Displacing dissent

With the National Green Tribunal banning all protests, dharnas and demonstrations at the historical Jantar Mantar, the already shrinking space for democratic dissent has been further curtailed.

Published : Oct 25, 2017 12:30 IST

Farmers from north India.

Farmers from north India.

JANTAR MANTAR, famous for its iconic sundial, has acquired a new persona ever since it was designated as the official site for protests and dharnas in New Delhi in 1993. The 18th century observatory, built by Maharaja Jai Singh II, emerged into prominence in the aftermath of the humongous protest by the Mahendra Singh Tikait-led Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) at the Boat Club in 1988, which threw life out of gear in the national capital. In 1993, the P.V. Narasimha Rao government finally shut the Boat Club down for protests, and pushed dissenters back to Jantar Mantar Road.

Jantar Mantar was a convenient protest site, not too far from Parliament House, but not too close to it either. The road is so located that it can be barricaded any time without throwing normal life out of gear. Its proximity to the Parliament Street police station also meant that the police could “arrest” or “detain” protesters with ease. The barricaded Parliament Street, where protesters marching towards Parliament would usually be stopped, afforded great photo opportunities too. It was a win-win situation for both the authorities and protesters.

Landmark movements In the years that followed, Jantar Mantar Road witnessed many landmark events, including the birth of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and the protests that led to the historic amendments to the rape law following the brutal gang rape and murder of a paramedic, now known as the Nirbhaya case. Especially after the Anna Hazare movement in March-April 2011, which eventually led to the birth of the AAP, the Jantar Mantar protest site became a symbol of India’s throbbing democracy. The site witnessed iconic movements, including the one against lynching, aptly christened “Not In My Name”. It saw students from all over India converging to protest against the manner in which a Dalit research scholar from the University of Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula, had been hounded and driven to suicide. Students from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, arrived to protest against the appointment of television and film actor Gajendra Chauhan as the institute’s Director, and this turned into a campaign against the increasing stranglehold of the government on academic and cultural institutions. There were protests by intellectuals who opposed the restrictions being imposed by the government on the freedom of speech and expression. Farmers from Tamil Nadu arrived with their grievances and innovative ways to draw the government’s attention to their problems. And not least, ex-servicemen descended on Jantar Mantar to demand One Rank, One Pension (OROP). Highly decorated Army veterans have been sitting on a dharna at Jantar Mantar since June 15, 2015, demanding their dues and respect from the government.

The NGT order However, Jantar Mantar will soon fall silent, with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordering an immediate ban on protests and dharnas there. On October 5, a bench headed by Justice R.S. Rathore ordered the Delhi government, the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) and the Delhi Police Commissioner to “immediately stop all dharnas, assembling of people, public speeches and use of loudspeakers at Jantar Mantar Road within four weeks”. It also said that all protesters at the site would be shifted to Ramlila Maidan.

The tribunal said: “The respondent (NDMC) shall shift the protesters to Ramlila Maidan, Ajmeri Gate, forthwith…. The NDMC chairman, Delhi Police chief, and Government of NCT of Delhi shall file compliance reports before the NGT within five weeks from the date of judgment.”

The order was passed after a group of residents of Jantar Mantar Road filed a plea with the NGT last year saying that although the area was earmarked as “residential” in the 2021 Delhi Master Plan, protesters had erected tents on the road and put up loudspeakers. The plea said that some protesters stayed at the site for years together, slept in tents there, bathed with the water provided by Delhi Jal Board tankers and ate there, littering the area and causing nuisance to the residents at large.

Addressing the issues of pollution and cleanliness raised by the petitioners, the NGT said: “It is amply clear that the petitioners are suffering because of gross violation of laws and non-performance of duty by authorities. The environmental condition at Jantar Mantar Road—in relation to noise pollution, cleanliness and waste management—has grossly deteriorated. Besides constant dharnas, noise pollution and health problems due to unhygienic conditions generated by agitators… is unique in the case.”

The tribunal also reprimanded the NDMC, saying: “In the circumstances, we are of the considered opinion that merely giving directions to the respondent authorities to control the agitators would not be of any use.” Justifying the shifting of all protesters to Ramlila Maidan, the tribunal said: “The place for such activities (dharnas) has already been earmarked at Ramlila Maidan—for gathering of more than 5,000 people. This would strike a balance between the rights of people with respect to their freedom of speech and expression, and that of residents of Jantar Mantar Road to live a peaceful and pollution-free life.”

Assault on democracy But in its zeal to protect the rights of the 15-odd residents of Jantar Mantar Road, the NGT seems to have overlooked the larger aspects of democratic principles: the fundamental right to speech and expression, of peaceful assembly, of dissent and disagreement. According to the noted Supreme Court lawyer/activist Prashant Bhushan, the NGT order is an assault on democracy itself because it seeks to curtail the right to speech and freedom of expression.

Significantly, the grounds cited for shifting the protests to Ramlila Maidan—noise pollution and health problems due to unhygienic conditions created by the protesters—become untenable in view of the fact that there are many hospitals in the vicinity of Ramlila Maidan. Noise pollution around hospitals should be a bigger concern for the NGT than the problems of 15-odd residents, say the protesters at Jantar Mantar Road.

According to them, the tree-lined road gives them a shaded place for sitting, whereas Ramlila Maidan has no trees and the protesters would have to brave the elements: the scorching sun in the summer, the rain during the monsoon and the biting cold in winter. Besides, at Jantar Mantar, a system has evolved over the years to facilitate protests: there are Jal Board tankers to provide drinking water, the protesters eat their lunch at the nearby Bangla Sahib gurdwara; and they rest in the shade of the trees. At Ramlila Maidan, there is no such facility available. Besides, it is in the midst of a busy commercial area and any big agitation would totally derail the road traffic.

Cross-spectrum of activists “The NGT decision is totally illogical. If noise pollution was the concern, then should the patients in hospitals near Ramlila Maidan be exposed to noise pollution? Besides, the NGT has passed a totally one-sided order, without listening to the other side,” says Ramji Lal Shukla, who has been agitating at Jantar Mantar Road since April 21, 2013, demanding the use of Indian languages in all official works. According to him, the NGT did not use its discretion while passing the order.

Similarly, S.K. Pande, a history professor from Rewa, who has been at Jantar Mantar Road for the past seven months demanding a new economic order wherein the government should draw a line of affluence ( amiri ki rekha ) instead of the poverty line in order to frame its policies, says the logic cited by the NGT to shift them out of Jantar Mantar Road is flawed.

According to Vasudevan, a Tamil Nadu farmer who has been sitting at Jantar Mantar since July 16, 2017, dissent and protest are fundamental rights of any citizen in a democracy and there is no way they will be hustled out. “We will not leave. We have filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging the NGT order,” Vasudevan says. According to him, sitting here at Jantar Mantar, they feel they are close enough to the centre of power in order to be heard, whereas at Ramlila Maidan, they will be pushed to a corner.

“This place is close to Parliament and the ministries, yet there is nobody to hear us. Once we are pushed to Ramlila Maidan, there will be no redress of our grievances,” say Bittoo Sherpa and Pervina Rai, representatives of the Gorkhaland Sangharsh Samiti, who have been on a dharna for more than four months demanding a separate Gorkhaland. According to them, noise pollution is only an excuse; the real motive is to silence the common man.

Group Captain (Retd) Brij Mohan Karir, a representative of the ex-servicemen who has been sitting on a dharna at Jantar Mantar since June 15, 2015, demanding full OROP, is of the same opinion. “Sitting here we feel we are being heard because this place is close to Parliament House, North Block and South Block, which is the seat of the government. At Ramlila Maidan, it will be like sitting in a back lane, with no one paying attention. After all, we sit here and shout slogans because we feel we have not been heard. Isn’t it the government’s duty to listen to the grievances being voiced by the people?” he asks.

The larger issue According to Yogendra Yadav, one of the founder-members of the AAP who has since fallen out with Arvind Kejriwal and is now leading his own movement called the Swaraj Abhiyan, the merits of the case notwithstanding, the larger issue of importance has to do with the space for dissent.

“The systematic shrinkage of space for protest, both literally and metaphorically, is of concern. What is worrisome is the fact that protest of any kind is seen as a problem, not only by the ruling party and the government but by the media and the judiciary as well,” he says. According to him, a few years ago, when thousands of people landed up in Delhi to protest, the media would talk about their issues and concerns and why they were protesting, but now the media constantly highlights the resultant traffic jams and the problems faced by the common people.

“It is surprising how the mindset has changed. People view any protest, any dissent, as problematic. Larger issues of concern which make thousands flock to Delhi to protest are of no significance to people, it seems. Look at the way FIRs [first information reports] have been filed against people for lampooning or criticising Modi. Why can’t you criticise your government, why can’t you criticise your Prime Minister?” he says.

Indeed, the larger issue in this ban order is not about the merits of the case. The NGT order could be justified in view of the grievances of those living with the constant sounds of protest, but the real issue is the shrinking space for dissent. First the dissenters were pushed out of Boat Club, and now out of Jantar Mantar to the outer periphery of Lutyen’s Delhi. “What next?” ask the protesters.

It is interesting to note here that neither the Delhi government nor the NDMC nor the Delhi police has expressed any intention to seek a review of the order. The NDMC and the Delhi police have stopped giving permission for any protest at Jantar Mantar and have been visiting the protesters to ask them to vacate the place peacefully; the use of loudspeakers and mikes has been stopped. The Delhi government, led by the AAP, a child of the anti-corruption movement at Jantar Mantar, which had perfected the art of dharna while in movement mode, has only carried out the formality of verbally requesting the NGT to review its order.

Come November 5, Jantar Mantar will slip into peace and ignominy. Only the sound of silence will remain. Unless, of course, the Supreme Court takes note of the petition filed by the Tamil Nadu farmers and does something about it.

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