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Criminalising the Right to Protest

Punjab (Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property) Bill, 2014

Jatinder Singh (jatin77singh@yahoo.co.in) is with the Department of Political Science, Punjabi University, Patiala.

The recently passed Punjab (Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property) Bill, 2014, considered draconian by civil rights activists, circumscribes the right of the people to protest against state government policies.

In the recent Punjab legislative assembly session (15 July -1 August 2014), the ruling coalition of Shiromani Akal Dal (SAD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passed the  Punjab (Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property) Bill, 2014. This bill, along with the Special Security Group Bill, 2010, was first passed on 1 October 2010 but was later withdrawn in the assembly session held in October 2011.[1] The reason for this withdrawal, just six months before the 2012 legislative assembly elections, was to pacify the strong opposition to these laws and garner votes. In the forthcoming elections throughout Punjab, various human rights, labour, peasant, women, students and employee’s organisations had held series of demonstrations, and submitted a memorandum to the governor of Punjab and the then president of India to protest against these laws.[2]

This time around, with the assembly elections three years away, the above mentioned bill was  brought back by the ruling coalition with certain amendments. Ironically, on both the occasions, the law was passed without any debate in the legislative assembly. Today once again, various organisations have come together to express their strong opposition to the law. More than twenty of these have joined hands together under the banner of “Joint Front Against Black Law, Punjab” to ensure its withdrawal. In terms of its programme, the front is organising awareness campaigns in villages to make the people conscious about the implications of this bill. To send a strong message to the state government, rallies and dharnas are being held in front of deputy commissioners’ offices in all district headquarters and a memorandum demanding the quashing of this bill is being handed over.

Special Legislation

In the past, Punjab has witnessed a number of “special” or “extraordinary” legislations to deal with “emergency” situations. The present law should be seen in the same vein, as the present government of Punjab considers the act of “damage to public and private property” as an “emergency” that cannot be dealt “effectively” with ordinary or existing laws. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the 2010 bill ( 2014 bill is an amended version of the 2010 bill), stated

in the recent past, there had been many incidents of violent demonstrations, agitations and damage to public and private property in the State of Punjab. There is no comprehensive law to regulate such agitations, demonstrations and to prevent damage to public and private property during such incidents and to recover such damages from the miscreants. Further, there is no law to punish such miscreants.[3]

Criminalising the Right to Protest

Among various reasons for the vehement opposition to this law, is its definition of “damaging acts” as stated in in section 2 (b) :

"damaging act” includes an act, agitation, strike, hatral, dharna, bandh or demonstration or march or procession or blockade of rail or road traffic by an individual, group of individuals, organisation, any party whether social, religious or political, by which any damage or loss or destruciton is caused to any public and private property.

As per section 2 (c), “‘organizer’ shall include any person or persons or office bearers of any organization, union or party, who arrange, instigate, conspire, advise or guide for doing any damaging act”.

Like any other extraordinary law, this legislation has kept certain clauses as vague as possible and brodened their scope to criminalise almost all modes of protest. If damage to public or private property takes place during a protest, its organisers or leaders can be booked even if they are at home or engaged in other activities. Even if the violence during the protest has been carried out by anti-social elements, who have nothing to do with the protest, the leaders or organisers of the protest will be held culpable.The purpose of these sections in the bill is to terrorise individuals, various organisations and their leaders and muzzle their right to protest against government policies.

Immense Powers to the Executive

To evaluate the “loss or damage” of property, section 7 (1) authorises the state government to “constitute an authority”, which shall “be known as the competent authority for the purposes of this Act”. This “competent authority shall make assessment of the loss or damage, caused by a damaging act, in such manner as may be determined by it”.[4] Apart from mere “assessment”, it is empowered to “recover” the “loss” as the “arrears of land revenue” from the “organizer and the participants of the damaging act”, who are “found guilty”.[5] The “guilty” has to pay “an amount equivalent to the loss, caused to the public and private property, as determined by the competent authority”.[6]

The person/s against whom the order is passed, may appeal to the state government "within a period of thirty days" from the date the order has been communicated.[7] This means that the executive is considered as the sole authority and has been provided with immense powers to “assess” the “loss or damage”, decide the manner and process through which it will make such an assessment and the mode of recovery and also serve as an authority for appeal. This may result in the executive undermining the judiciary and diminsh the possiblity of the accused getting “justice” from courts.

Questionable Evidence Admitted

As per section 3(2), “the state government may videograph damaging acts”. This “videographic version of the damaging act recorded on the spot” shall be considered “as sufficient evidence of the offence committed and the damage caused to the public or private property”.[8] The civil right activists view this provision as an attempt by the executive to dictate to the judicary the manner in which it should weigh the evidence, thereby weakening the defence of an accused.They are raising serious apprehensions about the possibility of tampering with this evidence, by inserting or deleting the footage, in order to malign the image of organisations, organisers, participants and purpose of their protests. This might help the police get away with shoddy investigation and not be penalised for it.

Bill based on Supreme Court Guidelines

The bill is consistent with the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court in 2009 to deal with destruction of public and private property due to protests, bandhs and hartals. While dealing with a writ petition in Destruction of Public and Private Property vs State of Andhra Pradesh and Others, the Supreme Court initiated suo moto proceedings in 2007, after taking note of the "large scale destruction of public and private properties in the name of agitations, bandhs, and the like" and appointed two committees—one headed by Justice KT Thomas and the other by F S Nariman, respectively.[9] The recommendations made by these committees were accepted by the court and immediately became operative as guidelines for the central and the state government.

The top court has remained very critical of not only damages to public and private property but even of the disruption of movement of goods, materials and people. Another bench of Supreme Court made strong observations that the “right to protest cannot impede the fundamental rights of other citizens”. It further stated that “nobody should be allowed to protest in a manner that disrupts the movement of goods and people through railways and highways”.[10]

While making these observations, the judiciary remained insensitive to the reasons behind these agitations and the efforts of the leadership to maintain peace.[11] In this manner, the Supreme Court has further provided a reason to state governments and their law enforcement machineries to use brute force to suppress protests and agitations in the name of following its orders for maintaining uninterrupted supply of “goods” and “people”.

Paving the Way for Liberalisation

In the last two decades, the policies of privatisation and liberalisation have deepened the economic, social and political crisis in Punjab. The extent of the crisis can be gauged from the fact that the state is under a whopping debt of around one lakh ninety thousands crores, and the state government is  paying seven hundred crores per month in loan interest. It is selling public property to generate revenue and has expressed its inability to pay rightful dues to government employees in various sectors.[12] The number of unemployed youth is more than fifty lakhs.[13] It is promoting privatisation and commercialisation of education at rapid speed and that has resulted in deep resentment among the student community. The agricultural and industrial labour is demanding an increase in wages and better treatment in their work place.

The atrocities against dalits, such as social boycott, are on the rise. Their demand for fair auction of shamlat (common land) land reserved for them is being met with strong resistance from dominant sections of upper castes in villages. The whole administrative structure is hand in gloves with the upper caste landed peasantry and is doing its best to suppress the legal rights of dalits. The violence against women is increasing by leaps and bounds, and  various organisations are making efforts to make the administration and political parties realise the seriousness of the situation. Apart from this, the people are being burdened by price rise and are reeling under huge power cuts.

In this scenario, the people are left with no other option but to struggle and demonstrate against anti-people policies and the conduct of the state government. Demonstrations and blocking of roads have become a common feature in Punjab. The people are gheraoing residents of cabinet ministers and MLAs from the ruling coalition. They are targeting the rallies of the chief minister, deputy chief minister and other ministers and showing black flags and raising slogans against them. These demonstrations, gheraos, blockades etc, are obstructing the neo-liberal policies and agenda of  the state government.

Rather than listening to the genuine voices of the people, the government is brutally suppressing these with the help of police. The state government is equating bandhs, hartals, protests, demonstrations, rail or road blockades with “anti-national” and “seditious” activities, “terrorism” and “organised crime”. This bill is going to strengthen the police to treat the protesters as “criminals” and suppress dissent with more brutality than ever. The enactment and implementation of this bill shall further deepen the sense of injustice among the people of Punjab.

Notes

[1]. ‘2 ‘draconian’ bills withdrawn’; Hindustan Times, 9 October 2011.

[2]. ‘Copies of ‘unjust’ Acts set on fire’; Hindustan Times, 21 January 2011.

[3]. Statement of Objectives and Reasons, Punjab (Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property) Bill, 2010.

[4]. Punjab (Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property) Bill, 2014, section 7 (2).

[5]. Ibid., Section 6 (2). 

[6]. Ibid., Section 6 (1).

[7]. Ibid.,Section 7 (3).

[8]. Ibid, Section 10.

[9]. Destruction of Public and Private Property versus State of Andhra Pradesh and Others on April 2009 in Writ Petition (Crl.) No. 77 of 2007, available at http://indiankanoon.in/docfragment/169453366/?formInput=destruction%20public%20 private, accessed on 6 September 2014.

[10]. “SC asks states to ensure movement of goods to Delhi”; Hindustan Times, 16 April 2011.

[11]. ‘‘CID’ watching, ready with ‘fitness, so Gujjars keep peace’; Indian Express, 24 December 2010. According to this news, the leaders of Gujjar agitation prepared their own local teams to keep vigil on rouge elements within protesters and warning them against instigation of violence.

[12]. Generally speaking, it consists of number of issues like non-payment of salaries for several months, demand of salaries as per rules and regulations and demand for better working conditions. Each and every sector is resents the state government’s  apathy.

[13]. Bariana, Sanjeev Singh (2013), “Low job rate belies govt’s claim”, The Tribune, 26 December, http://www.tribuneindia.com/2013/20131226/punjab.htm, accessed on 4 September 2014.

 

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