Rewarded with the presence of Justice A.N. Ray, a Constitution Bench in Himat Lal K. Shah, (1973) 1 SCC 227 held: “public meeting in open spaces and public streets forms part of the tradition of our national life… the State and the local authority have a virtual monopoly of every open space at which an outdoor meeting can be held. If, therefore, the State or Municipality can constitutionally close both its streets and its parks entirely to public meetings, the practical result would be that it would be impossible to hold any open-air meetings in any large city.”
Legitimate dissent is a distinguishable feature of any democracy. Holding peaceful demonstrations in order to air grievances is a fundamental right, though not unlimited in its scope. Right to speech and right to assemble peacefully and without arms is made subject to ‘reasonable restrictions’ which can be imposed in the interests of sovereignty and integrity of India or public order. The best exposition of what the expression ‘reasonable restriction’ connotes was laid down in Chintaman Rao, 1950 SCR 759.
Is a total ban of demonstrations at Jantar Mantar a ‘reasonable restriction’ in the interest of public order?
The Supreme Court feels “the pathetic conditions that were caused as a result of the demonstrations were primarily because of no necessary measures to regulate the same.” The dharnas and protests were allowed to be stretched almost on the entire Jantar Mantar road, on both sides, and even across the width of the road. A particular area could have been earmarked, sufficiently away from the houses. The demonstrators were allowed to go on with non-stop slogans, even at odd hours, at night, and that too with the use of loudspeakers. The authorities could have ensured that such slogans were within the parameters of noise pollution norms and there were no shoutings or slogans at night hours or early morning hours. The dharnas, agitations and processions could have been prohibited on certain occasions, for example, when a foreign dignitary passed through the area . The authorities could have also ensured that the protestors did not park their trucks/buses etc. around the residential buildings; or pitched up their tents and stayed for days; bathing, washing, defecating in the open.
Thus held in Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan v. Union of India, [Writ Petition (Civil) No. 1153 of 2017]: “a total ban of demonstration is not a reasonable restriction. Certain categories of peaceful protests and demonstrations, in a guarded and regulated manner, could be allowed so as to enable the protestors to exercise their right.” Detailed guidelines must be formulated within 2 months.