On 13th november 2021, the Punjab Government announced a compensation of Rs.2 lakh to each accused arrested in the Republic Day riots. This came a week before the Prime Minister announced the repeal of three disputed farm laws in the winter session of parliament. But it is imperative to understand that the Punjab Government’s move is illegitimate even if the protest has succeeded in achieving its goal of abrogation of the laws. The protest caused disruption of social order and instigated violence, which resulted in injury of hundreds of police personnels. Roads were blocked causing inconvenience to citizens by violating their right to freedom of movement.
This article shall put forth the question that to what extent can unlawful acts be excused in the name of ‘right to protest’? And can a state government be legally allowed to pursue acts that have the ability of promoting riots and hate sentiments?
On the 2-month anniversary of the protest, numerous farmers decided to gather in the capital city on Republic Day, 2021, to stand united against the government and to propagate their disapproval. Farmers from many states in northern India have been protesting against the said farm laws for about a year, putting forth the contention that farm laws are not beneficial for farmers, and that they would promote commercialisation of agriculture which would further result in marginalisation of small farmers.
The gathering on 26th January became uncontrollable and hundreds of police officials were injured, vehicles were destroyed, and public order was violated when the farmers tried to hoist their flag on the Red Fort. Cases were filed against the farmers who created a mayhem and caused indecency, violence, and damage to public property.
Further , the Punjab government constituted a vidhan sabha committee for providing recommendations on granting compensation to republic day protesters. It was a result of the demand put forth by some MLAs requesting the state government to intervene and protect the farmers who were part of the protest.
REASONABLE RESTRICTIONS ON ARTICLE 19:
Article 19 of the constitution implicitly guarantees the right to protest in a peaceful manner, taking into consideration the public order and security of the state. Supreme court observed in Amit Sahni vs. Commissioner of police & ors that “Article 19, one of the cornerstones of the Constitution of India, confers upon its citizens two treasured rights, i.e., the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) and the right to assemble peacefully without arms under Article 19(1)(b). These rights, in cohesion, enable every citizen to assemble peacefully and protest against the actions or inactions of the State.” Further it was held in the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan case that “each fundamental right, be it of an individual or of a class, does not exist in isolation and has to be balanced with every other contrasting right. It was in this respect, that in this case, an attempt was made by us to reach a solution where the rights of protestors were to be balanced with that of commuters.”
The protest that occurred on Republic Day caused utter inconvenience to multiple commuters because the roads were blocked by the police to avoid any untoward incident by the protesters. There is a presence of clash between the right to protest and right to freedom of movement, and in the pertinent case, right to freedom of movement shall supersede because the protest organised by the farmers was a propagation of vandalism. Public property was damaged and a violent course of action was pursued. It affected the general public at large.
PREVENTION OF DAMAGES TO PUBLIC PROPERTY ACT, 1984:
The recommendations made by KT Thomas Committee introduced the concept of ‘rebuttable presumption’ in PDPP Act, 1984. According to this Committee “the prosecution should be required to prove, first that public property has been damaged in a direct action called by an organization and that the accused also participated in such direct action. From that stage the burden can be shifted to the accused to prove his innocence”. In the present case, the farmers destroyed barricades and public vehicles in order to enter the city. Iron grills and dividers were dismantled. Therefore, the standard rule of “innocent till proven guilty” will not apply here.
FEDERAL INTER-STATE RELATIONS:
Further, the Punjab government’s move of providing compensation to these protesters is ill built and shabby because it affects ‘the federal inter-state relations’ between two states. Judicial cases had been filed against the protesters in Delhi and Haryana courts. The federal relations amongst all states within the territory of India require the states not to indulge in conflicts with each other and respect and recognise the judicial proceedings” of other states. Article 261 of the constitution states that “Full faith and credit shall be given throughout the territory of India to public acts, records and judicial proceedings of the Union and of every State”. Punjab Government has disrespected the sanctity of federal relations by deciding to compensate the protesters against whom judicial proceedings are going on in other states.
Small farmers in Punjab and Haryana are extremely marginalised, and hence, vulnerable to exploitation by political parties and powerful entities. The whole situation is a political vendetta where each stakeholder is trying to fulfill their long term agendas at the cost of innocent and vulnerable farmer groups. Political leaders who instigated these groups had the incentive to do so in order to achieve power.
It is imperative to understand that providing compensation to protesters is not the proper course of action to be pursued here. They have been accused of damaging public order, and compensating them would lead to promotion of vandalism. The recommendation made for providing them with legal aid is sound because most of the protesters have come from marginalised backgrounds and may not be able to afford legal recourse. But the move of providing compensation is illegitimate since it will further promote unlawful demeanour.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avesta Vashishtha is currently a first-year law student at RMLNLU, Lucknow.