Democracy dies when it’s streets fall silent: Activists on the right to protest

Arundhati Roy, Bezwada Wilson, NiveditaMenon, Nadeem Khan, Prashant Bhushan, Yogendra Yadav, call for debate on policing, protests, role of mainstream media


On October 7, 2020  The Supreme court ruled that the right to protest in public places is not absolute, and public places cannot be occupied indefinitely. This was in connection with a case against Shaheen Bagh protesters for allegedly causing inconvenience to the general public with a road blockade. The court said that while dissent and democracy go hand in hand, protests must be carried out in designated areas.

However, activists, writers, academicians have responded to those ‘limitations’ that ‘court designated protest sites make a mockery of protests’ “Protests are not a spectacle to demonstrate visually how healthy a media is, but protest if meant to bring about change. It is meant to tell the government that a particular policy or law has to be changed” said professor Nivedita Menon, moderating a press conference on the issue. Speakers included, activists Bezwada Wilson, Nadeem Khan, author Arundhati Roy, politician Yogendra Yadav, who came together under the Concerned Citizens’ Collective, to send the message that it was through protests that a democracy developed. 

The panel included globally acclaimed author Arundhati Roy; Magsaysay award winner, and Convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan Bezwada Wilson; renowned academician Prof. Nivedita Menon; co-founder of United Against Hate  Nadeem Khan, Supreme Court lawyer activist Prashant Bhushan (who sent a video message as he was not in Delhi), Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde, and President of Swaraj India Yogendra Yadav.

The only complaint that could have been made against the anti-CAA peaceful, democratic  protest that was held in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, was that it was ‘blocking traffic’, which was untrue, said Prof Menon. However, she asserted that the government did not even acknowledge the protest and passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill, making it a law. “Any law that  violates the fundamental rights should be revoked” stated Menon, adding that now democratic protests too have been criminalised as shown by the arrests of protestors, a vast majority of those are muslims.

“We have to ask ourselves, are all legislations passed by our parliament sacrosanct? No. Not unless it is consistent with the Constitution. Every person arrested today are people who have stood up for Constitutional rights. They are those who have spoken up and stood up for rule of law, and stood against atrocities on Muslims and brutalities. The opinion that protests ought to be museum-ised is a parody of democracy,” said Nivedita Menon who teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“Jab sadkein suni ho jaati hai, toh sansad awaara ho jaata hai (When the streets fall silent, Parliament goes wayward),” Yogendra Yadav president Swaraj Party quoted the legendary Ram Manohar Lohia to explain that Democracies all over the word progress when citizens contest, or protest. An apt illustration on the attempts being made to sweep the streets clean of all forms of priest. “Just try and get this ‘permission’, you will see how the police operate, does the judiciary not know that?” he asked, explaining how yards of red tape and verbal instructions try and delay any attempts at even planned protests at designated places.  

The concerned citizens condemned the actions of the state, the police, and even the judiciary that threatened to downsize the right to peaceful public protest, one of the major rights enshrined for the citizens of a democracy. The activists stated that now all modes of democratic dissent has been called a “conspiracy”, and protests are being criminalised. This was most visible in the wake of the anti-CAA protests that have been termed as a ‘terror conspiracy’ leading to the arrest of 24 people who participated in the protests, but now have been charged under the draconian UAPA. 

Even protests for the rights of women and dalit are being curbed, said the activists. The rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras has been alleged to be an “international conspiracy” to ‘defame’ the Uttar Pradesh government. Yadav also spoke about a similar treatment being given to the protests by farmers against the draconian Farm Bills. He shared that this was not the case of only Delhi, or Haryana police, in Mumbai the Maharashtra Police recently sent notices asking for lakhs in surety to 16 people including four students. They had merely participated in a spontaneous protest against the attack on JNU students. “In August activist Suvarna Salve was slapped with a  surety of Rs. 50 lakh for participating in the same protest. In Mumbai a total of 31 people have received similar notices for participating in protests against violence in Jamia, JNU and the cutting down of Arrey Forests,” said Yadav. 


The activists reiterated that protests happen when citizens experience injustice and inequality, and want their grievances to be heard. 

Nadeem Khan, one of the founding members of United Against Hate, which is being specifically targeted and maligned for their role in the anti-CAA movement, said that it is despicable that in the charge-sheet the platform is being referred to as ‘United for Hate’. “The police had claimed to have been unable to open the pattern phone lock of the accused in the case of the forced disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed in JNU, are now confiscating hundreds of phones of activists to frame them for attending protests,” he recalled, adding that UAH was “proud for working against the unconstitutional laws like NRC since 2017. We have been following up on different cases of lynching and hate crimes. If protests and press conferences are ‘conspiracies’ then we will keep doing more of them.” 

He reminded the media that they had gathered on October 22, the death anniversary of freedom fighters Ashfaqullah Khan, “We pledge on this day that we will continue the struggles of Bismil and Ashfaq, the same struggle that our jailed voices were continuing.”

Anger and determination fuelled the voice of  Bezwada Wilson who said that it was the ‘abnormal’ that had ‘become normal today’. He was referring to the rising crimes and illegal activities being reported every day,  and added that even asking questions or talking about them now was being called ‘dissent’. “Talking about the midnight cremation of the Dalit girl’s body in Hathras is dissent?” he asked, adding that talking about India’s “shameful position on hunger index” will also be called dissent next. “They do not want us to say any of these things. If we do, we become anti-nationals. Today even what Ambedkar said will be considered dissent,” said Wilson, who said he will continue talking as loud as he wants, “the decibel” level was not his problem but the problem of those who object to his raising questions, “It is my right, I am a free citizen, not a slave.”

Sanjay Hegde recalled that “Ambedkar dissented in front of Gandhi. But Gandhi recognized dissent, he made sure that Ambedkar is brought back to the Constituent Assembly. The Constitution is a product of both dissent and the recognition of dissent.” Over the last few years, he said, dissent is being muzzled, tampered and violated. But I am hopeful. Our generation fought, future generations will also follow.” 

Prashant Bhushan in his video message said that athe “young voices who in fact stood against divisive politics and stood for constitutional values are today being framed and put behind bars”. He warned Delhi Police to reform or else be called what former High Court judge Justice Anand Narayan Mulla once remarked about Uttar Pradesh police calling it the largest “organized crime network”. 

However, it took a writer to call out the media, ironically at the Press Club of India.  Arundhati Roy said: “Every time I speak at this Press Club, I see the ghosts of those people who could be here at this very table in the same spirit as I – ghosts of those who are now in prison. I want to salute all those people who are behind bars, who spoke up – from Bhima Koregaon, to the students, anti CAA protests.” 

The Constitution,  she said, was the only document that said all Indians are equal, but was now being rendered redundant. The Hathras case, she said, showed “that every organ of this country has rotten. The police, the medical, the judicial, community erased caste, and the mainstream media”.  The mainstream media, especially the television media she said had sold out and the anchors were making corporate salaries while victim blaming. “it was shameful how they endangered the life of someone like Umar Khalid with their ludicrous claims…” 

“We have to realise despite our differences, that we are up against fascism. If we don’t realise that, we are going to be squeezed out like toothpaste, and there would be no way back,” she warned.   


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Police need to stop criminalising the anti CAA protests: Prof. Apoorvanand
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