The Supreme Court declined to interfere with the Andhra Pradesh High Court’s decision to stay the Government Order that limited public meetings on roadsides.
The High Court’s vacation bench had taken this decision and the petition is now scheduled for hearing before the High Court on January 23. The Court also asked that the case be heard by a division bench chaired by the Chief Justice of the High Court.
Since the petition is scheduled to be posted on Monday, the bench, comprising of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice PS Narasimha, stated that it will not at this time interfere with the ruling.
As reported by LiveLaw, the court stated, “Mr Vaidhyanathan submits that the Writ Petition was mentioned before a DB of Andhra Pradesh in winter vacations. He states that the DB should not have assumed jurisdiction since no matter pertaining to policy can be taken during vacation…We are not enquiring into the merits of the grievance at this stage. However we request a division bench led by the Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh High Court to take up this matter and hear on 23rd Jan 2023″, the bench stated in the order while disposing of the State’s petition.”
CS Vaidyanathan, the senior counsel representing the State of Andhra Pradesh, had moved the Supreme Court to challenge the High Court’s vacation bench making the urgent decision of staying the Government’s order.
The State had appealed the High Court’s decision by filing a Special Leave Petition to the Supreme Court, arguing that a regulatory action was required to prevent the loss of lives in stampede-like incidents. The State argued that the Government Order only instructed the police to advise against issuing authorization for public gatherings on public roads and road edges, unless there are exceptional circumstances, and denied that there was a blanket ban.
Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal appeared for CPI State secretary K Ramakrishna who challenged the Govt Order before the High Court.
Order of the High Court
The Andhra Pradesh High Court’s division bench comprising Justice Battu Devanand and Justice Dr. V. R. K. Krupa Sagar had issued an order on January 12, 2023, suspending the application of a state government directive that forbade the holding of public meeting on public roads.
This order was directed as the court was considering a public interest petition brought by Kaka Ramakrishna, the Communist Party of India’s Andhra Pradesh secretary, contesting the GO as being unconstitutional, arbitrary, and in violation of Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(b) of the Constitution as the order effectively constituted a “blanket ban” on public meetings.
Defending the GO, Ramakrishna has contended that the provisions under Police Act, 1861 are only a regulatory power and not a blanket power to stifle the democratic ideals and views of the citizens. The law enables the authorities to control the conduct of assemblies and processions on public roads and not to completely ban it, he had argued.
The bench determined that the GO was prima facie in violation of the process outlined in Section 30 of the Police Act of 1861. The Government Order (GO), which restricted/prohibited public meetings/assemblies on roadways, roadsides, and road margins throughout the state and was issued on January 2, was then stayed by the court. The bench had ordered that the aforementioned impugned GO be suspended until January 23.
“Considering the facts and circumstances of the case and on careful consideration of the submissions made by respective counsels and also on perusal of the case law placed by the respective counsels before the Court, in the prima facie opinion of this Court, the impugned G.O. Rt. No.1 dated 02.01.2023 is contrary to the procedure provided under Section 30 of the Police Act, 1861,” the bench had stated in the order.
The government order was issued by the State’s home department. Advocate General S. Sriram earlier argued before the court that the government order has been issued in exercise of powers vested under Section 3 of the Police Act, 1861 to regulate the public meeting on the public roads in the interest of the public, “in the light of the recent instances” that occurred in the state.
The order of the HC can be read here.
The impugned Government Order
The issue at hand is GO No. 1, which the State Government issued to limit public gatherings following two stampedes that claimed the lives of 11 persons while N Chandrababu Naidu, the leader of the TDP, was delivering a speech at an event. The prohibitory order was issued late on Monday night under the provisions of the Police Act, 1861. it has been claimed by the government that the said order was issued in the interest of people and for the sake of public safety.
The government noted in its order that “the right to conduct a public meeting on public roads and streets is a subject matter of regulation as Section 30 of the Police Act, 1861 itself mandates.”
The State had also urged the police machinery to suggest alternative locations away from public roads which do not hamper public movement and general flow of traffic. The restrictions that have been specified in the Order, as provided by the LiveLaw, are: – “National Highways and State Highways are designed for high speed connectivity across the country to ensure logistical integration. It is therefore ideal that no license be granted for any application seeking permission to conduct a meeting on State Highways and National Highways…However, in rare and exceptional circumstances and for reasons to be recorded in writing, any application could be considered.” – “Municipal roads and Panchayat roads are narrow and are meant for free movement of the people staying in the local area and any obstruction due to meetings on these roads endangers lives, disrupts the civic life, emergency services, causing inconvenience to the general public.”
Violative of personal freedom
Under Article 19(a) and (b) of the Indian Constitution, the citizens of India have been granted the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to assemble peaceably and without arms. The said right is not an absolute right. Through Article 19 clause 6 of the Constitution, the state has been empowered to impose such reasonable restrictions on the said freedom as they deem necessary to protect the interests of the general public.
When contesting the government order of January 2, the petitioner said that it inadvertently banned holding public gatherings or processions on public highways. Section 30 of the Police Act empowered the authorities to prohibit granting of permits for the holding of public meetings on national, state, municipal, and panchayat roadways.
“The basic rights of the people and the organizations are being curtailed and the permissions are not being granted by the Police officials under the pretext of the impugned GO. The impugned GO is issued by the 1st Respondent only to stifle the voice of the opposition and other Political parties and to deny them the right to conduct public meetings. The impugned GO imposes blanket ban on organizing meetings on public roads without dealing with the aspect of law and order problem”, the petition had read, as provided by the Leaflet.
According to the petitioner, holding a public meeting is a fundamental right granted to all citizens.
“The voice of the opposition is the lifeline of any Democratic nation. By issuing the impugned GO, the Respondents are choosing to stifle the voice of the opposition by failing to provide necessary permissions”, the petitioner had submitted, as provided by The Leaflet.
It is pertinent to note, that by issuing this order, the state government aim to empower the police to decide which protests are to be allowed on the roadside, according to their own discretion. In the current political climate, this move is certainly another tactic to oppress the voice of dissent against political parties and other discriminatory legislations. Instead of recognizing the failure on the part of the police personnel to provide appropriate protection to the people present at the event, the state government turn the tables around by choosing to take away a crucial right guaranteed to every citizen under our Constitution. While it is being claimed by the government that the said government order is to protect the interest of the public, it is necessary that such colored attempts at suppressing the voice of the citizens are contested.