‘Be quiet and stand in a corner!’ the Centre seems to be telling those who want to be in the vicinity of Parliament to raise issues their MPs don’t care about
Some say angrily that it is an “undeclared emergency,” a strangling of democracy. Others say it is an attempt to silence dissent, to “thwart the voice of the people.” The order last year to stop demonstrators from using Jantar Mantar as a place for dharna and offer Ramlila Maidan as an alternative has not gone down well with those who come to Delhi to make their voices heard. Old-timers will remember that once the sprawling Boat Club lawns were available for sit-ins. The space for dissent is clearly being squeezed, perhaps in the hope that discordant voices go unheard, the protestors unseen.
In contrast, Mumbai seems much more hospitable, especially after the whole nation witnessed on TV the spectacle of city dwellers welcoming 35,000 farmers to Mumbai, offering them water and snacks. There were no peeved crowds complaining that Mumbai did not have the infrastructure to host them, nor did the government prevent them from entering the city. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis did not ignore them but accepted the demand for land ownership rights of tribals and waiving off of farmer loans taken up to June 2017.
But while we saw Mumbai opening its arms, Delhi does not seem so hospitable to people protesting for justice. Perhaps, people’s patience runs out when dharnas go on for more than a month, sometimes years. This is clearly the attitude of persons living in the vicinity of Jantar Mantar, who filed a PIL alleging that processions and agitations held by social groups, political parties and NGOs were a major source of noise pollution in the area.
Jantar Mantar became synonymous with demonstrations, rallies, and protests since 1993, after India Gate and surrounding areas had Section 144 clamped on them – which limits the gatherings of more than five persons.
The National Green Tribunal in its part banned all such activities at Jantar Mantar in its judgement, supporting the residents, in October and gave the alternative spot as Ramlila Maidan. Later, it emerges that Rs 50,000 is the steep fee that the MCD demands for renting the ground for just a day. ‘Free’ speech now comes with a price tag.
On March 23, social activist Anna Hazare will begin his ‘satyagraha’ at Ramlila Maidan. This is memorably the same place where he underwent a five-day fast on 5 April 2011 for the passage of a Lokpal Bill. He has announced a fast unto death for appointment of a competent Lok Pal and to highlight farmers’ issues. People like Hazare have the backing to be able to afford the fees of the ground. Sunil Kumar, the SHO of Kamla Nagar Market police station, says that the MCD is considering to make a portion of the land available for free for such activities.
“But when people want to march from someplace to Ramlila, like Parliament Street or ITO to Ramlila Maidan, then we just regulate. Sometimes people take permission, and sometimes they don’t, we allow them to go if the law and order situation can be maintained,” Kumar tells Patriot.
He accepts that people need a place to be able to express themselves and “it’s their right”. The central district told Patriot that they received 49 requests for events from 1 October 2017 to 18 March 2018. Out of these, 24 requests were granted. The main reason for rejection, and the only one they were willing to share, was that organisers had not booked the Maidan first and had approached the police without permission from the MCD.
People from all over the country looking for a space to voice their angst are found with no good alternative, especially ones close to the seat of power – the Raisina Hill area.
Major General (Retd) Satbir Singh, who is at the forefront of the One Rank One Pension movement, felt the central government’s inaction to provide a place for people to voice their grievances was “ridiculous”. The order by the NGT to shift the dharnas did not make sense to him, as there were two hospitals in the vicinity of the Maidan. Furthermore, the municipal government’s charge of Rs 50,000, is absurd, he says, asking “If soldiers are protesting for more money, can they pay this fee? Will older soldiers be able to travel from the Maidan to the seat of the government?”
Now a challenge has been put on the imposition of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Singh told Patriot that despite the Centre being asked by the Supreme Court bench comprising Justices AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan to come up with replies for alternate venues for protest by March 9, no reply came through. Their advocate Prashant Bhushan has informed them of the next hearing which will be held on March 26. “All democracies of the world have a specific area where people can protest, but our democracy, which is the largest, doesn’t have any such place. This is ridiculous,” Singh points out angrily.
He also complained about how they were treated by the police on the morning of October 30, when their tent and equipment inside were “ransacked” and people taken into custody and released only after two days.
Now, he says, a few of them go every day to the very same spot they had occupied for almost three years. They stand for a few minutes, take photos, go to a nearby stall for tea and then disperse. “It’s sad that the central government and even the government of Delhi have not given any alternative for the last five months.”
The government, he says, “has thwarted the voice of people.”
Similar views are expressed by Dev Singh Rawat, leader of a group of five demonstrators. The demand they are making is that Hindi be made the primary language in education, administration and judiciary. They are on dharna at Parliament Street without the required daily permit. Their agitation is now completing five years, as they were stationed at Jantar Mantar from April 2013 to October last year. After the NGT order, he says they went to the Daryaganj police station in December 2017 but were told that there was no government notification to the effect that Ramlila Maidan is now available.
“People’s issues are supposed to be raised in Parliament but when they are neglected then the people raise their voices here,” but Rawat says the MPs neither want to hear their protests nor resolve issues, instead “the police stopped us from even entering Jantar Mantar, strangling democracy.” And, he adds dramatically for effect, it seems like an “undeclared emergency”.
He was livid with anger at the thought that the government did nothing about “stone throwers” who attacked “the army” but they picked on those that were “peaceful agitators”. Pointing that only those that didn’t get justice in their corner of the country come here, “if people like us are weakened then the nation is weakened.”