The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that public places cannot be indefinitely occupied for protests and the administration ought to take action to keep the areas clear of encroachments or obstructions. The top court's verdict came on a batch of pleas that highlighted problems faced by the general public after anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protestors blocked a major carriageway at Shaheen Bagh in south Delhi.
"Democracy and dissent go hand in hand, but then the demonstrations expressing dissent have to be in designated places alone," Justice Sanjay Kisan Kaul said. The present case—the protests at Shaheen Bagh—was not even being held at an undesignated area but was a blockage of a public way which caused grave inconvenience to commuters," Justice Kaul added.
The Supreme Court referred to two reports submitted by court-appointed interlocutors, which observed that "the Shaheen Bagh protest perhaps no longer remained the sole and empowering voice of women, who also appeared to no longer have the ability to call off the protest themselves."
The top court also criticized the high court observing that it should have "monitored the matter rather than disposing of" the petitions and "creating a fluid situation". The administration is responsible for taking suitable action, but "then such suitable action should produce results," the apex court said. "In what manner the administration should act is their responsibility and they should not hide behind the court orders or seek support therefrom for carrying out their administrative functions," the judgment read. "The courts adjudicate the legality of the actions and are not meant to give shoulder to the administration to fire their guns from," the order further read.
The top court's verdict came on a batch of pleas filed in February seeking the clearance of the blockade on the main carriageway caused by protesters.
Shaheen Bagh no longer empowering voice of women
In February, the top court had appointed two interlocutors—senior advocate Sanjay Hegde and advocate Sadhana Ramachandran to mediate with the protestors and convince them to clear the blockade. Paraphrasing the reports, the judgment read, "It appeared that an absence of leadership guiding the protest and the presence of various groups of protesters had resulted in many influencers who were acting possibly at cross-purposes with each other."
After perusing the first report, the court found that "the nature of demands (of the Shaheen Bagh protestors) was very wide" and looked "difficult to find a middle path" towards facilitating the opening of the blockade.
The views reflected in private conversations with the protestors were somewhat different from the public statements made to the media and to the protesting crowd in attendance, the court interpreted from the second report. The women protestors had sat in protest inside the tent, there was a huge periphery comprising mainly of male protestors, volunteers and bystanders who all seemed to have a stake in the continuance of the blockade of the road," the verdict read.
Social media channels create polarized environments
"We live in the age of technology and the internet where social movements around the world have swiftly integrated digital connectivity into their toolkit; be it for organising, publicity or effective communication," the bench which also comprised Justices Aniruddha Bose and Krishna Murari observed.
However, the court noted that technology paradoxically "works to both empower digitally fuelled movements and at the same time, contributes to their apparent weaknesses." Use of digital infrastructure has allowed movements the ability to quickly scale up and "embrace their often-leaderless aspirations and evade usual restrictions of censorship".
But on the "flip side", the court noted 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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