In Bengaluru, the police decide where and when you protest

For the past two years, a police order has restricted protests to one designated area in Bengaluru. Of late, events expressing solidarity with Palestine too have been shut down by the police, forcing organisers to cancel them or shift them online.
The Domestic Workers Rights Union in Bengaluru turned their protest into a letter campaign, as there are no restrictions on submitting letters to authorities
The Domestic Workers Rights Union in Bengaluru turned their protest into a letter campaign, as there are no restrictions on submitting letters to authorities
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On June 19, the Domestic Workers Rights Union in Bengaluru carried out a “application protest line” at the Labour Department office in Bengaluru. About 300 members of the Union gathered at the Labour Department office in Bengaluru with letters and applications for Smart Cards provided to unorganised sector workers to make a statement on the occasion of International Domestic Workers’ Day, June 16.

The Union came up with this plan to circumvent a government order (GO) that bans protests in any part of Bengaluru except for Freedom Park under the Licencing and Regulation of Protests, Demonstrations and Protest Marches (Bengaluru city) Order 2021. 

“The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) says that we cannot protest anywhere except Freedom Park, so this is our way of protesting. They mock us by saying we can’t protest. So we changed the way we protest to make our voices heard. They say go to Freedom Park, but we have to say something to the Labour Commissioner and this is how we will do it. We have the democratic right to give a letter,” says Geetha Menon, a member of the Union.

Ever since the GO was notified in the gazette on January 10, 2022, the police have denied permission to hold rallies and protests, including the annual May Day rally and Pride March. 

When people tried to hold the relevant authorities accountable for grievances, the police responded with arrests and FIRs. On at least two occasions, the police assaulted protesters. Activists also held demonstrations demanding the right to protest and the withdrawal of the GO.

Thou shalt not protest

According to data compiled by the Bengaluru chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the city police have registered around a dozen FIRs based on the order. These include farmers in Devanahalli who are protesting acquisition of farmland, residents of Malleswaram who were booked for organising a silent march against the Sankey Tank flyover project, groups protesting against internal reservation, and a Palestine solidarity event on MG Road. 

The latest crackdown on an event that was not a protest came six months after Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said that the state government would not do anything to prevent or stop any activity that is in line with “the core inspiration of the Constitution”.

The Pulakeshi Nagar police turned up at an event in Frazer Town on June 2, where around 25 people had gathered to raise awareness about the ongoing genocide in Palestine. The group was drinking tea at around 4 pm and had not even begun talking to people when the police turned up and roughed them up, manhandled some of the women, and assaulted two people. 

Later that evening, they registered two first information reports (FIR). One FIR booked 14 people for violation of a GO, public nuisance, and obstruction to public. The second FIR booked four people for insulting someone to instigate them to commit an offence, causing harm to deter public servants from discharging their duties, and assaulting public officials to prevent them from discharging their duties.

Aratrika, a member of the All India Students Association (AISA), was booked in one case. She says that the police’s actions were excessive. “Even after the GO came into effect, AISA had campaigned all over the city as part of our monthly activities, including distributing pamphlets outside colleges. This time, we weren’t even doing that. What the police did was shocking and how it escalated so quickly was unexpected.”

A few days after the incident, civil society groups submitted a memorandum to Deputy Commissioner of Police (East), stating that the police action was excessive as the event was to create awareness and did not fall under the definition of “protest” under the GO. The memorandum also said that the group did not need permission under the Licencing and Controlling of Assemblies and Public Processions (Bengaluru City) Order 2009, as the gathering had less than 250 people. 

Deputy Commissioner of Police (East) D Devaraja could not be reached for a comment despite multiple attempts.

Other events expressing solidarity with Palestine too have been shut down by the police. Some had to be cancelled or shifted online. 

In November 2023, the police forced organisers to cancel a cultural event at Ranga Shankara in support of Palestinians, at which famed singer MD Pallavi was to perform. The jurisdictional officer had claimed that “a few people” had expressed concern about such events, but refused to say who they were and what their concerns were. 

Bengaluru Police Commissioner B Dayananda had said in October 2023 that the Karnataka Police had taken a decision not to allow any protests on the Israel-Palestine issue. The Hindu quoted a senior police officer who said that the decision was taken as Hindutva groups had sought permission to hold protests in support of Israel. 

The ordeal of those booked for protesting

While activists have been demanding the withdrawal of cases filed against protesters, the only instance in which this has happened is the filing of closure report in the Malleswaram skywalk protest. But in most cases, those booked have to deal with legal proceedings.

Pramod Kumar, a 33-year-old farmer, went to the local court in Devanahalli for his first hearing on April 5. “We had to stand there with our hands clasped like criminals,” Pramod said. 

He and 71 others were booked for protesting the acquisition of farmland in 13 villages in Devanahalli on the outskirts of Bengaluru. The Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Board has initiated the process to acquire 1,777 acres for the Harlur Industrial Area. 

The case was registered on August 15 under sections relating to causing public obstruction, public nuisance, and continuing public nuisance when they tried to get the attention of the then district in-charge minister K Sudhakar. 

The farmers have now been demonstrating for 806 days since April 4, 2022. Each day, about 20 people sit in protest in a tent outside the Revenue Department office in Channarayapatna Hobli of Devanahalli taluk. About five people sleep there each night. 

In 2022, on the night of August 14, Independence Day eve, the police allegedly assaulted the protesters while attempting to arrest them. Pramod describes the assault: “They had cut the power, so it was dark. They surrounded us as if we were terrorists. When we asked them to come back in the morning, they beat us. I couldn’t see anything because it was dark. During the violence, my eye was injured.” 

Pramod had to undergo two surgeries, but his vision is still blurred. “The doctors said the damage is permanent.” He had lodged a complaint with the Devanahalli station, but the police did not register an FIR. He doesn’t know what action the police took on his complaint.

Protests and partial victories

The manner in which the GO preventing protests was issued is interesting. In March 2021, the Karnataka High Court heard a suo motu writ petition about the inconvenience caused to the public by processions and rallies. 

The then Bengaluru Police Commissioner Kamal Pant issued the order in December 2021 while the case was being heard. It came into force on January 10, 2022. 

In April 2022, the High Court allowed the annual Karaga festival to be held, but did not permit the annual May Day rally and Pride March. The High Court disposed of the writ petition in August 2022 directing the state government and city police to ensure compliance of the order. 

A senior minister told TNM that when the judiciary takes up an issue suo motu, officials tend to take it seriously. “The Police Commissioner was likely to have issued the order influenced by that [even though the final order was not passed]. It may also have been done because an order restricting protests to a designated area would be convenient [for the police].” The order was issued during the previous BJP government’s tenure. 

Restricting protests to Freedom Park may be convenient for the police, but being forced to protest in a corner of the city, away from the context of the grievances, renders protest meaningless, activists say. 

PUCL is studying the impact of protests in society by talking to people who have been activists for 20-25 years. “Protests are important and they have very real consequences. When people gather in large numbers, they are able to achieve things that have a direct impact on their lives,” she says.

Public outrage in a number of instances has effected change in laws and policy, one of the most recent examples being the farmers’ protest in Delhi that lasted several weeks and ultimately forced the Union government to withdraw the unpopular Farm Laws. At the local level too, protests translate into tangible gains. 

Nirmala, a member of the CPI(ML), has built the BBMP Powrakarmikara Sangha, a union of civic workers over many years. “Powrakarmikas can achieve nothing without reading and understanding the laws, and then campaigning with the authorities. The 2017 protest was very important for what we achieved.”

In 2017, the Powrakarmikara Sangha protested round the clock for four days in Banappa Park demanding that the BBMP transfer salaries directly into the bank accounts of workers and not make payments through contractors. Although the BBMP only made it applicable to municipal sweepers and not all powrakarmikas, Nirmala counts it as a win because 15,000 women, mostly from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who work as sweepers now receive their salaries directly in their bank accounts. 

Nirmala said that powrakarmikas’ grievances could be addressed only by BBMP officials. “If they make us go to Freedom Park, which BBMP official will come there? We want the order withdrawn,” she says.

Pramod too questions the logic of protesting in a designated area. “When it’s a local issue, we have to protest locally. Who will ask us what our troubles are if we are in Freedom Park?” Devanahalli is 37 km away from Bengaluru but it falls under the city police limits. Pramod says the law had no place in a democratic country. “When we have a Constitution, when this is a democratic country, why do they jail us when we ask for our rights? We make politicians elected representatives. It is very painful when they do this to us.”

Aishwarya R, General Secretary of PUCL Bengaluru, said that it is important for protests to be visible. “We aren’t opposed to the process of obtaining police permission. When there is a murder, 20 people can’t gather at Freedom Park to hold candles where no one can see them. The point is to inform and educate people and say, ‘Open your eyes’.”

Surveillance city

Activists say that the order is disturbing, but not just because its logic is flawed. They say it has emboldened the police to go beyond their jurisdiction to the extent of preventing awareness meetings, indoor gatherings, and in one instance, even swooping in on a private memorial held for a deceased person. 

“This is part of a nation-wide culture of cracking down on protest and dissent that is threatening to the state. The police have been calling organisers of even indoor events and asking things like, ‘Are Muslims coming?’ Once, the police turned up at a memorial event we held for a member of Bahutva Karnataka who had passed away. We had to call a senior officer to get them to leave. This is the nature of restrictions we are living under right now,” said Aishwarya from PUCL.

In November 2023, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah stated that the government would consider withdrawing the order that bans protests anywhere in the state capital except Freedom Park. Seven months after that announcement, the Congress government appears to have made no move to repeal it. Home Minister G Parameshwara did not respond when asked whether the government had taken steps to withdraw the order.

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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