Forty-eight days of protest and eight rounds of Centre-farmers talks later, the Supreme Court has stepped in, and with all due respect, has overstepped the line. It has taken into its hands a political problem that was, that still is, the government’s to negotiate and resolve. The apex court’s interim order on Tuesday — staying implementation of the Centre’s farm laws, and setting up an expert committee that will ostensibly listen to grievances of protesting farmers and views of government and frame recommendations — may be well-intentioned. But it sets a dubious precedent. One, by pronouncing not on the constitutionality of the law, but on its setting and specifically the protests against it, the court is encroaching into territory beyond its remit. Two, it is showing a clear double standard. Over the past few years, the SC has shown a marked lack of urgency and, in fact, distressing inattention to cases that have involved important constitutional questions and lined up at its door. Be it the constitutionality of electoral bonds or of the discriminatory amendments to the citizenship act, the court has kicked the can down the road. In many cases, by delaying and by turning away, it has allowed a fait accompli, created a new fact on the ground, and in effect, wrought a denial of justice. Now, its alacrity in taking into its own hands the ongoing impasse between government and farmers on the three farm laws, and its enthusiasm in playing arbiter, therefore, raises questions.
The confrontation over the Centre’s farm laws is about more than just the laws. There is distrust between the farmers and the government, which began with the latter’s bid to push through the legislation amid a pandemic and an economic downturn without any consultation in or outside Parliament. That distrust has only deepened and flared because of the government’s subsequent attempts to talk down to the protesters and to call them names. Indeed, the Attorney General told the court Tuesday that Khalistanis have infiltrated the protests — days after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, no less, said it was wrong to question the farmers’ commitment to the nation. If the government’s reform was seen to be arrogant and top-down, the court’s efforts lend themselves to being viewed as presumptuous and opaque. What were the criteria for selection of experts on the committee it has set up? What happens after this committee submits a report, within two months from the date of its first sitting 10 days from now? Why should farmers who are demanding a respectful hearing as they huddle at Delhi’s borders in the winter chill repose more trust in a remote committee of experts, than in a government that is, at the end of the day, accountable to them?
The court is also setting itself up for a fall. At the end of this stay on the laws, that isn’t really a stay on the laws themselves but only on their implementation, its own authority will be on the line if protesting farmers reject its committee. In a time when institutions seem fragile, and lines between them are blurring disturbingly, the court’s order on the farm laws seems to lead to another dead-end.