to authorities for arresting someone on grounds of sedition is being misused by the current establishment to crackdown on dissent. This constitutes a grave danger to democracy and free expression. A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, in the historic judgement of Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar gave impactful insights on the law of sedition in India. The judgement noted that, “no matter how strong the words expressing dissatisfaction with the government, if it does not encourage violence and public disorder en masse, it is not penal.“
From the aforementioned text it is clear that dissent cannot be brought under the purview of sedition. The Disha Ravi case also gave impetus to a renewed debate about the misuse of sedition law with many calling for its abolition or dilution. Many eminent lawyers have been demanding its withdrawal over the past few years. The Disha Ravi case underlines that the democratic forces in the country who stand for free expression and dissent under Article 19 of the Constitution, must vigorously assert for the removal or dilution of the sedition law in the country.
Protests and dissent are hallmarks of an independent, democratic society where the voice of the people is heard. Any form of suppression of this right is a call for concern in a democratic nation. Therefore, the right to peaceful protest and dissent is an important element in a democratic country and it should be utilized whenever a need for it arises, and instead of dampening this fundamental right, the government should help citizens to exercise their fundamental right. The government and farmers’ leaders must come to a consensus through talks, eradicating fear of farmers and arriving on common ground through mutual consensus.
This is a guest-post by Swati Singh, 4th year Student at ILS Law College, Pune, who is also a columnist at Constitutional Renaissance Blog. This article is a part of a series where the author analyses Article 19 vis-a-vis recent events. Read her previous posts here and here.