The Supreme Court is set to deliver its verdict today on a batch of petitions against the anti-citizenship law protests that swept Delhi's Shaheen Bagh earlier this year, with the focus on balancing individuals' right to protest against inconvenience caused to other people.
In what could be a hugely influential ruling, the top court will decide if there can be "an indefinite period of protests in a common area (that) creates inconvenience for others", or if there need to be limitations on the length and intensity of the protest. The court has already noted that there cannot be a "universal policy" since circumstances may "vary" from case-to-case.
A bench consisting of Justices SK Kaul, Aniruddha Bose and Krishna Murari had reserved its verdict at the last hearing on September 21. "We have to balance the right to protest and blocking of roads. In a parliamentary democracy, protests can happen in parliament and on roads. But on roads, it has to be peaceful," the three-member bench said at the time.
Critics of the Shaheen Bagh protest, who numbered BJP leaders in their ranks, had accused the protesters - mostly women and children - of a conspiracy against the Narendra Modi government and claimed that they were disturbing traffic and normal life; in February a man even opened fire at the site after controversial slogans were chanted by a union minister.
The following month, shortly before the nationwide coronavirus lockdown, the protesters were cleared citing social distancing concerns. "God almighty had intervened..." the top court said.
Before that, though, several petitions were filed asking that Delhi Police be directed to clear the roads, forcibly if needed, and for restrictions on protests leading to obstruction in public places.
"We do understand that there is a problem," the court said in response to the pleas, adding, "Can you block a public route? One cannot block a public road and create inconvenience for others" and suggesting that the protests be shifted to an alternate site that would not disturb traffic.
One of the lawyers for the protesters pointed out that citizens of the country had a "right to protest" and alleged that any inconvenience caused was by design of "a political party". However, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the centre, said the right to protest was not an absolute one.
Hundreds of protesters, mainly women and children, camped out at Shaheen Bagh in south Delhi for over three months earlier this year to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the NRC (National Register of Citizens) and NPR (National Popular Register).
The protests, recognised by TIME magazine - which honoured 82-year-old Bilkis dadi, the face of the movement, as one of the 100 "most influential people of 2020" -, led to restrictions being imposed on traffic in the area, including shutting down a key road connecting Delhi and Noida.
The Shaheen Bagh protesters, like tens of thousands across the country at the time, were against the CAA, which the government says enables citizenship for non-Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan if they escaped religious persecution and entered India before 2015.
With input from PTI