Ever since Justice Amitava Lala of the Calcutta High Court restricted political rallies and processions to select venues on holidays and weekends, and banned them between 8 am and 8 pm on Calcutta's streets, the political class in West Bengal has been up in arms against the judiciary. Justice Lala's 'experimental measures' were seen as a travesty of fundamental democratic rights. Trade unions shouted themselves hoarse against it. A series of protest rallies were on the cards when a division bench ordered a stay on the directives. It has urged the state to indicate its position by the third week of November.
Calcutta has already been burdened with 610 marches this year. Add to that countless political meetings, often five or six a day, and one realises why the average citizen sees a lot of sense in the court's directive. The business chambers, working professionals and common people, fed up with being left stranded by marches and meetings, welcomed Lala's judgement. The judge had incidentally initiated a suo motu case after he was held up by a procession of tribals.
Ironically, a rally planned by party-backed unions to protest the judge's order on October 14 only served to drive home the point. All traffic came to a grinding halt in the city's central parts. Many missed their flights and trains. And a six-month-old baby died because she could not be taken to hospital in time.
To be sure, all political parties have expressed sympathy for the common people. But they qualify this saying people had to learn to live with rallies. The Trinamul Congress and Congress protested, harping on the fundamental right of peaceful assembly. Left Front chairman Biman Bose went a step further. "We cannot accept such directives from the court and we will not obey them. If necessary, we will go to jail," he said. For good measure, he suggested men like Lala should leave Calcutta. Only the BJP was supportive of the judge's order and held a rally after 8 pm.
The trade unions were the most vociferous in their protest. In fact, it became open season against the judiciary. Said CITU leader Chittabrata Majumdar: "If no processions or rallies are allowed, retrenched workers and jobless people will march to the courts for justice."
Was Justice Lala too severe? There is one view that peaceful protests must be encouraged. Says columnist Charubrata Ray: "If you ban demonstrations, people lose faith in the system and turn to extra-parliamentary or underground tactics, leading to violence and self-destruction. After all, 74,00,000 workers have lost their jobs under the nda rule in India. What happens if these people are not even allowed to demonstrate?"
However, not many buy this argument. "It is suicidal to have marches and meetings in Calcutta, where road space accounts for only 6 per cent of the area, as against 20-25 per cent in Delhi or Mumbai," said singer Kabir Suman on a TV show. Most viewers phoning in agreed. Asks BJP leader Arun Gupta: "If parties have the right to hold marches, then what about millions of people who outnumber party workers? Have they no right to move about freely on the roads? What about their fundamental rights?"
Top Left Front leaders are divided. Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has stressed that common people should be spared any distress caused by frequent political programmes. CPI(M) state secretary Anil Biswas agrees, clarifying that the Left has nothing against the judiciary or individual judges.
The last word has not been heard on the subject. Right now the government is striving hard to find a solution that will satisfy the court, the common citizens and the armies of political cadre.
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