BBMP resolution on protests outside Bengaluru's Town Hall aimed to delegitimise people's right to be seen, heard in public

The BBMP resolution seeking to ban protests outside the iconic Puttanna Chetty Town Hall in Bengaluru shows that blocking traffic has somehow become an enough threat to 'public order' the state’s understanding to qualify as a reasonable restriction to the fundamental right to free speech and expression

Anindita Mukherjee March 03, 2020 17:49:33 IST
BBMP resolution on protests outside Bengaluru's Town Hall aimed to delegitimise people's right to be seen, heard in public
  • ​The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) Council resolved, on Saturday, to ban protests outside the iconic Puttanna Chetty Town Hall

  • With this BBMP resolution, what we are witnessing is the increased property-fication of public space. The state decides who constitutes the public, to whom the space is accessible; needless to say, those protesting against it do not pass muster

  • Across the country, individuals have been detained for a range of actions: drawing kolams, standing alone with a placard, looking like they might be heading for a protest for which permission has been withdrawn, for simply standing — none of which is inconvenient, except for their message

  • Blocking traffic has somehow become a threat to ‘public order’, enough in the state’s understanding to qualify as a reasonable restriction to the fundamental right to free speech and expression

  • The point of a protest is for a claim to be heard. If protests are relegated to little corners, then the claim is heard by those who likely already agree with it

​The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) Council resolved, on Saturday, to ban protests outside the iconic Puttanna Chetty Town Hall. The resolution was passed without any debate by a simple majority of the council. The matter is said to have caught non-BJP councillors by surprise.

The reasons cited for the move by Mayor Goutham Kumar and echoed by the commissioner of the BBMP are a loss of rental revenue as a consequence of daily protests outside the Town Hall and traffic snarls caused by protests at the heart of the city. Those who oppose the resolution allege that the reasons are a smokescreen for a clampdown on protests against the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register for Citizens (NRC) at a prominent location.

BBMP resolution on protests outside Bengalurus Town Hall aimed to delegitimise peoples right to be seen heard in public

The BBMP resolved on Saturday to ban protests outside the iconic Puttanna Chetty Town Hall. Twitter@srivatsayb

There are, of course, the obvious factual questions that emerge. It is claimed that the Town Hall was booked 88 times in the Financial Year 2018-19, but was reserved only 58 times in the current financial year. It is not clear from the available data whether the slump in numbers correlates to increased protest gatherings outside the Town Hall. In the absence of a clear correlation, the argument for the ban falls. Secondly, the BBMP is empowered to disallow protests within the Town Hall, but does it have the power to instruct the police to refuse permits for protests outside its property, a quintessential public place? Surely, the only reasonable request would be to seek a cordoned off entry, so that those who wish to enter the Town Hall have a route to do so?

That said, there are also several fundamental issues that this resolution pushes us to confront, regardless of the legitimacy or legality of the BBMP’s actions. These are to do with the nature of public spaces and the purpose of peoples’ protests.

Theoretically, to use the words of urban studies academics Renia Ehrenfeucht and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, ‘publicness’ can be understood as “the extent to which people have access (to a space) without asking permission.” With the insistence of police permits for the smallest of protests, the arbitrary detention of even single individuals bearing placards or 'looking' like they’re protesting and, now, this BBMP resolution, what we are witnessing is the increased property-fication of public space. In the dominant imagination, streets, plazas, sidewalks are no longer common spaces for all. They are spaces owned by the state, which can then determine who is permitted to access them and on what terms. In other words, the state decides who constitutes the public, to whom the space is accessible; needless to say, those protesting against it do not pass muster.

Who is this acceptable public? The mayor of Bengaluru was quoted saying, about the Town Hall, “The place has some sanctity that needs to be maintained. Of late, many protests are being held there and this has also led to many traffic jams."

Thousands of others, over the past few months, have complained of traffic problems caused by people’s protests. The city, it seems, is meant for cars; associations of people that block cars besmirch its 'sanctity'.

This disgust towards people being visible in public spaces is not new. Noted modernist planner Le Corbusier imagined the street as "a machine for traffic" devoid of humans. He famously said, “A city made for speed is made for success." Most cities, in their everyday functioning, resist this totalitarian imagination; streets bustle with commerce, people jostle about and machines are only one part of the picture. Yet, the image remains; the car-using/owning public has a legitimate claim to public space, all others occupy or encroach. Blocking traffic has somehow become a threat to ‘public order’, enough in the state’s understanding to qualify as a reasonable restriction to the fundamental right to free speech and expression.

There is a lie in the discourse about convenience and traffic that becomes apparent if one switches focus from the issue of police permits to that of police detentions. Across the country, individuals have been detained for a range of actions: drawing kolams, standing alone with a placard, looking like they might be heading for a protest for which permission has been withdrawn, for simply standing — none of which is inconvenient, except for their message. At one level, one can simply rue this as the brute power of the state in action. But, at its core, these actions seem to add up to the assertion that if you protest against a state decision and choose to be visible, you are no longer part of the law’s public, no longer a legitimate claimant of rights or protection.

This ties in neatly with what seems to be the elected officials' understanding of the purpose of protest. The BBMP commissioner reassured those wanting to protest, that the parking lot at Freedom Park would be completed in two months and would be able to host 560 vehicles and 5,000 people (inadvertently speaking of a protest site as though it is a sports stadium or an auditorium). Protests thereafter are to be held at Freedom Park or Maurya Circle only. In New Delhi there’s Jantar Mantar, in Hyderabad it’s Dharna Chowk. The creation of these pressure-venting spaces, in order to keep the rest of the city unsullied, indicates a deeply worrisome trend in governments’ response to protests.

The point of a protest is for a claim to be heard. If protests are relegated to little corners, then the claim is heard by those who likely already agree with it. A protest is not meant to be convenient or tame, it is meant to inconvenience holders of power to push them to engage with an issue. If the state wishes to dispel a protest, it has two routes: to engage with the claims being made or to use force. The fact that we are only seeing the latter on display today indicates a rot in democratic conversation between a people and its representatives.

The protests that have rocked the country since December resist the dominant narrative of exclusion, and the relentless division of the public into those who belong and those who do not. They are protests for the democratisation of space and the democratisation of institutions that, unfortunately, seem to believe that people’s voices end at the ballot. May they succeed in broadening our imagination of an inclusive public: one that is seen, speaks, and is heard.​

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