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‘The People vs the Indian State’

  • Category
    Polity & Governance
  • Published
    19th Jan, 2021

The recent proliferation of protests and grassroots movements points to increased public discourse on politics and human rights.  The on-going farmers protest is one example of an energized population eager to invoke change in the country.

These protests also raise the question that will shape India’s democratic future in 2021 and beyond.


The recent proliferation of protests and grassroots movements points to increased public discourse on politics and human rights.  The on-going farmers protest is one example of an energized population eager to invoke change in the country.

These protests also raise the question that will shape India’s democratic future in 2021 and beyond.


  • Protests are back in the headlines across the world. In the world’s “oldest democracy”, supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol, demanding he be declared winner of elections as they were “fake and fixed”.
  • In the “largest democracy”, farmers are camping on Delhi borders demanding the repeal of three recently adopted farm laws.
  • In the last three months, the United States has reported more than 50 protests against the electoral verdict for Joe Biden.
  • In India, there have been more than 100 by farmers, labour unions, health workers, even elected Panchayat members.
  • The preoccupation with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns didn’t deter them much.
  • In 2019, there were massive protests like the Global Climate Strike and the ones in Hong Kong. 
  • In December 2020 and first week of 2021, some 56 countries (in the Americas, Africa and Asia) reported protests, mostly led by youths.
  • It seems that, after a brief lull, people are back on the streets. “Everybody is protesting everything.” It feels so.

Historical background of protests in India

  • The seeds of protest were sown deep during our independence struggle, making protest an important and indelible chapter in India’s history.
  • Protests in India have a long and eminent history. Until 72 years ago, India was a colony ruled by Britishers.
  • In the post-independence era, its people became free citizens because of a long series of protests done by our freedom fighters.
  • Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi aka Mahatma Gandhi, taught the Indians citizens, the power of peaceful protest.
    • So, be it the Swadeshi Movement of 1905 or Satyagraha in 1930 these movements have shaped the history of the nation that was the peaceful protest against the colonial rule.
  • Indians fought hard every battle to publicly express their views on colonial policies and to show dissent towards British colonization and to speak to and against the government.


What are the core political rights of democracy?

  • Democracies everywhere are founded on two core political rights.
  • The first, the right of every citizen to freely elect their government and when dissatisfied with its performance, to vote it out of power in a legitimately held election (Article 326).
  • This remains the only proper constitutional procedure to get rid of a government and rightly so. Indeed, peaceful transfer of power is one of the great strengths of democracies.
  • But short of displacing it, and as long as it is done peacefully, any form of public action to challenge the government’s proposals or decisions is also constitutionally legitimate, forming the second core political right: to politically participate not only during but between elections.
  • The right to protest, to publicly question and force the government to answer, is a fundamental political right of the people that flows directly from a democratic reading of Article 19. 

Are Protests legal?

  • All protests are legal only if they are non-violent and carried out with appropriate permissions.
  • Fundamental duties that are enshrined in the constitution require that the rule of law is followed and that public property is not destroyed.
  • The right to protest peacefully is enshrined in the Indian Constitution under Article 19.

Article 19 (1)(a) & 19(1)(b)

(But under) Article 19(2) & 19(3)

  • Article 19(1)(a) guarantees the freedom of speech and expression
  • Article 19(1)(b) assures citizens the right to assemble peaceably and without arms.


  • This right is subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of public order-
    • If the security of the state is in jeopardy
    • If the friendly relationship we share with a neighbouring country is at stake
    • If public order is disturbed
    • If there is contempt of court
      • If the sovereignty and integrity of India are threatened


SC’s decision on Right to Protest

  • In the case of Ramlila Maidan Incident v. Home Secretary, Union Of India & Ors., the Supreme Court had stated, “Citizens have a fundamental right to assembly and peaceful protest which cannot be taken away by an arbitrary executive or legislative action.”
  • In Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India that Justice Bhagwati had said, “If democracy means government of the people by the people, it is obvious that every citizen must be entitled to participate in the democratic process and in order to enable him to intelligently exercise his rights of making a choice, free & general discussion of public matters is absolutely essential.”

Right to protest in Public Places

  • In Shaheen Bagh verdict, the top court has held that the right to protest in public places is not absolute in law. Public places cannot be occupied indefinitely.
  • Such kind of occupation of public ways (protests), at the site of question or anywhere else for protests “is not acceptable and the administration ought to take action to keep the areas clear of encroachment or obstructions”.

 What’s behind the protests?

  • Fractured growth, discredited State: These protests draw their legitimacy from the lived experience of fractured growth driven by oligarchic capitalism and a discredited State.
  • System failure and injustice: Conflict is expected and when judicial and state processes fail, people often take to the streets to administer some form of vigilante justice and retribution.
  • Threat: This is also happening in a context where civil liberties are being eroded and dissenting views are under attack.

EIU Democracy Index

  • India dropped 10 places in the latest Democracy Index released by the Economist Intelligence Unit, in January 2020 and retained its status as a “flawed democracy”.
  • The country was ranked 51 on the index for 2019 – its lowest since the rankings began in 2006.
  • The country was ranked 42 in 2017 and 41 in 2018.

 How protests are ‘strong tools’ for change?

  • Contagious: Of late, protest has emerged more contagious than any other political tool. The spread and degree of these protests are unbelievably massive and without identified leaders.
  • Bringing core issues in light: In democracies, protests are for more about rights and also to question democratic institutions. In many non-democracies, protests are over economic hardship and for bringing in democracy.
  • Grievance redressal:In the absence of other avenues, protests have become a means of grievance redressal, a way of legitimising the demands, a function of multi-cultural democracy and a form of freedom of speech and expression.
  • Collective conscience: Protests can be seen as the articulation of the collective conscience of the nation. 
  • Building community: Protests not only build communities of like-minded people, but they also increase civic engagement in general.
  • Bring change:Protests create an important avenue to bring about the much desired change in the society. This also helps in improving the status of affairs in the country.
  • Strengthening democracy: Protests are a means of ensuring that democracy thrives. It helps a people express their views without the interference of others who have a contrary opinion.

Role of Women in the protests

  • Women are taking lead role in the protests be it CAA protest (Shaheen Bagh) or the ongoing farmers protest.
  • The dedicated participation of women in these protests shows that women’s activism and protest has become an empowering space in and of itself.
  • Chipko Movement, 1973: In 1973, a group of peasant women gave the world the term “tree huggers” when they led a protest in a Himalayan village to prevent trees from being felled. (Chipko means “hugging” in Hindi.) In Uttar Pradesh, the Chipko movement managed to secure a 15-year ban in 1980 on the felling of trees in that state’s Himalayan forests.
  • Anti-Nuclear Protests in Tamil Nadu, 1980: The women of Idinthakarai fishing village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, have been protesting against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tirunelveli district since the 1980s, when the plant was proposed.
  • Bhopal Disaster, 1984: In Bhopal, a city in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, mostly Muslim women took to the streets to seek justice for themselves and their families, who became victims of one of the world’s worst industrial accidents. 
  • Narmada dam protests, 1985: The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement) is perhaps the longest non-violent movement in the history of the world driven primarily by women.

 What measures can change the current situation?

  • Building trust: Bringing India on to a sustainable path of long-term growth and charting a new course for agrarian transitions will require a politics of trust, credibility, inclusion and consensus building.
  • Neutral and committed role of institutions: The apparatus needed for a healthy democracy goes beyond political parties to unelected institutions. These institutions need to play their part by remaining politically neutral and committed to democratic ideals.
  • Determined political architecture: Ideas, practices, and leadership matter. If the architecture of the polity is adequately imagined, put in place with resolve and determination, and practiced with nurturing care, things can take a positive turn.
  • Recognition of needs of all sections: A true constitutional democracy recognises that laws and regulations must account for the needs of all sections of society. This must include the less powerful, who may not have access to or a voice in the democratic process to be noticed by those in power.


Protests and riots–uprisings could become the new normal. This can be a turning point in the world’s most audacious s political experiment of electoral democracy. It gave space to people to dissent, but if the satisfaction level is dipping, it also calls for an evaluation of the system itself. So, it is time for a democratic evaluation of the electoral democracy’s effectiveness in responding to people’s concerns and demands. 


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