B S Raghavan

Why seek police okay for public meetings?

Updated on: Jun 10, 2011

We, the People, who had given to ourselves the Constitution guaranteeing the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression and to assemble peaceably and without arms, have been meekly submitting during the entire period the Constitution has been in force to the peremptory dictate of the governments elected by us, as sovereign masters, to obtain prior police permission every time we want to hold any meeting in a public place.

There are any number of authoritative rulings declaring that granting the citizens the right to exercise their fundamental freedoms should be the rule, and stymieing the right should be the rarest of rare exceptions. But, in practice, there have been plenty of instances in all the States without exception when the police, at the behest of the ruling dispensation, have blatantly misused the power of granting such permission in order to silence criticism of the powers-that-be, deny opportunity for expression or dissemination of views of political opponents or suppress dissent and protest against the policies and actions of the governments concerned.

And even while ostensibly granting the permission, the police often hedge it with a series of conditions so stiflingly restrictive as to make it nugatory for all practical purposes.

I can cite an example from my personal knowledge as a Trustee of the Rajaji Centre for Public Affairs. In 2006, the Rajaji Centre wanted to organise a meeting in protest against the extensive electoral malpractices making a total mockery of the elections to the Chennai Corporation and some other local bodies.

Alternative scheme

The centre was kept on tenterhooks until well past the eleventh hour, making it near-impossible to make any advance preparations.

Even after the permission was granted, just on the morning of the date on which the protest meeting was to be held, an Assistant Commissioner of Police came to the venue and used intimidatory tactics to deny the centre the use of the hall, with the result the meeting had to be cancelled at the last minute.

That it was held a few days later at another venue, the police being constrained to grant permission thanks to the public uproar resulting from its earlier behaviour, is another matter. The run-up to, and the aftermath of, the recent events relating to the movements against corruption and black money launched by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev also bespeak of the arbitrary manner in which the police exercises the power.

We, the People, have to go by the say-so of the police without having no transparent means of double-checking the material based on which it bases its promulgation of orders under Section 144 Cr.P.C. or its refusal to grant permission. And every schoolboy knows that government authorities, right up to Cabinet Ministers, are not above trading in falsehoods and lies.

For all these reasons, it is high time to put in place an alternative scheme whereby all obstacles to the legitimate exercise of the right to assemble and the freedom of speech and expression are removed.

Of course, there has to be some regulation of the use of available public space as, otherwise, conflicts may arise out of different organisations or groups wanting to use the same space on the same date and time.

The new scheme will list out public spaces and premises to the use of which the various organisations or groups of whatever category will be automatically entitled subject to clearance, with intimation to the police, by a small body of respected public figures, solely with a view to avoiding overlapping of functions.

The police can be present at the venue as part of their responsibility for public order but their duty will be confined to maintaining order and helping the organisations in the smooth conduct of the functions.

Such a scheme, with whatever improvements are found necessary, will, in my view, balance the people's basic rights with the need to safeguard public order.

Published on June 11, 2011

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