It is doubtful the Punjab-Haryana farmers will call off the protest after the Supreme Court suspended the implementation of the farm reforms for a year, till these were examined afresh by an expert panel. However, contrary to the impression that the suspension of the three farm legislations and the formation of an expert panel constitutes a setback for the government, we believe the latter may actually have reason to feel relieved.
The Centre was at its wits’ end, unable to resolve the stalemate despite holding eight rounds of talks with the leaders of some 40-odd unions of farmers who have squatted at the Delhi border for over six weeks. The talks were proving entirely pointless, especially when the farmers insisted on the outright repeal of the laws and were not agreeable to amendments to clarify things and to allay their doubts and suspicions. The all-or-nothing approach was clear from their response to the SC decision on Tuesday.
They said the siege would continue, regardless of the suspension of the laws. And further, they would not cooperate with the expert panel to be headed by a former chief justice of India. In other words, the intervention of the apex court too may not break the deadlock. It is remarkable that the lawyers who had appeared on behalf the farmers’ unions on Monday failed to participate in the virtual hearing of the case on Tuesday.
The four lawyers, all of them known to be anti-Modi, played truant, inviting a sharp rebuke from Chief Justice S A Bobde. The lawyers cannot appear when it is convenient for them and absent themselves from proceedings when it is not. In all probability, having enthusiastically taken up the farmers’ brief, the lawyers were rebuffed by their clients when they refused to commit themselves to abide by the court decision.
Or else, the lawyers themselves felt trapped, realising the court decision to suspend implementation of the laws would require them to suspend the stir and to cooperate with the working of the proposed panel. After all, the four members nominated to the panel on Tuesday were independent experts of impeccable integrity. Or it could be that it belatedly dawned on the lawyers in question that any decision the court may take to break the deadlock would help release pressure on the government, something that would ill-serve their political agendas.
Whatever it is, the apex court has now shifted the onus on the protesters to appear reasonable and accept its decision in good faith. Continuing the siege of the capital any longer would drain out the last ounce of public goodwill that the farmers may still enjoy. The fact that prominent opposition leaders have felt obliged to welcome the court decision ought to be factored in by the farmers when they formally convey their response to the court on Wednesday. It is significant that the Government again assured the court of furnishing evidence of Khalistanis infiltrating the protests.
Meanwhile, Tuesday’s hearing revealed how far the Government was willing to go, to allay the misgivings regarding the three legislations. It told the court that it was prepared to formally commit itself to continue with the current system of procurement of foodgrain under the Minimum Support Price mechanism. Further, it agreed to make suitable amendments to ensure that farmers who entered into agreement for contract farming would in no case forfeit their land. In any case, contract farming was voluntary and no farmer, even under the existing law, was under any obligation to enter into it in case he did not consciously so desire.
That the court was keen to break the deadlock was clear from the remarks of the CJI during the course of the hearing. He repeatedly said there was no politics, ‘we seek cooperation of all sides to resolve the issue’. The only party which will not cooperate, it seems, are the farmers’ unions which, misled as they are, by vested interests. Short of an outright repeal of the laws, the Government has all along said it would amend them to allay the real or imaginary fears of the farmers. Meanwhile, it would be interesting to watch the response of the Congress government in Punjab, which has been one of the principal supporters of the protest.