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HT EDIT -In states, don’t curb the right to protest

February 05, 2021 05:46 AM

In states, don’t curb the right to protest

The Bihar government has decided that those who engage in “criminal activities” during law and order incidents, protest demonstrations and blocking of roads and have been named in chargesheets will not get government jobs, government contracts, assistance for grants and bank loans and passports. This comes soon after the state government said that “offensive” social media posts against the government, ministers, parliamentarians and legislators will be treated as a cyber crime. Separately, the Uttarakhand government has said that the process of police verification before passports are issued will take into account comments made on social media, with an eye out for “anti-national posts”.

This is disturbing. It is, of course, the duty of the State to maintain order. But, the State also has a duty to abide by the democratic Constitution — a key tenet of which is the right to free speech and assembly, including the right to dissent and protest peacefully. In both cases, the states seem to be backtracking on this democratic commitment.

At a time when criticism of the government is often interpreted as being “anti-national”, there is a high risk of Uttarakhand’s move being used to silence inconvenient voices and impose an arbitrary punishment on them. Bihar’s case is even more striking. This is a state with a long history of political mobilisation, and an entire generation of the state’s leadership was socialised during the Emergency. For this state to then create legal room for any protest to be criminalised, and any protester to face a series of excessive and disproportionate government actions in the form of denial of rights and services, will have the impact of curtailing the space for dissent. Both state governments must step back.

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