Acknowledging the right of farmers to protest but underlining that they “cannot sit in protest for years” and “have to talk and we will facilitate it”, the Supreme Court Thursday sought the Centre’s view on whether it can put on hold implementation of the new farm laws until the court decides on the issue.
“Can the executive assure that no action will be taken under the laws till we hear it?” the bench headed by Chief Justice of India asked Attorney General K K Venugopal while hearing a clutch of petitions seeking removal of farmers staging a sit-in at the borders of Delhi against the new farm laws.
Despite objections from Solicitor General Tushar Mehta that it would be impossible to give such an assurance to the court, Venugopal told the bench that he would discuss the issue with the government.
“This is to enable discussion. We are not staying the law,” the bench said. It also indicated it would set up an “independent and impartial committee to hear both sides” while a “non-violent protest” could continue.
“The committee’s finding will have to be followed. Meanwhile, the protest will continue in a non-violent fashion and cannot endanger life or property. You cannot instigate violence too by police,” the bench said in oral observations. Although the court did not pass any specific order, it said experts such as journalist P Sainath and agricultural unions like the Bharatiya Kisan Union (one of the factions is a petitioner) could be members of the committee.
Solicitor General Mehta submitted to the court that other farmer unions were not present in court and may not share the views of the BKU.
On Wednesday, the court had granted permission to implead in the matter the BKU-Rakesh Tikait, BKU-Sidhupur (Jagjeet S. Dallewal), BKU-Rajewal (Balbeer Singh Rajewal), BKU-Lakhowal (Harinder Singh Lakhowal), Jamhoori Kisan Sabha (Kulwant Singh Sandhu), BKU-Dakaunda (Buta Singh Burjgill), BKU-Doaba (Manjit Singh Rai) and Kul Hind Kisan Federation (Prem Singh Bhangu). But there was no representation from them Thursday.
As the Supreme Court is set to break for winter vacation, the CJI-led bench said it will ensure that the case is listed before a vacation bench for hearing.
“We will not decide the validity of the laws today. That can wait. The only thing we will decide today is regarding the farmers’ protest and a citizen’s fundamental right to free movement,” CJI Bobde said.
Senior Advocate Harish Salve, who appeared on behalf of a Delhi resident and for governments of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, said that the right to protest has to be balanced with the right to life.
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“Delhi has a population… which cannot sustain itself. Fruits and vegetables come from neighbouring states and prices will skyrocket if borders are restricted. The right to protest does not extend to denying other rights,” he said.
Salve also called for a fresh protocol while allowing protests that would include prior identification of the protesters so that they can be held accountable for damage to any life and property later.
“It is high time this court makes a declaration on the contours of the right to protest. Unions who organise large crowds should be held responsible for the acts of the crowds,” he said.
The CJI agreed that the right to protest cannot interfere with the rights of others and said the court would consult the Centre to see if the mode of protest can be altered.
“You have a right to protest which we are not going to interfere with. Carry on the protest, but the purpose of the protest must be to talk to someone. You cannot sit in protest for years. Farmers have to talk and we will facilitate it,” the CJI said.
“We are making it clear that we recognise the fundamental right to protest, and there is no question of balancing to curtail it. But it should not cause damage to anyone’s life,” he said.
Meanwhile, leaders of farmer unions announced they would be consulting four lawyers — Dushyant Dave, H S Phoolka, Prashant Bhushan and Colin Gonsalves — on the Supreme Court proceedings before making any comment or decision.
K V Biju of the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh, addressing a press conference Thursday evening at the Singhu border, said their unions are not yet a party to the petition in the Supreme Court.
“The farmer unions collectively held a meeting today. We have decided to discuss the developments in the Supreme Court with a legal team of Prashant Bhushan, Colin Gonsalves, Dushyant Dave and H S Phoolka… We do not want to make any comment without consulting them,” he said.
Phoolka confirmed that the four lawyers were in talks with the farmer leaders. “They (unions) have taken consent from all four of us and we have offered our services pro bono,” he said.