Protesting farmers at Ghazipur border, Delhi
Protesting farmers at Ghazipur border, Delhi

The ongoing farmers’ protest has the Supreme Court in a quandary. The issue before it is a clutch of petitions seeking the defence of people's right to move about freely, which for over 40 days has been wilfully denied by the protesting farmers on the highways to Delhi. But the solution is fraught. The court cannot simply order the squatters on the Singhu border and other such entry points to the capital to relocate the protest to a designated ground and, thus, risk either defiance or cause a confrontation with the law and order authorities.

The problem is, the court cannot stay the enforcement of the farm reform legislations without there being a sound basis in law. After all, these laws were passed by an overwhelming majority in the two Houses of Parliament. Besides, the apex court holding the laws void in the face of concerted street protests by farmers would open a veritable can of worms, encouraging others feeling aggrieved by State or Central legislation to try and disrupt normal life and then wait for the courts to undo the will of the people.

In short, the Supreme Court is made to do a tightrope walk against its will, since the matter of the farmers’ protest has been tossed before it. How difficult it finds to wriggle itself out of the dilemma was clear from the hearing of the matter on Monday. Chief Justice S A Bobde reflected the court’s sensitivities in sharp questions he asked of the Centre. Wondering aloud whether the Government was part of the problem or solution, the CJI asked if the Centre was ready to put the laws on hold.

Acknowledging that the bench didn’t claim expertise in economics or agriculture, nonetheless the court did not want to risk a violent eruption should the situation continue unaddressed for long. “We don’t see you are dealing with the issue effectively… we don’t know what consultative process you followed before the laws… if vast majority says that laws are good, let them say it to a committee… our attention is to bring an amicable solution, ” CJI Bobde said.

The court was also concerned about the extreme weather conditions under which the protesters were continuing the siege of Delhi. It called upon the children, women and the aged to return to their homes while hoping that the free movement of ordinary citizens would not be blocked much longer by the protest. There were also reports that the court might constitute a panel to be headed by a retired apex court judge with representatives of various stakeholders to examine the impugned reforms. Whether the farmers would lift the siege with the formation of such an independent panel is in doubt.

For, the farmers’ umbrella body representing all the 40-plus unions had questioned the locus of the courts to intervene in the matter. It had clearly stated that the apex court “does not and cannot have any role in resolving a political deadlock over anti-farmers laws”. In other words, the farmers are deadest on their 'my way or highway' stance. This is the most worrying aspect of the agitation. Instigated by outside elements desperately seeking political relevance, the protesting farmers have been misled to believe that the Government would cave only if they insist on a maximalist approach.

Given that the Government has reiterated its resolve not to repeal the laws, but, short of it, offered to make suitable amendments to allay their grievances and fears, the unreasonableness of the farmers can be directly traced to the freelance political wheeler-dealers who have usurped the control of the protest behind the public stage. The proposal to hold a tractor parade on Rajpath on the Republic Day, for instance, is meant to cause provocation and challenge the law-enforcement authorities.

Unfortunately, even the eminently sensible proposal to break the stalemate by the Centre agreeing not to implement the reforms for a year till these were discussed afresh with the States and farmers’ representatives has been turned down by the protesters. Such a deadlock risks a violent eruption, especially given how farmers are now being misled by outside elements. It is a frustrating situation for the country when its farmers refuse to heed either the highest court in the land or the popularly-elected Parliament.

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Free Press Journal