A huge tent made of flowy white fabric covered the enormousĀ from one end to the other. Colourful hoardings had been put up to publicise the event ā a Sadhbhawna Sammelan organised by Satpal Maharaj, spiritual guru and National Executive Member of the BJP. There must have been around a hundred volunteers making preparations, most of them middle-aged men and women. However, those who were being searched for could not be found.
When asked about the protestors who had been directed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to move from Jantar Mantar to this formidable ground, none of those present there knew anything about their whereabouts. āThere are no protestors here. This is a commercial ground and big-scale events are held here. If anyone wants to hold an event or protest here then they have to pay charges,ā said a security guard posted at the Ramlila ground.
Around 20 protestors were later found to be at the Shaheedi Park near ITO, that has the statues of freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru. However, the people present there after being moved out from Jantar Mantar told Tehelka that they had been asked by the police just a few hours ago that they couldnāt spend too much time at the new venue as it wasnāt a protest spot. The protestors, from different parts of the country, claimed that they havenāt been able to find a new suitable spot to demonstrate for their causes, also alleging that while evicting them from Jantar Mantar on October 30, the Delhi Police resorted to brutal lathicharge including on some elderly protesters in their 60s.
āWe came to Delhi on 30th January, 2016 and were peacefully demonstrating at Jantar Mantar since then. On the morning of 30th October, Delhi Police reached there, as if they were eagerly waiting for the day to break. They came down heavily on us as if we were criminals. The police started lathi-charge on people who were over 55 years of age, pulled agitators out of their sleep, tore banners, dismantled makeshift tents and hurled abuses,ā said 70-year-old Satish Narayan of the Gaurakshak Satyagraha, hailing from Munger district of Bihar.
The eviction from the vicinity of the Jantar Mantar came as a result of an NGT order which held the protesters responsible for littering the place, creating public nuisance and air as well as noise pollution through use of loudspeakers. The protestors, however, are not convinced. āIn a democracy, we are allowed to raise our voice. Now that we have no place to sit and protest, the government must look into it seriously. I want to ask what was the noise pollution we created? Few days ago, we saw political parties staging a protest right opposite the Rashtrapati Bhawan and Parliament House, was that not noise pollution? Why werenāt they stopped? People who were quietly sitting at Jantar Mantar shouldnāt have been removed. We are aware of civic sense, we would never cause any environmental harm. The Centre should have intervened. Who will the people of India look up to if they need any help, it is the Government right?ā asked 56-year-old Martin Gurung, from Darjeeling, of the Protest for Gorkhaland group.
Pushing protestors out of sight, out of mind
It is unfortunate how Indiaās Capital is turning a blind eye to the demonstrators who represent the democratic spirit of India and are a reminder of the same to the countryās top leaders such as the Prime Minister, President, political dignitaries and lawmakers.
The Jantar Mantar site was allotted for protests in 1993 after the agitation led by Mahendra Singh Tikait, then leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh from western UP who toppled the Centre of power in 1988. Tikait along with over 5,00,000 farmer-protesters held the movement at Boat Club which caused massive violence and public nuisance.Ā In the initial days of protest, people used to demonstrate outside the Parliament House. The government then asked them to vacate the place and move to Boat Club for resuming their protests. Later, it was decided that the lane next to Jantar Mantar, that is close to the Parliament House, would be the final and common ground for protests.
It is believed that the first rule of demonstration is it should take place within a periphery of 3kms from the centre of power ā Parliament House – so that the voices of dissent, the cause and purpose behind the protests could reach the ears of decision makers sitting in the House for delivering justice to the poor and helpless. Pushing them to Ramlila Maidan is like moving them out of the sight of lawmakers today and out of their minds tomorrow.
Today, the protesters are running from pillar to post in the national capital looking for a stable place to practice their fundamental right to protest peacefully. While the NGT ordered that they move to the Ramlila Maidan, the protestors are not allowed sit-ins or demonstrations there as one has to pay an amount of 50,000 per day to use the ground. The New Delhi Municipal Corporation, that earns revenue by renting out the ground, had earlier told the media that protestors cannot be allowed to use the place for free.
When enquired about the whereabouts of the several other groups that protested at Jantar Mantar, Tehelka learnt that some people were running their civil resistance from Patel Chowk, Ministry of Agricultural and other Ministries as there was no fixed place to sit and protest. Some of them are even making rounds of political leaders and struggling to approach the court to make their appeal heard to restore their right to protest at the spot that has close proximity to Parliament House, Rashtrapati Bhawan and various ministries and government offices.
āWe are poor people whose only aim is to put our issues before the government. Freedom to express is the fundamental right of every Indian citizen. Itās the governmentās responsibility to provide a reliable solution to the demonstrators to put forth their concerns. If they are thinking stopping the dissent would stop voices that speak against them than they are living in a delusion,ā Narayan of the Gaurakshak Satyagraha said.
āAfter the lathicharge, many of our team members are scattered and I am trying to reach them but their numbers are either switched off or unreachable. We are running from one end to another looking for a stable place to resume our protest properly. Nothing can deter a spirit of a true protestor,ā he said.
āWhat I believe is that as far as the violation of noise level limits by the Jantar Mantar protestors is concerned, what the NGT could have done is to issue a stern warning that protestors cannot go beyond a certain permissible noise level while using microphones, speakers, etc. Assuming that shifting the protestors to Ramlila Maidan wonāt cause noise pollution again is a wrong perception. We have to understand that Delhi is the centre of power and where there is Centre, protestors would naturally keep coming in. Therefore, we have to learn to provide a solution keeping this is mind. Jantar Mantar is an area of high-profile dignitaries, and close to the centre of power. Throwing the protestors to an area where there is no one to hear them is not right. Most of the protestors are already environmentally or socially displaced people, refugees and poor. On top of that asking them to pay for protests, agitations, campaigning and public meetings is unfair. I am an environment lawyer and I too fight for the environment, but this judgment is like questioning the right to protest in a democratic country.ā
Protestors not heard
Ranjit Shukla (47) from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, who belongs to an organisation called Bharatiya Bhasha Andolan, claimed that the parking space at Ramlila Maidan is actually allotted to the protestors, which is an illegal lot occupied by the local mafias of that area who have the access and authority over it. āOur safety is at stake now. What kind of arrangement is this? It is undoubtedly a way to stop the freedom of speech and protest. Right to protest is my fundamental right, and today it is in danger.
Protest all over the world is a selfless and unpaid occurrence. Why would I seek permission for raising my concerns, voicing against the issues that harm me or the society at large and why would I pay 50,000 as fee to make my voice heard by the government? NGTās decision was taken on the ground of one partyās account. The protestors, by no means, were asked to present their side of the story. The decision is the biggest blunder in the history of freedom of expression. NGTās decision has only bullied the spirit of Article 19 that allows right to speech and peaceful protest to be exercised by Indian citizens,ā he said.
Asha Shukla (56) from Lucknow, also from the Bharatiya Bhasha Andolan said, āNGT didnāt cross check the fact whether we were creating noise pollution or littering around and suddenly they slapped a notice of eviction. On what basis NGT and local residents of Jantar Mantar accused us of creating public nuisance? This was just a way to topple the spirit of truth and anybody speaking the truth. The PM Modi-led Government is accountable for displacement of the protestors. Delhi is the centre of power and BJP being at the Centre let this happen right under their nose.ā
Raja Rai (56) of Protest for Gorkhaland, also present at Shaheedi Park, alleged that the police didnāt give them a copy of the NGT notice despite repeatedly requesting them. āToday Shaheedi Park, tomorrow elsewhere, this is how we are continuing with the protest. Despite being thrown out from Jantar Mantar and with no place to go to, we are continuing our hunger strike which started in June,ā he said.
Protests that changed the world
Since the 16th century, history has been shaped by social revolutions with the valor of dissent, free speech and unswerving protests around the world. Some of the most influential global social movements in world history which people still refer to are the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930) popularly called the Salt Satyagraha led by Mahatma Gandhi in India, the Quit India Movement (1942) again by Gandhiji that resulted in India gaining Independence in 1947, the American Civil Rights Movement (1954), the Anti-Apartheid Movement (1959), the Arab Spring (2010- still running), the Telengana protest (2011) that carved out Indiaās youngest state, India Against Corruption (2011) by Anna Hazare whose movement led to the creation of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, and the list goes on.
āWe are a party born out of a social movement for the people, by the people. You can understand how significant such a movement is. The whole idea of a protest is to grab the attention of those who are in power and make them listen to the voice of the common man. By shifting the protestors to Ramlila Maidan, NGT is making sure that nobody listens to their voice. It is subordinating the very basis on which democracy is based, which is peopleās voice. If pollution was the major reason, then measures could have been taken to make Jantar Mantar an eco-friendly area,ā Ankit Lal, Social Media Strategist for AAP, said.
Freedom of expression endangered
The core fundamental right of Indian citizens, Article 19, which embodies freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the right to protest without any fear is seen as being attacked time and again by politicians and lawmakers who
cannot withstand truth, dissent and the reality. Citizens are now debarred from exercising the very significant birth right that exists in the Indian Constitution which is the right to protest and right to speak sans fear. The bigger question is will social expression be allowed,
accepted and achieved in tomorrowās society? Will we be able to persist to rise and speak? Can we express or not express, protest or not protest after the abhorrent way in which demonstrators were evicted from Jantar Mantar? Silencing dissent that is a mirror to reality was never in the persona of a country like India which is well-perceived by the world for its best practice of social expression. Nevertheless, the past three years have been fateful for the freedom of speech and expression that had to face rage in the hands of mavericks.
āI have two perspectives on the judgment by NGT on eviction of protestors. First, as an environmentalist, I welcome any decision that is taken in favour of environment by the government or courts. Second, NGTās explanation that protestors of Jantar Mantar were responsible for creating air and noise pollution and thus should be removed will not solve the pollution menace. In fact the decision is a bottleneck for many environmentalists who would want to come to Delhi to protest and raise their voices against any irregularities or wrong doing against the environment. For campaigning against environment we too need a platform close to the government. NGTās focus should have been on actual issues and real culprits violating environmental laws, rather than punishing these protestors.ā
Many have hailed NGTās decision for being environment-friendly. Strangely, the NGT overlooked the fact that there are two colleges right across the Ramlila Maidan that would be direct target of noise pollution if the protestors resume their agitation from the ground. Second, Ramlila Maidan is located at a point where there is already enormous traffic movement and noise pollution.
The famous road of Jantar Mantar was home to many protestors since the 90s. In fact, one protestor had registered Jantar Mantar as his permanent address. Hope that the freedom of speech and freedom to protest is restored.