• Why Must We Not Protest at Jantar Mantar?

    An attempt to crush dissent by denying access to basic requirements like venue for staging protests

    Yogesh S

    October 12, 2017

    Tamil Nadu farmers during their protest at Jantar Mantar / Image courtesy: DailyPost


    On 5 October 2017, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered the Government of Delhi and the commissioner of Delhi police to stop all the protests in Jantar Mantar. The order has instead recommended Ramlila Maidan as a suitable site. Situated in close proximity to most of the government offices, including the Parliament, Jantar Mantar was the site where all the protests would be staged till date. The protests here hosted activists and citizens from across the country. This order brings to light yet another attempt by the current government to crush dissent in the country.

    According to a report published in The Indian Express, the NGT has decided to ban protests in Jantar Mantar for the following reasons: one, Jantar Mantar is not an authorised site for protests – here is no executive order that demarcates it as such; two, the Jantar Mantar Road is marked as a residential area in the Delhi Master Plan and hence cannot be allowed to be used for other purposes; three, the protesters and agitators cause pollution, particularly noise pollution, because of the unregulated use of loudspeakers and amplifiers, public address systems, drums, etc.

    Jantar Mantar has been a protest site since the 1980s following a similar ban on protests in the Boat Club lawns of Rajpath. Section 144 (banning public gatherings) has been imposed in many places in Delhi. For three decades now Jantar Mantar has been a site where protests have been carried out undisrupted. If the NGT woke up after three decades in the absence of any executive order, then the authorities must have also learnt how to fix this. Hence the first reason has no credibility.

    The NGT was in news recently in the year 2016 when the World Cultural Festival was organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on the banks of the Yamuna. The NGT had sent legal notices to Sri Sri and was successful in recovering a fine for destroying the floodplains of the river. This move was based on reports from the inspection of the river bank by the field experts. In the case of Jantar Mantar, no such reports were submitted and hence, the second and the third grounds stated by the tribunal stand on no evidence.

    According to a report published in the Indian Express, the tribunal has passed this order based on a petition filed by Varun Seth. Seth is the owner of the Ritz Cinemas in Connaught place and is a resident of Jantar Mantar 6. Seth, along with six other residents gauged the level of noise pollution and submitted the results to NGT to take action. Why must a ban be carried out on the claims of a cinema-owner instead of experts?

    Moreover, there was no dialogue with the protesters and the organisers of these protests prior to the ban. Ramlila Maidan, unlike Jantar Mantar, is situated in a congested neighbourhood surrounded by residential areas. If the idea was to ensure safety of the residents, why should it only be meant for those residing in palatial mansions? The claim that Jantar Mantar is a residential area is false as the site allocated for the protests is quite far from the mansions of Jantar Mantar. The roads connecting these houses to the main road are well planned and then laid out. The main cause of traffic on these roads is its central location within the city.

    The reasons cited by the NGT fail to justify the rationale behind its decision to ban protests at Jantar Mantar. There have been repeated attacks on spaces of dissent since the current government came to power in the year 2014. Attacks on protesting students, academics, activists, rationalists and anyone questioning the state have become the norm: attacks on students protesting in the Film and Television Institute of India, Hyderabad Central University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, brutal attacks on protesters for Occupy UGC and Pinjra Tod movement, Banaras Hindu University in recent times come to mind.

    Jantar Mantar has been hosting farmers from Tamil Nadu who have been protesting the fall in subsidies for a long time. They attracted attention through their unique ways of protesting. For example, they staged a performance of a funeral of a farmer to talk about the increasing number of farmer suicides. Many such protests which Varun Seth calls a “nuisance” are staged to communicate the failure of the policies and decisions of the Prime Minister and his government. One must not forget that this ban comes in the wake of the recently held NotInMyName protest against the brutal lynching of Junaid and the assassination of Gauri Lankesh.

    The current government, its ministers and the citizens who worship them, see dissent as a threat and hence consider it useless. But they are actually afraid of an uprising against their unsecular, undemocratic, irrational and misogynistic views of hatred and violence. The Indian Express reported today, the North Delhi Municipal Corporation states that it costs Rs. 50,000 to stage a protest in the Ramlila Maidan. The protesters are expected to go through many formalities in order to get permission for staging a protest here. The government has now made it logistically impossible to carry out a protest.  

    It might be a slight deviation, but we should recollect de-monetisation and its after-effects. Have we ever wondered why there were no protests? The answer is, no time was given to anyone. It was a scene of a dictator ordering all of us to stop thinking about what happened and instead fight to survive. Money is an everyday requirement; demonetisation made use of this knowledge and was successful in crushing any form of protests.

    The order to move all the protests to Ramlila Maidan without any strong evidence is not a move to protect environment, or to “safeguard” citizens, or to abide by laws and certainly is not a mere coincidence. It is an order to crush dissent which is our democratic right.

    Yogesh S is part of the editorial collective of the Indian Writers' Forum

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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