Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Supreme Court mandates better control of agitations and protests

Protests have been seen as a sign of legitimate dissent, about raising the voice of ordinary people against some action; in many cases, a protest is about having a good outlet for the frustrations of people. However, it is also true that protests have been hijacked by people with vested interests, and in many cases by lumpen elements. So, for every scene of people walking peacefully with placards, you have scenes of youth rampaging, burning vehicles, disturbing the lives and economic well-being of city-dwellers (think about the daily wage earner or streetside vendor who loses out on the daily income on the day that a protest shuts down all other activity).
As we have seen in the past, the Government, of whom it is expected that they ensure law and order on the street, does not intervene in many cases. In some cases, the protests have been called by the ruling party, or by other elements (which the Government does not really want to put down). Consider the case of the Gurjar agitation of last year in Delhi; in broad daylight, the media could see that the agitators were blocking major roads and burning vehicles, and the police had no interest in actually preventing them from doing such things.
In the past, the Supreme Court (and other courts) has actually levied fines on political parties who have sponsored such violent agitations, but not consistently, and of course, there has been very little other prosecution of the people involved in such violence. However, the Supreme Court has now come out with clear guidelines on how to identify the people involved in such violence (link to article):

In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court on Thursday put in place stringent guidelines to deal with violent agitations that mandate the police to videograph each and every protest to bring to book mischief mongers who take advantage of a crowd and destroy public and private properties. The Bench, while putting the suggestions of the two committees as guidelines, said its directions would operate till Parliament or assemblies enacted suitable laws replacing the apex court's directions for prevention of vandalism of the kind seen during the Gujjar agitation in 2007.
The new guidelines include a provision that says those seen indulging in violence in video footage would be presumed to be the offenders and the onus would shift on them to show that they are innocent. Focusing on compensating the people whose properties were damaged by the protestors, the apex court said not only should the violent protestors pay the cost of damaged property, but they be also saddled with exemplary cost.

This was also a subtle reminder to the authorities that it is their duty to enforce law and order, which includes both preventing people from breaking the law, and prosecuting those who do break the law. One has to wait and see how the actual enforcement of the law proceeds.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 5:31 AM