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SC-appointed panel on farm laws issue: CJI objects to ‘name calling’ of expert panel

Farmer unions have refused to appear before the court-appointed committee, saying its members are in favour of the new laws.

Written by Ananthakrishnan G | New Delhi |
Updated: January 21, 2021 5:45:42 am
CJI S A Bobde

Taking serious objection to “name calling” and “branding” of members of the expert committee it constituted to resolve the standoff between farmer unions opposed to the new agriculture laws and the Centre, the Supreme Court Wednesday left it to the executive to decide the course of action on the proposed tractor rally by protesting farmers on January 26.

“How can you play with people’s reputation like this? We have serious objections to them being called biased and in saying that the court has an interest. You malign people according to majority opinion?… We don’t understand this. The Supreme Court appoints a committee and their reputation is torn to shreds,” Chief Justice of India S A Bobde, heading a bench also comprising Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, said as it heard a petition by the Kisan Mahapanchayat.

The bench issued notice over the Mahapanchayat’s plea that the committee be reconstituted in view of the recusal of one of its members and the stand of the members on the laws.

Farmer unions have refused to appear before the court-appointed committee, saying its members are in favour of the new laws.

Of the four members of the committee formed on January 12, one has opted out. Bhupinder Singh Mann, president of BKU (Mann) and chairman of All India Kisan Coordination Committee, recused himself from the panel on January 14. The other members of the committee are Shetkari Sanghatana president Anil Ghanwat and agricultural economists Parmod Kumar Joshi and Ashok Gulati.

Eight unions told the court that they will not appear before any committee as they do not want any amendments to the laws, but their total repeal.

The bench asked advocate Ajay Choudhary, who appeared for the Mahapanchayat, whether he only wanted replacement of Mann or reconstitution of the entire panel.

The counsel said that the other three members have expressed views backing the farm laws. The number of members in the committee must therefore be increased, he said, adding that those sitting in the committee should have open minds.

Responding to this, the CJI said aspersions were being cast without thinking twice. Mann, the CJI, said had called for amendments in the law. “You cannot brand people like this. People should have opinion. What people should have no opinion? Even judges express opinions. That doesn’t mean they can’t decide,” he said.

The bench said the committee has not been given any power to adjudicate and is only meant to listen to protesters and submit a report to the court. “Where is the question of bias in that? Somebody has expressed an opinion so you think there is bias. If you don’t want to appear, then don’t appear. But don’t brand people and malign them. And on top of that, you cast aspersions on the court,” the CJI said.

Chaudhary said committee members had expressed their views in leading newspapers.

Taking exception to this, the CJI asked the counsel whether the court decides on the basis of newspaper reports.

Chaudhary replied that their stance decides public opinion. The CJI told him that the court does not decide matters on the basis of public opinion.

Stating that public opinion is “important but not determinative” for the court, the CJI said if someone generates public opinion that maligns someone, then the court should not fall for it. “You play with people’s reputation without regard to anything,” he said.

The CJI told Choudhary that the basis of his application is that all four people in the committee are not qualified. “How do you come to that conclusion? They are brilliant minds in the field of agriculture. They are experts. You malign them just for opinions expressed in the past?” he said.

Every judge and lawyer, he said, may have expressed some opinion in the past and may be doing something different now. “Haven’t you seen opinions change when contrary points are heard?” he said.

Intervening, senior advocate Harish Salve, who is appearing for a Delhi resident seeking relief against the protests, said the impression that the court passed the order to appease one section needs to be set aside.

The court, he said, must clarify that the committee is only to assist it.

The CJI said the court has already done that.

Salve submitted that though lawyers understand this, newspaper reports and opinions are difficult to distinguish these days and a journalist’s opinion may not be reflective of public opinion.

The CJI then said that the purpose of appointing the expert committee in the field of agriculture was to listen to the grievances of parties affected by the laws and no adjudicatory powers have been given to it.

Turning to advocate Prashant Bhushan, who along with senior advocate Dushyant Dave appeared for eight farmer unions made respondents in the matter, the CJI asked what resolution can be found. The bench pointed out that merely saying they won’t appear before the committee will not help and asked him to counsel his clients to bring peace.

Bhushan said the unions are “convinced” that the laws needed to be repealed and so they did not want to go into the question of any amendment. He said they are saying the laws were passed without discussion.

The CJI said the court can also set aside a law and that the farm laws were not in force at the moment.

Bhushan submitted that the farmers “are trying to put democratic pressure” and “fear what happens if they get up and go away since laws are not in force now, and subsequently if the court concludes that the laws are constitutional and interim orders are withdrawn”.

When the bench said peace has to be maintained, Bhushan replied that farmers only want to celebrate Republic day on the Outer Ring Road in Delhi and there is no attempt to disrupt peace.

Attorney General K K Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, said 5000 tractors coming into the city cannot be managed and will go all over the city.

The bench said he should ask the authorities and unions how it is going to be peaceful, adding that these are matters purely in the domain of the executive.

The court remarked that it is trusting Bhushan’s statement that peace will prevail.

The Attorney General said that in Haryana, the Chief Minister’s meeting was disrupted by farmers.

Earlier, Venugopal urged the bench to consider the Centre’s application seeking an injunction against the proposed tractor rally by the protesters on Republic Day. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta asked if hearing on the matter could be advanced to January 25 to see how the situation evolves.

But the bench said it is not appropriate for it to act as a first authority to allow or disallow protesters. The court said it is an executive function, and an issue of law and order and of the police.

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