On 14th December 2019; Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi became the center of the country’s largest protest in modern times. The topic of protest was the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the Parliament of India on 11th December 2019. The Act aims to re-define the citizenship status of immigrants within India from neighboring countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The CAA is set to put much of India’s minority population who has lived within the country at a disadvantage.
The crowd of gathered protestors at Shaheen Bagh soon increased and the protest attracted people from across the country including musicians and graffiti artists. However, a man opened fire at the crowd in early 2020 chanting “sirf Hinduon ki chalegi”. This coincidentally happened right after Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister stated that those protesting at Shaheen Bagh are also ones supporting terrorists in Kashmir. Protestors also stated that they received open threats from top BJP leaders.
On 7th October, seven months after the protestors left the premises due to the COVID-19 restrictions. The Supreme Court ruled that such demonstrations were unacceptable and that public spaces ought to be kept clear of encroachments lest they become a cause of threat to public order. The Supreme Court also reprehended such protests being held indefinitely in public parks and obstructing public roads.
However, this goes against the Supreme Court’s own ruling on public protests. The SC previously acknowledged in the Himat Lal case that the State cannot stop citizens from peacefully assembling in any public space for protest. But “can only impose reasonable restrictions in the interest of public order.” So, what really is this public order? It’s not the disruption of traffic as the Shaheen Bagh protest was accused of. It is, however, something of a larger magnitude such as a riot or assault on the state, explains Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy.
The peaceful demonstrations in Shaheen Bagh could not be accused of disrupting public order. In fact, the SC board which passed the said ruling did not go into much detail over the factual basis of whether or not the protest actually inconvenienced commuters. In a busy urban center such as Delhi, the commuters who experience traffic on a daily seem to be given greater preference than those exercising their fundamental right of freedom to expression and freedom to assemble peacefully.
In a country like India, this is perhaps not such a surprising irony considering how the country treats its religious and castein minorities. India has been ranked amongst the worst countries for religious discrimination in 2017. Even those of opposing political views seem to receive the kind of discrimination characteristic in a totalitarian state. Gauri Lankesh, a famous journalist opposing the BJP government, could have attested to this had she not been shot dead in 2017 as would have Govind Pansare and many others.
The number of mob lynching cases in the past decade is enough to attest to the hate crimes against religious minorities in India. Of around 113 cases, 97% have occurred in BJP majority provinces after Prime Minister Modi’s government came into power. And perhaps the most atrocious reality is the inability of the state to pass any laws to prohibit such barbarism. In fact, the state turns a blind eye to Hindu supremacists allowing them to propagate the agenda of Hindu hegemony.
The Supreme Court’s ruling regarding the protest at Shaheen Bagh can even be considered unconstitutional and against international standards of human rights. The United Nations has declared that any blankets on the constitutional right of citizens to peacefully protest are only valid when they pose a threat to national security proportional to the aim protested.
Furthermore, it states that such blankets are to be an exception, not a norm. The Supreme Court decision is certainly setting up a norm for such protests when stating that any future protests will now be liable to the Court’s statement and must not take place indefinitely in areas not designated by the state.
For the religious minorities set to suffer under the Citizen’s Amendment Act, this sets a devastating precedent. Not only is their citizenship status in jeopardy but also their right to peacefully gather and protest the laws which threaten their continued presence in the country. In the international community, this sets a terrible image for India and surely not many in the community can remain blind to the totalitarian colors seeping into the BJP-led country.