The Supreme Court on Wednesday held that "public spaces cannot be occupied indefinitely."
The ruling came on a host of petitions challenging blockade of the road at Shaheen Bagh for weeks last year, in protest against the Citizens Amendment Act (CAA) passed by Parliament.
''Dissent and democracy go hand in hand, but the protests must be carried out in designted areas," held a Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Krishna Murari and Hrishikesh Roy in a judgment it had reserved on September 21.
The ruling came on petitions complaining of huge inconvenience from the road blockade, which ended only after three months in March due to the pandemic lockdown.
The court noted that the Shaheen Bagh movement, led by housewives and other women groups, had begun as a protest, but it caused inconvenience to commuters. "Social media channels, often fraught with danger, lead to highly polarising environment and this is what was witnessed in Shaheen Bagh," the court said.
Noting that it had referred to various protests across the capital and various rulings and regulations on demonstrations before arriving at the judgment, the court said: "Shaheen Bagh produced no solution."
The Bench also pulled up the administration for not taking any action in the matter, noting that its ruling should not mean it is "giving a shoulder" to the administration while adjudicating the legality of the protest.
"It is the responsibility of the respondent parties to take suitable action, but such actions should produce suitable results, which didn't happen in this case," the Bench observed. It said the administration has to decide how to clear public places, but it should not wait for the court's orders to carry out its duties.
The government kept trying to convince the protesters that the Citizenship Amendment Act, passed by Parliament on December 11, provides citizenship to refugees from six minority communities which have entered India on or before December 31, 2014, and it has nothing to do with the Muslims living in India.
The protesters, however, saw in the exclusion of the Muslims from the ambit of the legislation a dubious motive. In their perception, the CAA was linked to the proposed National Register of Citizens and they feared that those unable to establish their citizenship will be thrown out of India and many of them will be Muslims.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, had earlier said the petitions may not survive now, given that the protest at Shaheen Bagh was over. But barring one lawyer petitioner, none of the others agreed to withdraw their petitions.
Amit Sahni, one of the lawyers who had filed the plea, wanted a clearcut ruling by the court as he said that in public interest, the protest at Shaheen Bagh should have been prohibited. "This was allowed to continue for more than 100 days and people faced difficulties," he said.
Advocate Mehmood Pracha, appearing for an intervenor, however, had argued that citizens have an absolute right to protest. He claimed that “some people from a political party went there [to Shaheen Bagh] and created riots”.
But Mehta disagreed, saying that the right to protest cannot be absolute, and cited some previous judgements that supported his claim. In response, the top court observed that other public rights such as the right to movement and mobility also exist, and a balance needed to be drawn.