NEW DELHI: A Supreme Court Bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) on Thursday asked the Centre to put the controversial farm laws on hold for now, as the unions were not present during the hearing and it cannot decide on the matter without hearing both sides.
So, the matter stands deferred until the next hearing or a solution is found to the logjam.
Attorney General K K Venugopal refused to promise that they will put the farm laws on hold till the court hears the matter. Because if they did so, "farmers will not come for discussions,’’ he pointed out.
When Solicitor General Tushar Mehta also insisted that it is not possible to put the laws on hold, the CJI flared up: "Don't pre-empt it. AG says he will discuss. We are not staying the laws. But you can just say that no action will be taken…’’
NON-VIOLENT PROTEST CAN CONTINUE
The CJI made it clear that the farmers can continue with a non-violent protest and the police should not instigate them or block roads and blame them for it. In the interim, an independent committee will be set up and give a hearing to both sides. It suggested that the committee can have P Sainath (a 63-year old JNU alumni and Magsaysay Award winning journalist), the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) nominee and others as members.
The CJI observed: A protest is constitutional as long as it does not destroy property or endanger life. A protest has a goal and that purpose cannot be achieved by merely sitting. The Centre and farmers have to talk. We will facilitate it."
Senior advocate P Chidambaram appeared for the Punjab Government and pleaded the cause of the agitating farmers, while senior advocate Harish Salve, engaged by the BJP governments of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, appeared for the other side to insist that farmers can not violate others' right by blocking the entry points to Delhi.
WE ARE ALSO INDIANS
In this context, the CJI said: "We are also Indians; we are familiar with the plight of farmers and sympathetic to their cause. You have to only alter the manner in which the protest is being staged." When the CJI remarked that the court cannot predict which mob can become violent, as only police can do so, Chidambaram objected: "This is not a mob, this is a large group of farmers."
The CJI clarified he was not calling it a mob in the Chicago sense.
CHIDAMBARAM PLEADS FARMERS’ CASE
Chidambaram argued that the farmers are not pressing for repeal of the three farm laws; instead, they have to be re-enacted after due consultations. He said the police cannot block the roads and then say the farmers are doing so. Why not convene Parliament and discuss, he asked.
He said: "We have serious reservations on Salve’s reasoning about what can be done in a democracy. We know what happened in Vienna and Hong Kong. These are serious questions of law. Who has blocked entry? They have barbed wires, steel walls and now containers. Farmers want to come to Delhi. They want to protest, subject to law and order."
UNIONS NEED TO BE IDENTIFIED
Salve wanted the farmer unions to identify themselves and said they could be issued a mandamus to cooperate with the government. He underscored the need for identification since "groups otherwise become amorphous." He argued: "I am a taxpayer and when you burn a car then such damage to public property is made good by government from my tax money. Such protesters need to submit a declaration saying they are taking responsibility."
"One cannot hold a city to ransom and say either government listens to us or we will stop the country from living. The Kerala High Court had settled this and when it came in appeal CJI Verma was hearing it and in 15 minutes the plea was thrown out. I had the misfortune of appearing for the government then," Salve argued.
RIGHT TO PROTEST
When he asserted the court needs to look at the rights and not curtailment of rights, the CJI remarked: "We are making one thing clear. We recognize the fundamental right to protest and there is no question of trying to balance or curtail it. But it should not cause damage to someone's life."
Salve replied: "You have recognized the right to protest. This right has to be balanced with Right to Life. Fruits and vegetables come to the Capital from neighbouring states and prices of goods tend to skyrocket. The petitioner is a resident of Delhi. Curtailment of transport of goods vehicles is impacting prices."
When a lawyer said there are 120 ways to enter Delhi, objecting to Salve's claim that if the arterial connections are blocked, it will choke the national capital, the CJI intervened: "We are not on blocking and it is not as if Delhi is choked. Mr Salve has pitched it higher than it actually is."
Backing Salve, Attorney General K K Venugopal insisted that the farmers cannot violate others' fundamental right. The blockade is a violation of Article 19 and impacts right to movement.’’