Acknowledging the right of farmers to hold non-violent protests, the Supreme Court on Thursday suggested that the Centre put implementation of the new farm laws on hold while putting forward the idea of constituting an impartial and independent committee, which may include experts like P Sainath, to end the impasse. The Centre said farmers would not come forward for negotiations if implementation of farm laws was put on hold.
Heading a three-judge bench hearing a clutch of petitions seeking removal of farmers protesting at the borders of Delhi, Chief Justice of India S A Bobde said it would order for serving of notices to protesting farmer unions and give them liberty to approach the vacation bench.
“A protest is constitutional till it does not destroy property or endanger life. Centre and farmers have to talk. We are thinking of an impartial and independent committee before whom both parties can give its side of story,” the CJI said.
The top court said the purpose of staging a protest can be achieved if the farmers and the government hold talks and “we wish to facilitate that”. “We will not decide the validity of law today. The only thing which we will decide is the issue of protest and the right to move freely,” the bench made clear at the outset of the hearing.
The petitioners contended that roads had been blocked by the protesters and border points closed, thereby adversely impacting vehicular traffic. This, they said, was causing hardship to people, including Covid-19 patients, from accessing emergency medical services.
The bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, said farmers cannot instigate violence and block a city like this. The court said it would ask the Centre if the manner of protest could be slightly altered so that it doesn’t affect the citizens’ right of movement.
“Farmers have right to protest. We won’t interfere with it but the manner of protest is something we will look into. We will ask Centre what is the manner of protest going on, to slightly alter it so that it doesn’t affect the citizens’ right of movement,” the Supreme Court said.
Appearing for the government, Attorney General KK Venugopal said, “None of them (farmers) wear a face mask, they sit together in large numbers. Covid-19 is a concern, they will visit villages and spread it there. Farmers cannot violate the fundamental rights of others.”
“Blocking Delhi may lead to people in the city going hungry. Your (farmers) purpose can be fulfilled by talking. Just sitting in protest won’t help,” CJI said, adding that the court only wishes to facilitate a dialogue between the government and farmers.
Appearing for the Punjab government, senior advocate and Congress leader P Chidambaram said the farmers were not blocking the city borders and only wanted to come to the national capital to protest within the limits of law.
To this, the CJI said the court cannot predict which mob can become violent and it was the police’s job. “We cannot jeopardize someone’s life or property,” the CJI said. “This is not a mob, this is a large group of farmers,” Chidambaram protested. To this, the CJI said, “We are not calling them a mob.”
The ongoing protests, which is now in its third week, have seen thousands of farmers, primarily from Punjab and Haryana, gathering at the capital’s doorstep.
The farmers have expressed apprehension that these laws would pave the way for the dismantling of the minimum support price system, leaving them at the “mercy” of big corporates. The government has maintained that the new laws would bring farmers better opportunities.
On Wednesday, the farmer unions sent a written reply to the government, rejecting its December 9 proposal in which it offered significant concessions. An Agriculture Ministry official confirmed to The Indian Express that the government received a written response from the farmer unions. However, he refused to answer queries about whether the government would send an invitation for talks to farmers.