Madras Week | A long history of Section 144 in the city

Wherever we go, there it is. The COVID-19 pandemic has overwritten several scripts, laid to waste the plans of all. And this year, as the city celebrates Madras Day, in commemoration of a pact inked 382 years ago, it makes sense to anchor the overarching theme to the disruptions a pandemic causes. For a week, these columns will open a window to the past to examine aspects of the city that are in some way connected to such disruptions. While Madras Day events are low key and the usual pomp and frenetic activity that Chennaiites see during this week in August are missing, people have taken the online route, as with most things these past couple of years. For Chennai is still a city that its residents love, and harking back to its connect with good ol’ Madras is an annual ritual that has come to stay

It is only in the last month or so that limited public gatherings have resumed in the city. The State imposed the restrictions on the movement of people to stop the spread of COVID-19. It may well be the longest stretch of lockdown the city has ever witnessed. But there were lockdowns imposed for non-medical reasons, such as maintenance of law and order and wars.

Curfews and prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure are the usual tools for the administration to ensure peace and quell protests. One of the earliest occasions when the city went under prohibitory orders (Section 144) was in 1928 when the Simon Commission was visiting. The archives of The Hindu reveal that the then Chief Presidency Magistrate, based on an application from the Assistant Commissioner, Police Headquarters, Madras City, invoked the Section on the seventh day of February 1928 to maintain public peace and prevent riots and disturbances that would mar public tranquillity.

“I do hereby order you to abstain from this date for one month from convening or addressing any meeting within the city of Madras with object of advocating or furthering hartal or suspension in connection with the visit of the Simon Commission; attending, directing or organising any procession or other demonstrations with the above object; engaging, leading or organising volunteers with the above object; publishing leaflets, posters or other propaganda with the above object; causing or inciting others to do any of the acts which you are hereby ordered yourself to abstain from,” the order read. The copies were served on leaders, including S. Satymurti, Sami Venkatchalam Chettti and Yakub Hussain.

The Hindu report said the police in various divisions gave wide publicity to the order. Constables were deployed across the city to beat the “tom tom” and ask people not to participate in the hartal.

In August 1940, K. Kamaraj, president of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, was served with an order by Hume, Commissioner of Police, Madras, drawing his attention to the Defence of India Rules issued by the Home Department, Central Government, prohibiting parades and flag hoisting in a military fashion, and wearing of uniform resembling that of the police or the Army, saying these orders were enforced in the city.

Prohibitory orders were widely used during the anti-Hindi agitations in 1965 and the Emergency in 1975, former police officers recalled. In November 1990, the then Police Commissioner, K.K. Rajasekharan Nair, promulgated an order under Section 41 of the City Police Act, prohibiting processions, demonstrations and assemblies without police permission for 15 days. The order was issued, in anticipation of the Ram Rath Yatra, to maintain public peace and tranquillity in the context of a few developments that were likely to take place, leading to communal unrest.

Among the reasons cited were the split in the Janata Dal and the plan of the Sri Ram Kar Seva Samiti to take out processions of the ashes of ‘kar sevaks’ killed in police firing at Ayodhya. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, a similar order was issued. Since then, the City Police Commissioners have used this Section frequently. In 1991, the Army was called out and a curfew was imposed in several towns as mob violence broke out after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Former Director-General of Police R. Nataraj said curfews or prohibitory orders were imposed to regulate public gatherings and maintain order. “The basic function of the police is maintenance of law and order, prevention of crime and collection of information as per the Police Act. The police have both regulatory and preventive powers. Under Section 41 of the City Police Act, the police regulate public gatherings, saying more than five people cannot gather without police permission. These acts are for meant only for prevention. When the situation went out of control, as it did during the anti-Hindi agitation in 1965, there was police firing. At that time, the prohibitory order under Section 144 was clamped widely.”

Mr. Nataraj recalled that during the Vinayaka Chaturthi procession in 1990, there was police firing, in which four persons died. “After the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai and the 1998 Coimbatore bomb blasts, we had disturbances in the city. However, during the 2005 serial blasts in Delhi, Chennai remained largely calm because of our regulatory order. Again in 2008, after the Mumbai terror attacks, at every stage we enforced prohibitory orders.”

The prohibitory order was issued in George Town after the police and lawyers clashed on the High Court premises on February 19, 2009. In January 2017, the Marina was closed for weeks with a prohibitory order issued by the then Commissioner S. George. The police said the closure was required after social media messages went viral, urging people to congregate there for the pro-Jallikattu protests.

Under Section 144 and based on health measures, a lockdown has been enforced since March 2020 to control the spread of COVID-19. The then City Police Commissioner, A.K. Viswanathan, was the first to promulgate the order.

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