The Supreme Court was unable to make anything like an effective intervention at the time when the Shaheen Bagh protest was underway and tried, instead, to ‘negotiate’ a solution by dispatching ‘mediators’ to the protest site. It did not work simply because that was not its job in the first place. Finally, however, much after the event, it has underlined an important distinction that will determine the way such protests are held in the future – ‘Protests against colonisers cannot be the same as those against a legally and democratically elected government’. This cuts to the core of the matter and denies any kind of moral standing to those breaking fundamental laws in support of their demands.
This does not mean, however, that protestors are likely to grant any respect to the SC’s pronouncement. It does give legally elected governments, and the authorities concerned with maintaining law and order, the necessary legal clarity on where to draw the line. It has long been the tradition in Indian politics, following upon the practices of the pre-independence era, to adopt methods during agitations that are in violation of the fundamental rights of other citizens. This has often allowed confrontations to go beyond a reasonable level, leading to even police firings and fatalities. This is obviously unacceptable in a system supposedly based on democratic practices.
Differences in perception or policies are supposed to be debated in the legislatures at various levels. By law and by convention, the majority opinion is required to be followed. If changes are desired, this is done by educating public opinion so that, at election time, the people make known their preferences. However, as has been seen so often, the law is sought to be changed through arm-twisting, blackmail and, in the case of extremist forces like the Naxalites, through violence. This is distinct from the collective bargaining that can be resorted to where there are choices on offer.
It must not be forgotten that, even during the freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi insisted on strict non-violence because he wanted civilised behaviour to be a foundational principle of the coming nation-state. Unfortunately, instead of adopting it as inborn nature, politicians have resorted merely to tokenism. They prefer every kind of chicanery and crookedness to achieve their aims. This has meant the emergence of political outfits that depend not on principles but quick-fixes like exercise of dynastic, money and muscle power. It is the duty of the pillars of the Constitution to correct these anomalies, which is what the Supreme Court has belatedly done.