On June 7th, the central administration introduced the Agnipath scheme. Through the scheme, the government aims to deploy younger and fitter troops in the military. The programme is a military method of recruitment for individuals who are aiming for a rank below the rank of officer. Men and women between the ages of 17.5 and 21 can apply through a centralised online platform under this arrangement. After qualifying, the Agniveers will be required to serve in the armed forces for four years. Only the most capable 25% of the Agniveers will be maintained in the military’s regular cadre once the project is completed. The programme, however, has not been well received by the general public, and massive protests have erupted in several parts of the country. The demonstrators believe that the impugned Agnipath scheme is extremely radical because it reduces the term of service from 15 years to only 4 years which renders the future of Agniveers in jeopardy, albeit the country’s rising unemployment rate.
RIGHT TO PROTEST AND ITS LIMIT
The Indian Constitution empowers Indian citizens to protest under Article 19(1). Conversely, under Articles 19(2), 19(3), and 19(4), the rights are bound to certain legitimate constraints, therefore they only apply to “peaceful” protests. The same should be deduced from Article 51-A of the Indian Constitution, which states that the citizens of India are responsible for safeguarding public property, preserving the environment, and preserving the composite culture. The supreme court, in Amit Sahni v. Commissioner of Police & Ors. has opined that the protection of the public property is of prime importance. “Public places cannot be occupied indefinitely. Dissent and democracy go hand in hand but protests must be carried out in designated areas… Such kind of occupation of public place for protests is not acceptable.” Infringement of these restrictions is criminal offences under Chapter VIII (Offences against public tranquillity) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC).
The government authorities including police officers and district magistrates have conferred a wide array of power under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, to ensure that public assemblies, protests, and dharnas are peaceful and do not become “unlawful”. Also, the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984 holds liable anyone “who commits mischief by doing any act in respect of any public property”.
WHO BEARS THE COST?
In the past few days, the protests against the Agnipath scheme have devolved into a mob or riot-like atmosphere. The violent protests, according to railway officials, have caused the destruction of property worth Rs. 200 Crore, as well as damage to about 50 train carriages and five engines. In the Jaunpur district of Uttar Pradesh, inebriated protestors set fire to police vehicles such as police buses and police jeeps. Incidents of stone pelting by the protestors at the policemen have been reported in the district of Jehanabad, Bihar. A train was ablaze on in Secunderabad killing one person and injuring several others.
Justice Sudhir Agarwal, in Mohammad Shujauddin v. the State of UP, gave stringent guidelines for recovering loss of damaged public property and suggested that violators themselves should compensate for the damage caused. “It appears that everybody believes that public property has no custodian. It is like an orphan. It is the birthright to destruct and damage it in a manner they like without any sense of responsibility… What is more disturbing is that law enforcement machinery mostly is a silent spectator watching the destruction of public property.” The Supreme Court established two committees in 2007: the KT Thomas Committee and the Fali Nariman Committee.
The Justice KT Thomas Committee suggested that the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act of 1984 be amended to include a rebuttable presumption which would be presuming that the accused is guilty of the offence. It also emphasized that the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act should include a stipulation holding leaders of organizations that aid and abet the offence liable. The Nariman committee has made various recommendations on who should be held accountable for the damage to public property. When individuals, whether individually or collectively, are involved in a protest or organised the protest that turns violent and causes damage to private or public property, the individuals should be held strictly liable for the damage caused. The committee also suggested that the ordinary courts or any special enforcement authority created for this very purpose could assess the amount of the damage.
In the case of Re: Destruction of Public & Private Properties v. State of A.P. and Ors., the recommendations made by the committees were accepted by the Supreme Court and guidelines for recovery of damage to public property were stipulated. “Public property is nothing but the investment of people’s money, i.e., money spent by the Government from the funds it has collected in the form of taxes out of hard-earned money of the citizens and people of India. Such funds cannot be allowed to be vested without corresponding liability of the person(s) responsible for such damage.”
The vacation bench of the Supreme Court has already received a petition demanding a SIT investigation into the violence that occurred during the demonstration against the Agnipath scheme, a response is awaited.
Author’s Name: Parmi Banker (National Law University, Delhi)