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Kuldip Nayar is a senior journalist, human rights activist and author.

Protest at Jantar Mantar is a right

A protest at Jantar Mantar

he rulers in Delhi have issued a farman, this time to restrict all protests on Jantar Mantar Road to seven hours, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Near Parliament House, this road is the only place in the capital where people from different parts of India converge, set up their loudspeakers and give vent to their grievances. The Government's order is not as innocuous as it may seem, for hundreds of protesters, who spend day and night on Jantar Mantar Road, have to clear the place by 4 p.m. and reassemble the next day, but only if they manage to find shelter for the night elsewhere. Jantar Mantar Road itself would serve as their shelter. But now they have to fend for themselves or find some other pavement, away from the gaze of policemen who have been instructed to hound out all activists, be they from civil liberty movements or from anti-SEZ organisations.

The order is an attack on individual freedom, the kernel of a democratic state. But what does the Government care for human rights outfits, labour unions, peasant organisations, women's groups and ecologists? The establishment is not bothered about peaceful agitators.

The Boat Club lawns on both sides of the Rajpath were the venue of such protests many years ago. Workers and peasants would gather there. But then the politicians converted the Boat Club lawns into an arena where they could demonstrate their popular strength. Prime Minister V.P. Singh announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations from the Boat Club to take the wind out of his deputy Devi Lal's sails. The latter had announced a rally there to register the support he had with the masses. It is a different matter that Indian politics changed beyond recognition after the Mandal Commission. Indira Gandhi would get a rally organised whenever she felt politically weak. After Allahabad High Court unseated her for committing a poll offence, her assistant Yashpal Kapur organised a series of rallies by telephoning the Chief Ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan and asking them to send truckloads of men. The difference between the protests on Jantar Mantar Road and the old Boat Club rallies is akin to the difference between honesty and dishonesty, right and wrong. The political rallies were organised by hiring people and hauling them to the city from nearby villages. But now there is hardly any rally because political parties have made the two Houses of Parliament a boat club. Moreover, the MPs do not have to sweat it out in the open any longer, they have their air-conditioned chambers.

Restricting staging of protests to 4 p.m. may be part of good police bandobast, but it is against liberty which the Constitution ensures.

Genuine protesters still want those days to return when they were allowed to go up to the gate of Parliament House to submit their memoranda to waiting ministers or top bureaucrats. When the agitators were pushed to Jantar Mantar Road, they were not happy, but they at least had a place where they could exercise their right to expression. Restricting their protests to 4 p.m. may be part of good police bandobast, but it is against liberty which the Constitution ensures.

The Government is making a mistake if it believes that human rights activists are going to take the farman lying down. They may plan to violate the order by offering themselves for arrest after 4 p.m., when the police from the nearby thana arrives to guard the place. Protesters may spread out to other parts of the city. The authorities must realise that Jantar Mantar Road is New Delhi's Hyde Park. The British Government cannot even imagine closing the gates of Hyde Park. Civil society in Great Britain will not permit it. In contrast, civil society in India is too busy following the fallout of the IPL scam or some other scandal. It is too smug, too esoteric and too self-centred to think of the protesters who have genuine grievances, and who have been ordered to have their say inside a particular time. The Government must realise the consequences that curtailing peaceful, democratic agitations will have.

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