The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Lala’s law: Round One to road rules

Make no mistake. Calcutta High Court’s order banning rallies and processions on weekdays is not the knock-out punch that it appears to be. At best, it is a first-round victory for rules of the road. There will be other rounds to be fought and an appeal will most certainly be filed, and a stay may or may not be granted. But the appeal in any case will significantly delay an outright victory for the victims.

For starters, Justice Amitava Lala, perhaps, needs to move house immediately, that is if he lives anywhere around south, north or central Calcutta. It would be advisable for him to shift to Salt Lake, where it would be easier for the police to foil rallies and create a passage for him to reach court — primarily because although the judge, by his ruling, earned the gratitude of thousands and respect of others, he may well have to contend with the SUCI in the weeks ahead. Once the festive season is over, police can count on SUCI supporters, mostly women, appearing out of nowhere and converging around Justice Lala’s house or around the high court in a show of defiance.

On a more serious vein, one does feel sorry, even sympathetic, for political parties. The raison d’etre of rallies appears to be subjecting people to inconvenience to highlight the discomfort of the protagonists. That objective will be lost, if rallies were to be held in the Sunderbans or at Petrapole, near the Bangladesh border. Had the purpose been just to address a gathering, late evening would actually have been ideal. People then could arrive at the Maidan at 9 pm, listen to some fiery speeches and return home by midnight. Justice Lala and the office-goers then would not be harassed on their way to work. But the odd passenger would possibly still miss the late-evening train!

Legally, it will neither be too easy nor too difficul to find fault with the order. Comrade Anil Biswas undoubtedly has the ‘democratic right’ to deliver a speech or to take out a procession. But it is unreasonable to insist that he has the right to not just take out a procession but also decide the route, time, venue, etc, as well. The legal battle, therefore, will centre around the phrase “reasonable restrictions” that the authorities are empowered to impose on citizens’ right to defy and to dissent.

Are the restrictions imposed by Justice Lala ‘reasonable’ ' Political parties will undoubtedly argue that they are not. They will, henceforth, be required to seek, and wait for, permission before planning a rally. And there being nothing in the order apparently that stipulates how long the police should take to grant such permission, the ‘waiting period’ could be long .

In fact, the organisers will have to anticipate the size of the rally and deposit proportionate sums with the police, which will then be used to compensate the ‘victims’. This amount will almost never be returned, because one can count on people buying train tickets and sitting at home to claim the compensation. The ‘deposit’ will also push up the cost of holding rallies. If 5,000 people are expected to attend, organisers may have to shell out Rs 50,000 as ‘security’ to the police and still find it inadequate to meet all the claims made by ‘victims’. Once the amount dries up, will the organisers be called upon to cough up more money or run the risk of being blacklisted ' Indeed, it may not even be possible for the police to assess the number of people who actually turn up — with nothing preventing the organisers from ‘paying’ for 5,000 people and actually ensuring that 10 times that number arrive in the city.

There is yet another clause that calls for second thoughts. It relates to the three venues identified by the judge for holding rallies. All three — Brigade Parade Ground, Shahid Minar and Rani Rashmoni Road — are in the heart of the business district, approached by the same arterial roads and within a km or two from each other. A more rational order could have singled out Park Circus Maidan for a rally of a particular size and other spots for bigger or smaller rallies. Moreover, if a couple of hundred people at Kasba want to hold a public meeting, by this order, they can be prevented from doing so and actually forced to hold it at Rani Rashmoni Road.

It’s ultimately not the court but the political parties and the police that will have to work out a solution. There are several steps that the police can take on their own, without waiting for judicial or political intervention. Some of the key roads leading to hospitals, airports and railway stations can be declared out of bounds for processions and rallies. The police can also ensure that smaller processions move in a single file and don’t block the entire width of the road. Similarly, political parties will have to explore new ways of lodging protest — like beating drums or utensils at designated hours, as was done during the agitation by Assam’s students.

In the meanwhile, let us wait for Act I, Scene II.

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