During the course of JNU row many have contended in TV debates and online discussions that ordinary people in India do not have a right to protest a Supreme Court Decision. One anchor even asked a JNU student leader, ‘Do you think you know more than the Supreme Court judges that you could protest their decision?’
Most Indians tend to think that a protest against Supreme Court decision should not be allowed. However, in most mature democracies, including India, people have protested against Supreme Court decisions. There are many examples. But here I describe a notable one.
When Abraham Lincoln was the President, the US Government passed 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to US Constitution to emancipate Black people in that country, giving them equal rights. For about twenty years they enjoyed this freedom as equal citizens. However, a Supreme Court Decision (Plessy v. Ferguson 1896) reversed most of these amendments thereby creating Jim Crow laws that implemented ‘separate but equal’ doctrine. Blacks were segregated, lynched, and denied voting rights. Basically, the Black man was not treated as equal citizen.
It took major protests of 1950s and 1960s to reverse the Supreme Court decision of 1896. People came out in thousands to protest these laws. Martin Luther King is one of the leaders of this Civil Rights Movement.
The doctrine set forth in US in 1896 was eventually reversed by another Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Board of Education 1954) which later led to equal rights to Black people.
If we were to go about disallowing all protests against Supreme Court decisions, we would have missed out on giving equal rights to Black people in US.
In recent times in India, people came out onto streets to protest one more Supreme Court Decision that sought to criminalize homosexuality. Examples are abound where Supreme Court decisions were challenged in public forums and through protests on streets.
There is a strong reason why people should protest Supreme Court decision regarding Afzal Guru. The reason is clearly laid out in the Supreme Court verdict itself. It says (emphasis mine):
“As is the case with most of the conspiracies, there is and could be no direct evidence of the agreement amounting to criminal conspiracy. However, the circumstances, cumulatively weighed, would unerringly point to the collaboration of the accused Afzal with the slain ‘fidayeen’ terrorists”.
“The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”
Supreme Court admits there is ‘no direct evidence’, and that there was only circumstantial evidence. Next, it says it gave the death sentence to satisfy the collective conscience of the society. Now, that is quite troubling to some of us. When did we start giving out death sentences based on circumstantial evidence to satisfy the collective conscience of the society? Especially when death sentence is awarded in 'rarest of rare' cases? Isn’t the entire premise of modern legal system based on treating everyone the same without getting biased or prejudiced by who is protesting outside the courtroom?