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Of right to dissent in a democracy
“When it comes to democracy, liberty of thought and expression is a cardinal value of paramount significance under our constitutional scheme.”
The Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal VS Union of India says: Fundamental rights of peaceful assembly and right to freedom of speech and expression as conferred by the Constitution on the people of India is the hallmark of our democracy. It is subject to reasonable restrictions but the Central and the State governments have removed the ‘reasonable’ from the exception and are acting as if they are empowered to totally restrict peaceful assembly of people and their right to free speech and expression.
The SC and various High Courts have by their silence become complicit in the State’s endeavours to silence dissent. The midnight transfer of Justice Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court when he was hearing the case against unleashing of violence in Delhi with police complicity is an example of the judiciary becoming subservient to the State/Executive.
On March 5, 2020, the Madras High Court, while hearing a case filed by K Gopinath of Hindu Munnetra Kazhagam, Tirupur, seeking a direction to the State police “not to entertain any proposal to organise any demonstration in Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu or elsewhere and to promote peace and harmony within the religions in the national interest” has as reported in a national daily, “directed the Director General of Police to see to it no more agitations, either for or against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), takes place in the State in public places without valid permission.” “Justices MM Sundaresh and Krishnan Ramasamy said there was no point in the police merely registering FIRs against protesters without taking steps to alleviate the inconvenience faced by school children and others.” It further quotes the senior judge as saying “if they don’t move, take them into custody.”
The State which sleeps over execution of many important orders of the High Court unless hauled up for contempt, has swung into action within minutes of the above order. The Inspector of Police, C-3, SS Colony police station in Madurai passed a Memo dated March 5, 2020, wherein he has quoted the Court order passed in the forenoon stating in execution of the said order, the protesters ought to disperse and that in default they would be arrested.
The State which has to put forth the truth before the Court is hand in glove with extremists. In the name of nationalism/patriotism, peoples’ valuable rights to protest and speak are being curtailed. Eminent jurists, retired judges, advocates, academicians, historians, journalists and other citizens concerned in India and abroad have spoken, written and demonstrated the need to repeal CAA and do away with NPR and NRC. It is at this juncture that our valuable right to protest on the streets without hindrance to the public has to be won over to ensure we are still a democracy. It is hoped that when the Madras High Court hears the case again, the judges would remind themselves of what Supreme Court Justice Deepak Gupta said, “A free country is one in which there is freedom of speech and governance by rule of law as opposed to the “whims of a few.” “Majoritarianism is the very antithesis of democracy.”
The writer is Senior Advocate, Madras High Court