Farmers agitation should be allowed to continue “without impediment” and this court will not “interfere” with it as the right to protest is a fundamental right, the Supreme Court Thursday said on the ongoing stir of farmers (mostly from Punjab) on Delhi borders.
The court put a caveat that there should not be any ‘breach of peace’ either by farmers or police, and also mooted an idea of putting on hold the implementation of the laws to enable negotiations with the agitating farmers which was opposed by the Centre saying farmers would then not come forward for the talks.
Earlier, on Wednesday the Supreme Court had expressed dissatisfaction with the Government at ‘failing to negotiate’ with the farmers and had ordered the setting up of a committee consisting of farmer union representatives from across the country and government, to resolve the deadlock.
Supreme Court’s U-turn?
This stand of the Supreme Court over the farmers’ protest appears to be in direct contrast to a ruling it gave in October when it ruled that “protests must take place only in designated places” and that Shaheen Bagh like protests (against the CAA law) at public places cannot be allowed for an indefinite period.
The farmers protest which had earlier blocked rail traffic in Punjab for 2 months, before announcing a temporary 15-day reprieve, has entered the 22nd day on Delhi’s borders – blocking several key roads and inconveniencing lakhs of ordinary citizens. The damage to economy is mounting with every passing day, and hurting at a time when things were already bad due to the pandemic.
In Punjab, the ‘rail roko’ agitation caused losses of Rs 30,000 crore to local industry as per Punjab government and pushed the state to the brink of a crisis as thermal power plants were shut due to non-availability of coal. Railways estimated their loss as Rs 2,200 crore due to the blockade.
However, the Supreme Court did pay some lip service to the suffering of ordinary citizens caused by the protestors who have occupied key border areas of Delhi. It said that the farmers’ ‘right to protest’ should not infringe the fundamental rights of others to move freely and in getting essential food and other supplies. But the court did not bother to get into details about how both its wishes – letting the agitation continue without impediment, and allowing free movement to citizens – could be achieved.
The simplest solution of moving farmers to designated protest sites was not touched upon by the apex court. Reports of chilling sloganeering including death threats to the PM by sections of protestors, and talk of repeating what was done to Indira Gandhi, also did not come up for discussion during the hearing. Meanwhile, protesting farmers have set up foot massage parlours, kitchens, theatres, and even a free salon has now sprung up. Also, far-left and Opposition party links of several farmer leaders have surfaced over the last few weeks.
Attorney General KK Venugopal also mentioned that none of the farmers wear a face mask and they aren’t following other Covid-19 social distancing guidelines, increasing the risk of spreading the disease when they return to their villages.
Chidambaram wants protestors in national capital
Appearing for the Punjab government, senior advocate and Congress leader P Chidambaram claimed the farmers were ‘not blocking the city borders and only wanted to come to the national capital to protest within the limits of law’.
When the CJI said the police needed to consider if allowing this could lead to violence in the capital, Chidambaram responded that “This is not a mob, it is a large group of farmers.”
Again, no one reminded the court and advocate Chidambaram that the agitating farmers have refused administration’s pleas to move to designated sites like Nirankari ground in Burari, or large stadiums. So what chance is there that they will not jam Delhi once they reach the city? There are also intelligence reports that Khalistani elements who have infiltrated the protests have plans to unfurl the Khalistan flag at India Gate.
Chidambaram should also be reminded of the anti-corruption protests during UPA-2, and how peaceful protestors led by Baba Ramdev camped at the designated protest site of Ramlila ground in Delhi, were forcibly removed in the dead of the night through a police crackdown involving use of teargas shells and a lathicharge that left one 51-year-old woman, Rajbala Malik, dead and 30 injured.
The SC bench led by CJI AS Bobde, and also comprising justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, again reiterated it wish to set up an “impartial and independent” committee of agriculture experts and farmer unions to resolve the issue. However, it held it back as farmers unions, impleaded as parties by it on Wednesday, could not appear to give their views.
One of the names suggested by SC for this committee was P Sainath, an inveterate critic of the new laws, and a veteran journalist with The Hindu newspaper, known for its vitriolic opposition to every decision of the Modi government. This reminds us of the choices of mediator appointed by SC to ‘resolve’ the Shaheen Bagh occupation: Sanjay Hegde, Sadhana Ramachandran, Wajahat Habibullah.
On being told by the centre that the negotiations are not happening at the moment as the farmers have refused, the SC said farmers “cannot keep on protesting without talking to the government.”
The next hearing in the matter was set after winter break (Dec 21 to Jan 1).
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