Liberty begins with a sense of responsibilities. All rights are complemented by duties. Thus the celebration of one’s own liberty or freedom can never be enjoyed at the expense of curtailing the liberty of others. The old saying about the right to swing one’s hand ends where another person’s nose begins expresses the core assumption of the idea of freedom. Political parties or any other organization, when they protest or advocate their cause through demonstrations and rallies that disrupt traffic, actually infringe on the freedom of other people. They do so by causing inconvenience and by severely restricting the mobility of people who are not part of the rally. The judgment banning rallies in Calcutta on working days highlights this complex but inescapable relationship between liberty and responsibility. Most political parties valourize the collective over the individual. They believe that a protest by a collective is more important than the inconvenience it causes to a few individuals. This is a belief that is fundamentally at odds with the idea of liberty which has to ensure the liberty of all individuals without jeopardizing society. Extreme individual liberty is anarchism but the curtailment of this liberty is the first step towards totalitarianism. In Calcutta, the problem acquires a perverse dimension because a far greater number of people suffer when a political party tries to impose its right of protest through rallies that bring the city to a standstill. The majority suffers because of a militant minority who take to the streets at the slightest pretext.
Political parties predictably have reacted adversely to the landmark judgment given by Mr Amitava Lala. The chief minister of West Bengal, on the same day that Mr Lala gave his ruling, assured foreign diplomats in New Delhi that irresponsible behaviour by trade unions would not be tolerated in the state. The assurance begs the definition of irresponsibility. Who defines it' What constitutes irresponsibility' What Mr Bhattacharjee’s party considers to be responsible modes of protest can actually cause immense hardship to people by holding up traffic and movement. Mr Bhattacharjee himself addressed one such rally a few days ago. There is too little recognition within the political class of the way it flouts the liberty of individuals and there is too loud a declaration by political parties of their own rights of protest and assembly. Politicians must accept that they function in a democracy and therefore they must guarantee liberty.