Before the Supreme Court felt compelled to ask the protesters to choose another site if they wished to continue protesting.
While providing its good offices to deal with the subject of the peaceful Shaheen Bagh protest — which has become politically complex on account of the Union government’s obduracy — and naming three well-intentioned interlocutors, the Supreme Court has just been lazily liberal. Its attitude can only bring comfort to the ruling establishment, though this may not be by design.
An ineffective outcome seems to be written into the project because it glosses over the ground realities and betrays short-sightedness and ignorance of the political canvas on which the CAA law — in reaction to which Shaheen Bagh has sprung — has been inscribed.
The initiative of the highest court appears not to be aimed at bringing any comfort to the thousands of poor slum women who have set a record by being on a street protest for nearly 70 days now, right through the coldest winter New Delhi has known in 117 years, offering the world a striking example of a satyagraha of a truly Gandhian dimension in these toxic times characterised by poisonous policies calculated to foster hate.
The Supreme Court took it upon itself to reiterate what every child knows — that the right to protest peacefully without causing inconvenience to others is a given in a democracy. The learned judges pointed out that this right had to be upheld. If this is indeed the pedantic aspect of the judicial pronouncement, the want of sensitivity revealed in the judges’ invitation to the protesters to go choose another site — and return the road they are occupying to the normal flow of traffic — is dismaying.
Once the traffic angle — the so-called “Shaheen Bagh effect” on road traffic in one of the more crowded parts of the national capital that connects to Noida in UP — is understood in the light of physical reality and topography, it is easy enough to see that it is sheer establishment propaganda disseminated through newspapers, television channels, the social media, and above all word of mouth, to such a degree that everyone — the Supreme Court not excluded — accepts it as true.
Before the Supreme Court felt compelled to ask the protesters to choose another site if they wished to continue protesting, it could have done itself no disservice if it had called for a report on the geography of Shaheen Bagh and adjoining areas and a before-and-after image of the vehicular flow. If it didn’t do so, it could have at least asked the three interlocutors — two of them eminent lawyers and the third a retired civil servant who has also held a constitutional position — to acquaint themselves with the forensics, as it were, before they commenced to hold talks with the protesters.
Anyone who has visited the protest site at Shaheen Bagh can see that it is not the protesters who have blocked traffic, causing snarls all over southeast Delhi which links to UP as well as to Faridabad in Haryana, but the Delhi police, and in imitation of the Delhi police, the UP police. Indeed, the police in Noida (UP Police) were reported in the media as saying that they would lift their road barricade the minute the Delhi police did so on the Shaheen Bagh side.
It is pretty devious of the Union home ministry, which controls the Delhi police, that it kept mum about all this although Union home minister Amit Shah ran the BJP’s campaign in the recent election for New Delhi’s Assembly in no small measure on the Shaheen Bagh issue, with his senior colleagues heaping calumny on the protesters. It is also surprising that the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi sat quiet about this aspect. None of this, of course, absolves the Supreme Court of its own responsibility to look at the facts with dispassion.
Other than the geography and traffic aspects, the class aspect of Shaheen Bagh also needs to be looked at before making observations of a seemingly liberal kind. The thousands of Muslim women who have sat at their protest site through day and night for over two months are from the poorest strata of society. They are not the kind who can afford bus or metro rail tickets on an everyday basis for weeks on end — and this is what they seem to wish to do — to go to another place to protest, and then return home, day after day. Even if that were somehow imaginable, the determined women would not be able to stay put at night at an alternative site. Toilet breaks are needed, which their homes offer.
Evidently, the learned judges overlooked these human aspects. It is more than evident that the protesting women are at Shaheen Bagh because they live right there. Their protest was not possible anywhere else — even a place right next door. To ask them to move is to ask them to abandon their protest. In effect, such a stance disregards their right to protest peacefully. A show of greater sensitivity towards the poorer sections of society, especially on a matter of basic rights, might have been expected from the judges. The interlocutors, who have apparently cast themselves in the part of do-gooders, too appear not to have considered the human and class aspects.
In light of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent assertion that he had declined to succumb to pressures to go back on Article 370 (Kashmir’s autonomy) and CAA (which brings in the religious dimension to the concept of Indian citizenship, and hence the concept of India), the women of Shaheen Bagh evidently have a long struggle ahead.
The Narendra Modi government is not known for its regard of democratic sensitivities. If it did, a law like CAA would not have been brought. It clear aim is to discomfit India’s Muslim community, make them feel less wanted, and sow communal discord — with a view to sending out the false message that so-called Hindu sentiments are being placed on a higher pedestal.
This is the dog-whistle of setting up a Hindu desh or country to prepare for the higher political goal of a Hindu Rashtra, an ideological category which will need a vastly different Constitution from the one that grew out of the freedom movement.
In this climate, no institution, not least the Supreme Court, should even indirectly curb the right to speak truth to power.