Post Mortem

Right to protest ain’t absolute

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 12/6/2020 12:59:24 PM IST

 Exactly 37 years ago, a unique legislation was passed by a parliament – perhaps the first of its kind in any part of the world – that sought to protect illegal immigrants. Yes, you heard that right, the law was meant to protect foreigners illegally entering and residing in a country. And that dubious record is held by none other than India. 

The reference here is to the infamous Assam-specific Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act – or IMDT Act – that was passed by Parliament in 1983 at the behest of Indira Gandhi-led Congress government, much against the wishes of the people of Assam. Having already borne the brunt of influx of immigrants from neighbouring East Bengal (which subsequently became East Pakistan before becoming Bangladesh) for long, the people of the State were naturally livid, especially coming at it did amidst the popular six-year Foreigners’ Movement. 

The Act was seen as a brazen attempt by Congress government at the Centre to provide protection to suspected illegal immigrants in the State as it provided for setting up of tribunals to determine the citizenship status of the suspected foreigners. What was also bizarre, and perhaps the most contentious point, was that the onus of proving one’s nationality or otherwise under the Act shifted to the complainant, not to the accused. This was seen as a deliberate attempt to legalise foreigners staying illegally in the State. And the fact that the IMDT Act was made specific to Assam only also drew widespread public ire as detection of foreigners in other States was done under the Foreigners Act. So, no wonder, detection and deportation of “foreigners” became well nigh impossible in Assam. The move was obviously made by the Congress to protect its minority votebank. 

There was naturally much disquiet in Assam and the move further alienated the people of Assam, besides helping fuel secessionist tendencies, leading to bloodbath for almost two decades thereafter. But, while carrying out protests, the people did not burn down cities or held any State or National Capital to ransom by marching in thousands or tried to bully the Parliament. They showed enough maturity and were wise enough to understand that being a legislation, unlike an executive decision that can sometimes be overturned by applying public pressure, it had to be countered legally. Then student leader and incumbent Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal subsequently filed a petition before the Supreme Court challenging its constitutionality and finally, after 22 long years, the apex court struck it down in 2005. And the rest is history. It’s a different matter though that the issue of foreigners is yet to be resolved and the subject still remains a hot potato in Assam. 

The reference to the now-scrapped IMDT Act here is to emphasise the point that India ain't any banana republic. There are always options available before citizens in this country to challenge any executive decision or legislation deemed not in public interest. One needn't hit the streets and cause public disorder. And this holds true in the backdrop of the violent anti-CAA protests witnessed in different parts of the country some months back and the ongoing farmers’ protest in the National Capital that is now threatening to spiral out of control with some political parties trying to fish in troubled waters. One is not going into the merits or otherwise of the Citizenship Amendment Act or the Farmers’ Bills, nor the Government’s culpability, if any, for allegedly not holding wide consultations with the stakeholders. 

However, the fact remains that a Bill, once passed by Parliament after being introduced by government of the day, becomes a law. It shouldn’t be confused with an executive decision that a government can be forced to roll back. And that’s definitely not how a functional democracy works, especially a parliamentary democracy where the parliament is supreme. The authority of parliament as an institution can’t be challenged and undermined. Individuals can obviously have grievances against a particular legislation, but that doesn’t mean that they can run amok and hold a country and its people to ransom. The aggrieved can always approach the court of law, if they feel that the Act has hurt them or has gone against the spirit and provisions of the constitution, besides initiating public debate and build a consensus. They can also always influence public representatives to support their demand and even bring down a government. That’s the power and beauty of democracy. But there’s a process for everything that will have to be followed.

Matters of public interest cannot be decided on streets through muscle-flexing. It can easily degenerate into anarchy and chaos. And mobocracy shouldn't be confused with democracy. But unfortunately, a section in this country today is hell-bent in trying to hard sell mobocracy as democracy, which is fraught with inherent dangers. What if tomorrow another bigger crowd hits the streets against some other law passed by the parliament? 

Yes, right to dissent and protest is a democratic right, but then it’s not absolute and definitely not a licence to spread anarchy and disrupt public order. Reason why the founding fathers of modern Indian State in all their wisdom decided to adopt a parliamentary form of democracy where public representatives reflect the voice of people and legislate on their behalf. It’s also to their credit that they made available politico-legal tools before the citizens to get their grievances redressed. This is of course not to undermine or reject protest as a tool to register public disapproval over something, but perhaps should be used more judiciously and may be as a last resort when all avenues are exhausted.  

Finally, democracy also makes it incumbent upon all to accept the fact that it runs by majority’s will. This fundamental of the democracy cannot be challenged or wished away simply because someone can’t have his or her way. And thankfully, never mind the naysayers; we are still a thriving democracy and the world’s largest one at that.

Anirban Choudhury, Guwahati


Launched on December 3,1990. Nagaland Post is the first and highest circulated newspaper of Nagaland state. Nagaland Post is also the first newspaper in Nagaland to be published in multi-colour.

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