When did we lose our right to protest?

Last Updated: Sat, Apr 06, 2013 03:47 hrs

For the longest time, India has called itself the world’s largest democracy. However, with both the central and state governments getting increasingly paranoid over the last few years, there are times when this country seems to function like a police state.

The horrific death of 23-year-old SFI leader Sudipto Gupta is, of course, the latest in a disturbingly long line of incidents over the past couple of years alone. While Mamata Banerjee’s callous, and perhaps thoughtless reaction, is not quite unusual from her, it’s troubling that there are such drastically different versions of the incident.

The government’s claim is that Gupta fell off a bus and suffered trauma to the head after hitting a lamp post. Unbelievably, even by her standards, Mamata Banerjee remarked to the press that members of her own party had died after falling off trains and hitting electric poles – so, what, this wasn’t a big deal?

Witnesses from the SFI say Gupta fell off the bus after being beaten. West Bengal SFI joint secretary Shatarup Ghosh, has been quoted saying, “He was hit on his head so hard that one of his eyes popped out.”

The driver of the bus on which the protesting students were being escorted to Presidency Jail, Raja Das, has also reportedly made a statement that Gupta was injured in the lathi charge by police.

Mamata Banerjee has dismissed it as a “small and petty matter”, but the state’s Governor M K Narayanan has remained silent on the issue so far, even while meeting the family.

Whether a CBI inquiry is conducted remains to be seen, but nothing will bring back Sudipto Gupta.

What did he do that deserved police action? He was among those leading a protest demanding union elections in colleges, and surely, he had a right to ask.

Do we not have a right to protest, in this country, anymore?

A few months ago, the police in Delhi got so paranoid that key streets were blocked, and several Metro Stations shut down, as people began gathering to protest over the gang rape of a woman travelling in a bus.

People did manage to find their own spots to protest, but this wasn’t without political interference. Various parties sent their thugs in, and police got into the act. We have seen photographs of women being charged at, and dragged away.

The protests were intended to be peaceful. They may not have achieved much, and their demand for justice only echoed a sentiment felt throughout the nation. But the fact that people were willing to get out for days, in the freezing cold of a Delhi December, taking time off work to make themselves heard, to show this country that they don’t feel safe, should have made the government think. Instead, our political leaders decided to clamp down on avenues of protest, and deployed cops to break up the others.

One of the most brutal incidents of police action in recent times was, of course, the Ramlila Maidan attack of 2011, on a hunger strike headed by Baba Ramdev. There was absolutely no justification for the crackdown. More than a hundred supporters were wounded, and one woman – Rajbala Devi – sustained such severe spinal injuries that she was declared a quadriplegic within hours of being admitted to hospital. She died after nearly four months, and her family alleged that the hospital was refusing to hand over her medical records to them.

All too often, there are reports of police attacking when they need only monitor. In the world’s largest democracy, don’t we have a right to protest?

We exercised this right throughout the struggle for independence, and the Civil Disobedience Movement led by Gandhi is glorified in our history textbooks.

While our causes may be different today, and the leaders not of his calibre, doesn’t the principle remain constant? When a protest is peaceful and non-violent, how can aggression by a government agency be justified?

Over the last year, there has been furore in the media over the government’s systematic – and often neurotic – censorship of the social media, and its action against cartoonists. However, we aren’t as enthusiastic about addressing our right to stage our protests.

It’s bad enough that various sections of the Indian Penal Code, that prohibit the gathering of more than a certain number of people, are imposed within hours of any major demonstration taking place.

But, when no laws are being broken, and when the situation can be controlled through other means, is it right for the government to be using the police in this manner? When did we lose our right to protest?

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The author is a writer based in Chennai.

She blogs at