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Freedom of expression is superior or the right to protest

The fact that both the "right to freedom of speech and expression" (article 19(1)(a)) and "right to assemble peaceably and without arms" (article 19(1)(b)) share the same article highlights the fact that both these rights are dependent on each other in more than one ways.

Yet, from time to time, the question arises whether the right to freedom of speech and expression should take the precedence or the right to protest, which is lately being increasingly exercised under the purview of the right to assemble.

Many prominent columnists and writers are of the view that the mass protests under the leadership of Anna Hazare along with other social activists comprised the first well-organized movement after the Jai Prakash Naryan movement.

Given the fact that people today are being more and more oblivious to others' lives, it is extremely difficult to organize such a hugely popular movement which has to its credit, if not any visible changes in legislation, the herculean task of tying the youth of the nation with a common feeling of rationality and self-realization.

So what exactly motivated the youth of the nation, who have long been accused of being insensitive to the issues pertaining to nation's interests, to stand up and take active part in a movement which doesn't promise to provide any immediate relief to any of their problems?

These sudden turn of events went on to underline the fact that the citizens are willing to push their right to demonstrate and protest to the edge to ensure that their interests are not tampered with, and that the right to assemble and protest could be exercised more freely than ever, even if it meant that the right to freedom of speech and expression had to take the backseat for a while.

However, it would be foolish to assume that both these rights could be distinguished as apples and mangoes.

In its verdict involving the case of Delhi police using its force on peaceful protesters sleeping on the midnight of 4-5th June, 2011 in Ramlila maidan, the Supreme court observed that, it is the abundant duty of the State to aid the exercise of right to freedom of speech as understood in its comprehensive sense and not to throttle or frustrate exercise of such rights by exercising its executive or legislative powers and passing orders or taking action in that direction in the name of reasonable restrictions. It further stated that the right to peacefully protest subject to just restrictions is now an essential part of free speech and the right to assemble.

The verdict, besides ensuring justice to the people at the receiving end of Police brutality, effectively communicated the fact that the right to protest, albeit lawfully, is nothing but an indispensable part of both the right to freedom of expression and right to assemble.

Hence, to say that right to protest is superior to right to freedom of speech and expression or vice versa would be gross and rhetorical.

The freedom of speech and expression can be curbed at times, but they can be regulated "only in specific circumstances and on grounds that are unexceptionable for protecting the sovereignty and integrity of India and maintaining public order".

Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code permits the State to act when 'immediate prevention or speedy remedy' is desirable. But this can be done only after the State has provided all the relevant reasons.

Hence, the freedom of speech and expression can be exercised under all normal circumstances, which makes it a very powerful weapon in our democracy, possibly more powerful than any other fundamental right provided to the citizens of the nation.

However, the right to assemble peacefully, and the right to protest lying therein, can be manipulated by the governments, like it was done in the recent case in Delhi, to its benefit.

And the judgement of the Supreme Court, while laying down a landmark law inasmuch as it upholds the right to protest as a fundamental right of speech and assemble, shakes the very basic foundation of the fundamental rights by stating that if denied the right to protest, people should unconditionally accept the denial.

Though the constitution-makers would be proud of their work that including the freedom of speech and expression and right to assemble lawfully would ensure justice to the people and exempt these rights from being manipulated, they failed to imagine that the government could simply impose a new form of emergency on the citizens and play with the rights at their will.

Hence, it would be impossible to gauge whether the right to protest should be pushed above the freedom of expression or not.

But one thing cannot be denied; we cannot afford to use our freedom of expression effectively without exercising our right to protest.

If the right to freedom of speech and expression is like a bow, then right to protest is undeniably its arrow.

Rishav Jha