Right to Protest

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world would do this, it would change the earth.” – William Faulkner1

The above-mentioned quote was rightly written by an American Writer, William Faulkner in context of protest, to encourage the people to raise voice against injustice whenever needed.  Protest refers to the medium or action through which the public (especially) shows strong disagreement or disapproval. Historically speaking, various protests have played a vital role in all over the world to overcome serious suppressions and demanding for democratic and responsible government in form of – fight against colonialism, struggles and strikes of labor, civil rights movements, anti-apartheid and anti-communism movements, women challenging the patriarchal society, protest against malpractices during elections etc.2

In a free society or democratic nation, protests are considered as an opportunity by individuals, through which they can exercise their right to have a say on public laws and issues. However, on the other hand, it is also considered as a threat by the state governments or something that has to be controlled or abolished because sometimes, protests take place against the state government as well. For example- Protest against the Government of India for the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). 

Protests are of various forms, for instance, they may take place in the form of civil-disobedience, Shouting, Mass Demonstrations, marches and parades, boycotts etc. Unlike earlier days, at present, people of this era have become tech-savvy, even digital technologies are also used as a way to protest. Online platforms are used to protest to get a wider reach and are also known as “virtual protest.” 

Protests in India Post Independence

Indian history is shaped by many protests which played a crucial role in India’s development. Examples of these protests or movements are-The Chipko Movement (1973), a non-violent protest by the people of Mandal village to trees, The Silent Valley Protest (1973), the movement which became the foundation of Indian environmental activism, The Assam Movement (1979-1985), in which a program of protest and demonstration developed to pressurize the government of India to identify and expel illegal immigrants in Assam. 

On the contrary, the Indian Economy has also witnessed some of the violent protests, which deteriorated India, Socially and Economically. Some instances of such protests are- The Dalit agitation in Maharashtra (2006), in which the Dalit protestors set three passengers trains on fire, destructed over and above 100 buses and also clashed with the police officials. Nandigram and Singur protests in West Bengal (2007), the protest which resulted in the death of 14 villagers. Protest over land acquisition in Uttar Pradesh (2011), which took place against the state government of Delhi and witnessed three deaths.3 

Now, here the question arises, the Constitution of India, which is the supreme law of the land, permits violent protests in this democratic nation? To answer this question, we first have to look at the several provisions related to protests under which the ‘right to protest’ in India has been discussed by our Constitution framers.

Constitutional Provisions On ‘Right to Protest’

India is a democratic country, and also provides Indian citizens with 6 Fundamental Rights (enforceable in the courts of law). Here, the noteworthy point is- whether the Constitution of India provides the ‘Fundamental Right to Protest’ as well? To understand the same there are provisions given under Article-19 (Part-III) of the Constitution. 

Article – 19 of the Indian Constitution

Article 19, which is also known as the backbone of Part-III of the Constitution, talks about two things. On one hand, it gives certain fundamental rights which are available only to the citizens of India and on the other hand, it provides the state with certain restrictions which are exercised by the government to curtail the rights given to the citizens under this Article. The Article can be exercised against the state only. 

In a broader sense, Article 19 can be divided into two parts, firstly, Article 19(1)– which provides the citizens six types of freedom to enjoy various liberties and secondly, Article 19(2) to (6)- which imposes certain reasonable restrictions to prevent the misuse of the rights given under Article 19(1).4 

Article 19(1)

  • Article 19(1)(a) ensures the Right to Freedom of speech and expression of citizens and covers the right to receive information, the right to express their own ideas and lastly, the right to keep any communication as secret. In this way, the ‘Right to Protest’ is also enshrined under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
  • Article 19(1)(b) gives the Freedom to assemble peacefully and without arms. It says every citizen of India has the right to assemble peacefully without having arms. 
  • Article 19(1)(c) of the constitution provides the Indian citizens with the Freedom to form Associations or Unions. For instance, if a large number of people decide to form a permanent organization like- Trade Union, Partnership or company, to have a discussion on the same matter, they are free to do so under this provision of Article 19.
  • Article 19(1)(d) guarantees Freedom of movement. This clause was introduced under Article 19 to create a feeling of nationality among the citizens of India as it gives freedom to citizens to move freely within the territory of India.
  • Article 19(1)(e) ensures Freedom of residence. The main objective of this freedom to remove internal barriers. Article 19(1)(d) and 19(1)(e) go hand in hand. 
  • Article 19(1)(g) guarantees the Right to freedom of Profession, Occupation, Trade or Business. It says one does not have to belong from a particular caste or class to practice any profession, occupation, trade or business.

Article 19(2)

Though, there is a fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression is provided under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution but the right is not an absolute right and the state has the power to restrict such right on eight reasonable grounds under Article 19(2). These eight reasonable restrictions are:5

  1. Sovereignty and Integrity of India.
  2. Security of the state.
  3. Friendly relations with the state.
  4. Public order.
  5. Decency / Morality.
  6. Contempt of Court.
  7. Defamation.
  8. Incitement to an offence. 

On the basis of above-mentioned restrictions, freedom of speech and expression could be mitigated or reduced by the government of India. 

Article 19(1)(b) is regulated under Article 19(3),which says, the state has the power to curtail rights given under 19(1), when such right may have its adverse effect on Security, Integrity and Public order of the state. The grounds on which an assembly may be held as an unlawful assembly are:

  1. Obstacles in a legal process
  2. Criminal Trespass 
  3. Use of Criminal force on a Public official
  4. Use of force on the general public
  5. Possession on one’s property.

Hence, therefore, if a person assembles with the group for any of the above-mentioned purposes, then he will be the part of an unlawful assembly and Police Official, in that case, has the power to disperse the assembly under section 129 of CrPC and even after the orders of police officials the unlawful assembly does not disperse, then the people of the assembly would be charged under section 151 of IPC. This is the reason why people need a valid license or permit from the police and have to cite the objective to the police before conducting a rally or a procession.

Article 19(4)

Similarly, Article (19)(1)(c) which ensures the right to form associations is regulated by Article 19(4) that confers the power on the government to impose a reasonable restriction to prevent Sovereignty, Integrity, Public Order and Morality of the state. 

Article 19(5)

The rights given under Article 19(1)(d) is regulated by reasonable restrictions given under Article 19(5). As per the power conferred by this Article, the state can restrict the given fundamental rights in the interest of General Public and for the protection of the interests of Scheduled Tribe (STs).  

Article 19(6)

Since the rights are given under Article 19 (1)(d) and Article 19(1)(e) are quite similar in nature and go hand in hand, so the reasonable restrictions for both are also same as mentioned in Article 19(5).6

Provisions for Holding A Protest Rally

Mere permission or License from the police officials are not sufficient to perform a protest rally, the people engaged in such rally have to keep in mind the following points:

  1. Usually, the protest becomes violent in nature and no longer remains peaceful and may be done for an illegal purpose. Therefore, special care must be taken to avoid illegality and violence.
  2. The protest must avoid Sedition and hatred speech for the state which may lead to incitement to an offence. The Protest that consists of armed men, becomes an illegal protest.
  3. The people involved in such protest have to be in compliance with the laws as may be prescribed by the State Government.7
  4. The legality of a protest is judged on the basis of peaceful nature and unarmed nature of the protest and whether it is complying with the laws to maintain the Public order or not.

Judicial Decisions on Right to Protest

Here are some Judicial Pronouncements given below, that enumerate, what is the meaning of ‘right to protest’ under the Constitution of India:

Ramlila Maidan Incident V. Home Secretary, Union of India & Ors.8

In this case, the Supreme Court of India held that the Citizens of India have the Fundamental Right to assemble and protest peacefully which cannot be taken away by the arbitrary actions of the executive and legislature.

Railway Board V. Niranjan Singh9

In this case, the Supreme Court, in this case, observed a limitation on one’s right to protest and stated that “Though citizens of India have the fundamental right to freedom of speech and express, freedom to assemble peacefully, freedom to form associations and unions but this rights cannot be exercised by intervening someone else’s property.”

Himmat Lal K Shah V. Commissioner of Police Ahmedabad10

In the case of Himmat Lal K Shah V. Commissioner of Police Ahmedabad, the Apex Court held that, unless there is a proper reason, the Police officials cannot refuse one’s right to protest. The only requirement may be a police permit if the respective state demands so.11

Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) And National Register Of Citizens (NRC) Protests

Recently, most of the state in India witnessed violent protest through which people were demanding from the government to rethink the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens (NRC) on the streets of different states.12 Though, states like- Delhi (at Jantar-Mantar) and Mumbai witnessed peaceful protests as well.

The protest went across at least 15 cities across India despite Strict bans and imposition of Section 144 (CrPC) in several areas. Marches and rallies were taking place across major cities such as the capital New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Chennai.  The Constitution provides the citizens with the right to protest peacefully but the Police action in Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia, where the police entered the university campus and employed force against students affected the whole nation and was severely criticized. So, whenever any protest takes place, and if it is non-violent in nature, the police need not take any action and in order to maintain law and public order, it is the duty of police officials to understand the feelings and sentiments of the crowd and to deal with it peacefully in order to reduce the violence.

Conclusion

In a democratic nation, the right to protest is a basis on which a democracy survives and the Constitution of India provides its citizens with the same with some reasonable restriction avoid the misuse of such right. The state has the power to impose restrictions but on a reasonable ground and the legislature cannot use such power for a purpose which is arbitrary in nature. The violence of CAA and NRC protests is the example of an imbalance between the right to protest and police actions. So, therefore in order to curtail such imbalance the citizens of India have to exercise their right to protest in such a manner by which the protests could be done peacefully and state authorities also have to understand that any power or force cannot be used on the general public involved a peaceful protest until and unless there is a need arises for such force.


  1. William Faulkner (1897-1962): American Writer: Nobel Prize (Literature) (1949) – Powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American Novel.
  2. The “right to protest”: Background paper – Article-19.
  3.  www.dailyo.in (Historic Protests in India).
  4. Indiankanoon- Article 19 of the Constitution of India, 1949.
  5. D.D Basu – Introduction to the Constitution of India (20th Edition Reprint 2011).
  6. Ipleaders Blog- “What permissions are needed to organize a protest rally.”
  7. Ipleaders Blog- “What permissions are needed to organize a protest rally.”
  8. 23-February-2012; Bench:  B.S Chauhan, Swatanter Kumar.
  9. AIR 1969 SCR (3) 548
  10. AIR 1973 SCR (2) 266
  11. Ipleaders Blog- “What permissions are needed to organize a protest rally.”
  12. The Hindu- “Right to Protest in a free society”

Prerna Jha from Trinity Institute of Professional Studies (Indraprastha University)

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