The passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) coupled with the updating of the National Population Register (NPR) and the government’s attempt to bring out a National Register of Citizens (NRC) has instilled justifiable fear in the minds of a large section of our population.
In this context, our fundamental right to speech and expression and peaceful assembly becomes important to activists of all colours–be them conformists or dissenters. Free speech and peaceful assembly need no police permission or the courts’ stamp of approval. But the reality is otherwise.
The innocuous and ingenious kolam/rangoli protests devised as an artistic expression of dissent by the youth of Chennai during this Tamil month of Margazhi would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the disproportionate police repression and reaction.
On a misty Sunday morning in December 29 last, when a handful of youth met at Besant Nagar to draw kolams to oppose the CAA/NPR/NRC, little did they realise that they were creating history, thanks to the local police and later the City Police Commissioner. The Besant Nagar police did not merely accost the silent kolam drawing protesters and take them into custody but also detained the three advocates who went to their rescue. An FIR has been registered against all of them, including the advocates. The Commissioner went a step ahead and cast aspersions of Pakistani connections and larger conspiracy against Gayatri Khandhadai, who was one among those kolam protesters, and also against Arappor Iyakkam and the Welfare Party of India, alleging them as co-conspirators waging war against the State. This led to spontaneous outburst of infectious kolam drawings against CAA/NPR/NRC all over Tamil Nadu. Men and women from all walks of life came out to draw kolams in front of their houses. The police made a mockery of themselves and the Commissioner had to say that the police did not oppose drawing kolams but had to take action only because some senior citizen of the locality complained, etc. But the FIR itself does not name any resident as complainant. It is the suo motu complaint of the police.
FIRs registered by the police against hundreds and thousands of protesters who demonstrated peacefully is abuse of law. The police forgot that their allegiance ought to be to the Constitution. They act as handmaids of their political bosses to please ‘his master’s voice’. The Madras High Court and the Tamil Nadu State Human Rights Commission which could have taken suo motu cognisance of the violation of fundamental rights of citizens have remained silent spectators to the mayhem.
On January 6, 2020, the Chennai city’s youth spontaneously decided to hold candlelight vigil to show their solidarity with the JNU students. Even as they planned to assemble peacefully with candles before the Gandhi statue in the Marina beach, our city police reminded us about the Madras High Court’s order against protests in the Marina. The venue was changed to Valluvar Kottam. The initiative of the youth became infectious among lawyers, academicians, activists and others from all walks of life in Chennai, and hundreds participated. Having seen the democratic non-violent expressions of dissent, it is commendable that the Chennai City Police have agreed to let the protesters to assemble and protest every evening at the venue. From January 6 to 8, the youth assembled and expressed their solidarity with JNU students and raised slogans against the CAA/NPR/NRC and the Modi government to full public gaze in the evenings at Valluvar Kottam. But without reason or provocation, the protesters were arrested on January 9 and taken to a hall by the police. This is stifling their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
It is high time that the police cultivate the spirit of letting public express their views while assembling peacefully and be faithful to their constitutional obligations. After all, the hallmark of democracy is as Voltaire says, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
—The writer is Senior Advocate, Madras High Court