22nd January 2020 : The Hindu Editorials Notes : Mains Sure Shot
Question – In a democracy, people participate politically not only during but between elections. Discuss.
Context – the protests against CAA and NRC.
How are protests a hallmark of democracy?
- Public protests are the hallmark of a free, democratic society, because democracy demands that the voice of the people be heard by those in power and decisions be reached after proper discussion and consultation.
- And the fact that a country is democratic is reflected by the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly that the people have.
- So it can be seen in other way, that the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are necessary for democracy to survive.
- Any arbitrary restraint on the exercise of such rights — for instance, imposing Section 144 — shows the inability of the government to tolerate dissent.
- Article 19 of the constitution embodies this.
Article 19 and its interpretation:
- The courts reiterated (say something again or a number of times, typically for emphasis or clarity) that the right to protest is a fundamental right.
- The article 19 of the constitution which guarantees the right to free speech and expression may be interpreted as guaranteeing that everyone has a right to express their personal opinion on, say, a film, or on the condition of the city they inhabit; the right to associate to mean the right to form self-regulating clubs, professional associations or societies; and the right of peaceful assembly to mean the right to have a picnic in a park or to participate in a religious festival such as the Kumbh Mela.
- This interpretation is important because — in authoritarian, illiberal states, even these rights are not guaranteed — but to view article 19 as only this is too narrow because in a democracy each of these embodies active not passive citizenship. They constitute our political freedoms.
- On the other hand we may also interpret that the right to free speech and expression as a right to freely express opinion on the conduct of the government.
- And the right to association can also be seen as the right to associate for political purposes — for instance, to collectively challenge government decisions and to even aim, peacefully and legally, to displace the government, to not merely check abuse of power but to wrest power.
- In short, each of these rights has two interpretations. On the first, these are exercised largely by people for private purposes, free from government interference, in a classically liberal, non-political public space. On the second, rights are strongly associational, exercised to influence or gain power, and are therefore fundamentally political rights basic to a democratic society.
Why is this interpretation important?
- This interpretation is important because this is the basis of our multiparty system where Opposition parties are valuable adversaries, not enemies, and compete healthily for political power.
- Also because the right to peaceably assemble allows political parties and citizenship bodies such as university-based student groups to question and object to acts of the government by demonstrations, agitations and public meetings, to launch sustained protest movements.
Is right to protest ingrained in the Indian constitution, even though no article explicitly states it?
- We have to remember that the constitution of any country is shaped by the historically distilled lived experience, also referred to as its spirit.
- The second interpretation, therefore, flows directly from our history.
- Undoubtedly, the background of the Indian Constitution is formed by its anti-colonial struggle, within which the seeds of a political public sphere and democratic Constitution were sown. The Indian people fought hard and long to publicly express their views on colonial policies and laws, to dissent from them, to shape minds and form public opinion against them, to speak to and against the government, to challenge it. People not only signed writ petitions but staged dharnas, held large public meetings, peaceful protests and demonstrations and even, for instance in Gandhi’s satyagraha, launched civil disobedience movements.
- None of these are literally found in the Articles of the Constitution but are presupposed by it. That is why the Preamble states that India is a democratic republic.
Why is right to protest important?
- This cluster of inter-related political rights (expression, association, assembly, petition and protest) is meant to ensure that even when the government works in our interests, we don’t sit back and allow it to conduct business as usual. We act as watchdogs and constantly monitor its acts, for even such governments can falter and then it is up to us, through consultation, meetings and discussion, to recognise and rectify its mistakes.
- Also when an elected government goes stray from the constitutional course, go against the interests of the people, become unresponsive and refuse to listen. Here pressure against the government must be built by still stronger public methods. Protests may take the form of street assemblies — the occasional, temporary gathering of a group to parade or demonstrate or become a sustained movement, necessary to complement or reinforce more conventional forms of politics.
- Potti Sreeramulu starved himself to death in order to draw the attention of the Madras State government to the urgency of creating a new Telugu-speaking state of Andhra or the Chipko movement in which Gaura Devi, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and others began to hug trees to prevent the then U.P. government from awarding contracts to commercial loggers. Such movements are particularly important for those outside the mainstream, or those not educated formally. After all, any disaffected person, no matter how illiterate or powerless, can shout a slogan, hold up a placard, go on a silent march and oppose the government.
- Meetings around a table rarely involve as many people as street protests do. It is not for nothing that Abraham Lincoln called “the right of the people to peaceably assemble, a constitutional substitute for revolution”.
- It need to be understood by all that afterall it is also the right of the people to politically participate not only during but between elections and protests are a means.
- There is another article on electoral bonds. They have been covered in detail earlier. Refer to articles of 23rd August and 3rd December.