New Delhi: The Supreme Court today lifted a blanket ban on rallies, dharnas or sit-ins at the Jantar Mantar and Boat Club areas, saying there could not be an “absolute” ban on protests in such localities.
The top court also asked the Centre to frame guidelines within two months for according sanctions to such events.
A bench of justices A K Sikri and Ashok Bhushan said, “There is a need to strike a balance between conflicting rights such as the right to protest and the right of citizens to live peacefully.”
“There cannot be a complete or absolute ban on holding protests at places like Jantar Mantar and Boat Club (near India Gate),” the bench added, while directing the Centre to frame guidelines on the matter.
The verdict came on a batch of petitions, including one filed by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, an NGO, challenging the decision of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to ban all kinds of protests at the said places.
The top court had earlier observed, “When, during elections, politicians can go among the public to seek votes, why can’t people come near their offices after the polls to protest.”
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the NGO and other petitioners, had contended that the Centre had completely banned protests or assembly of people in whole of central Delhi and imposed section 144, CrPC permanently in the guise of avoiding traffic obstruction.
He had said the authorities had asked the protesters to go to the Ramlila Maidan to stage agitations, while there were several court verdicts that recognised the “people’s right to protest”.
“The protests have to be near the seat of power, so that the people can make their voices heard,” Bhushan had submitted, while referring to a Delhi High Court verdict, recognising the people’s right to protest at the gate of a factory, so long it did not affect the traffic.
Earlier, the Centre had justified the continuous imposition of prohibitory orders under section 144, CrPC in central Delhi, which houses most of the government offices and VIP residences.
The Centre’s counsel had told the apex court that this was an era of “professional protesters”, who liked to protest outside Parliament or the president’s or prime minister’s house to make their voices heard.
He had added that the government had to take holistic steps while dealing with such protests, rallies and dharnas to ensure that peace and harmony prevailed in an area.
The Centre, while justifying the permanent imposition of prohibitory orders in its affidavit, had referred to over a dozen instances when protests had turned violent and the police had to use teargas shells and water cannons to control the mobs at the Jantar Mantar and Boat Club areas.
The plea moved by the NGO had challenged the complete ban on assemblies and protests in the central and New Delhi areas imposed by the NGT.
It had claimed that there could not be a continuous imposition of prohibitory orders in entire central Delhi, which was an emergency provision to be used when there was an apprehension of violence or law-and-order problems.
It had said it would have been understandable if the government’s decision to impose prohibitory orders was based on a specific intelligence input or apprehension of a protest turning violent.
The NGT had, on October 5 last year, banned all protests and dharnas around the historic Jantar Mantar here, which had been a hotspot of many agitations over the past decades, saying such activities violated environmental laws.
The green panel had said the State had totally failed to protect the right of a citizen to enjoy a pollution-free environment at the Jantar Mantar Road area, which was located close to Connaught Place at the heart of the national capital.
It had added that it was the duty of the State to ensure that the right of the people to live a peaceful and comfortable life was not infringed by those who created noise pollution in the name of their right to freedom of speech and expression, which could never be unlimited.
The tribunal had directed the authorities to shift the protesters to an alternative site at the Ramleela Grounds in Ajmeri Gate “forthwith”.
It had also said those participating in protests and raising slogans through loudspeakers had no right to compel the people living in the area to tolerate it day and night.