SC ‘Extremely Disappointed’ With Centre on Farmers’ Protests: CJI
The court is hearing several petitions regarding the farmers’ protests on the borders of Delhi.
Chief Justice of India SA Bobde on Monday, 11 January, said the court was “extremely disappointed” with the Centre over its approach to the farmers protests, and reiterated its intent to form an expert committee to examine the concerns raised by farmers against the Centre’s controversial farm laws.
The court will pass an interim order regarding a stay on the implementation of the farm laws on Tuesday, 12 January, when the case has been listed next.
“We don’t know what consultation was done before the enactment of these laws,” the CJI said during the hearing, adding that a “whole state was up in arms.”
The CJI castigated the central government for keeping on saying it was engaged with discussions with the farmers – Attorney General KK Venugopal said new talks were scheduled for 15 January during this hearing as well – and yet was not engaging with the farmers.
“If there is some sense of responsibility, you can show this now by saying that there will be no implementation of the laws,” CJI Bobde suggested, saying “We don’t see why there should be insistence on implementation of the laws at all costs.”
The Chief Justice added that if the Centre was not willing to stay the implementation of the laws themselves, the apex court would do so, which would allow better negotiations with the farmers and ensure the expert committee set up by the court could properly address the concerns over the law.
Arguments in the Court
The apex court was hearing a batch of petitions related to the farmers’ protests at the borders of Delhi, including some seeking immediate removal of the protesting farmers (citing the court’s own Shaheen Bagh judgment and COVID concerns) as well as other petitions which have been filed challenging the legality of the farm laws.
CJI Bobde had previously also suggested that an expert committee could be set up to properly hear and weigh the farmers’ concerns, whose report can then be reviewed by the apex court when deciding what actions can be taken. “Our intention is to see if we can bring about an amicable solution to the problem. That's why we asked you if you can put your laws on hold,” the CJI said.
Before getting to that stage, the CJI went on to criticise the way in which the court was being dragged into the row, with parties including the government saying the court would do this or that.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued that the farm laws had been implemented in the rest of the country, and that apart from the farmers at the protest sites, other farmers in the country, and the “vast majority” of the country supported the laws. CJI Bobde responded that the expert committee could be told if the vast majority of the country wants the laws or not.
The CJI noted that there were so many old people, women and children present at these protests in the cold, they wouldn’t be there for no reason, and also noted the suicides taking place at the protest sites to say that the matter was only getting worse with the government’s current approach.
He also at multiple times made it clear that the court was not going to stop the protests. “We are not stopping the protests, we don’t want any reports that the court is curbing the right to protest,” he clarified. If the laws were stayed, he suggested, then a request can then be made to the protesters to consider a move to different sites to accommodate any inconvenient citizens.
The Chief Justice also pointed out that the court and the government couldn’t just wait around here as there is always a chance that if there was a stray incident at one of the protest sites, there could then be violence or bloodshed which they would then be responsible for.
Senior advocates Harish Salve, representing one of the parties asking for moving of the people at the protest sites, argued that the protests should take place according to guidelines on the right to protest previously laid down by the Supreme Court in the Shaheen Bagh judgment and others. The CJI refused this, saying that “Nobody reads a judgment and launches a protest.”
Attorney General KK Venugopal, representing the Centre, argued that the apex court couldn’t stay laws passed by Parliament except in limited circumstances. He also claimed that the farmers were planning to disrupt the Republic Day parade on 26 January with around 2,000 tractors.
The CJI expressed his skepticism over this claim, and senior advocate Dushyant Dave (one of four senior lawyers representing several of the farmer unions involved in the protests) also strongly contested this, saying there was no intention in any of the statements about the tractor rally about disrupting the parade. He noted that most of the farmers from Punjab had at least one member of their families in the armed forces.
Dave also raised the issue of the way the farm laws were passed in the Rajya Sabha by a voice vote. “It is one thing for government to say don’t use muscle power on the streets, but the way the laws were passed by voice vote in Rajya Sabha was disgraceful,” he said.
Salve sought to get the court to demand assurances from the farmers that if the implementation of the farm laws was stayed, they would be willing to cooperate with the expert committee, and also ideally be willing to move to a different protest site.
Dave and the other senior lawyers representing the protesting farmers – Prashant Bhushan, HS Phoolka and Colin Gonsalves – said they would communicate the message, but that they would need to get instructions from their clients about whether they could agree to these conditions.
When the AG and SG tried once again to urge the court against passing a stay, the CJI once again expressed his displeasure at the government’s approach, saying:
“We do not believe that you’re handling it correctly. We have to take some action today, We do not believe that you are being effective.”
Eventually, the judges said they would pass a part order, and asked the lawyers for the farmers’ unions to consult with them whether they would be willing to take part in the expert committee’s deliberations.
The CJI also made a request for women, children and elderly people to return from the protest sites for their health, though he stressed this was not an order.
Farmers-Govt Talks on Farm Laws
While the farmers have insisted on the repeal of the three laws passed in September, the Centre has not been willing to offer anything beyond amendments to the laws.
The government has posited the contentious laws as much-needed reforms in the agricultural sector that will give farmers more freedom to sell their produce. However, protesting farmers have argued that this will lead to the dismantling of the MSP system and prioritise corporate interests.
The Centre is scheduled to hold the ninth round of talks over farm laws on 15 January with farmer union leaders.
Since November 26, thousands of farmers have been protesting against the three farm laws – Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 – at the borders of the national capital.
Earlier, on 17 December 2019, the top court allowed the agitation to continue "without impediment", citing the right to protest as a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution. The apex court had also recommended the Centre and farm unions engage in consultation to come forward with an amicable solution.
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