With the greatest of respect to the Supreme Court, it is time it takes the bull by the horns. It has, for far too long, put on the backburner issues which concern the nation most.
Farmers from many states are out in the cold sitting on dharna at Delhi’s borders against the three newly enacted farm laws, which they believe will rob them of their livelihood, and, eventually, their lands too. Amongst their many fears, real or imaginary, is that the new laws will open the agrarian sector to corporates in a big way, and that in the absence of a statutory guarantee of Minimum Support Price (MSP), they will be forced to sell their produce for a song — as they do not have the wherewithal to carry the same to far-flung places in pursuit of a better price. The farmers are not willing to settle at anything less than the withdrawal of the three contentious Acts, and have resolved to stay put at the borders, whether it takes them days or months to make the government relent.
The government, on the other hand, is equally adamant, and is not willing to cede any ground to the farmers. Initially, instead of soothing their frayed nerves, attempts were made to discredit the protesters by calling them Khalistanis. When that did not stick, they were called anti-nationals. In the latest salvo, the Union agriculture minister, in an open letter to the farmers, alleged that those stopping trains at the borders when the situation in Ladakh is challenging cannot be farmers. Perhaps, the minister needs to know that most of the soldiers he is referring to may well turn out to be the sons or relatives of these farmers.
However, despite the name-calling and innuendoes, the government did hold a few rounds of talks with the representatives of these very farmers. But both are standing their ground. The government believes the three laws are in the best interest of the farmers, and that they are being misled by the Opposition. Meanwhile, at least 29 protestors have reportedly died.
In the above scenario, the matter has reached the Supreme Court. While the Bhartiya Kisan Union has challenged the constitutional validity of the three Acts, a law student in a separate petition has sought the removal of protesting farmers from the site to a designated place citing inconvenience to the public, besides the threat of COVID-19. It is openly being alleged that the petition seeking removal of the farmers is at the behest of the government to derail the agitation. It may or may not be so.
In the course of hearing, the Supreme Court recognised the constitutional right of the farmers to protest so long as their dissent is non-violent. Observing that the farmers’ issue will soon become a national issue, it proposed setting up a committee comprising representatives of farmers’ unions across India, the government and other stakeholders to resolve the issues agitating the farmers. It also asked the Attorney General if he could assure the court that till it decides the issues, the government would put on hold the implementation of the contentious laws. Though the AG said that he would get back to the court, the Solicitor General reportedly rejected the suggestion out of hand.
Given the fact that the Supreme Court itself felt the farmers issue will soon become a national issue, and given also the fact that it was slipping into winter vacation for a fortnight, and that the farmers would have to suffer the harsh winter under the open sky, should the court not have exercised its power, and suspended the implementation of the laws till it finally heard the matter? The Supreme Court has also reportedly said that it will not decide the validity of the laws as of now.
With the greatest of respect to the Supreme Court, it is time it takes the bull by the horns. It has, for far too long, put on the backburner issues which concern the nation most. We have known of a Supreme Court which, in the past, heard the matter of a terrorist at midnight, sat late into the night, and granted bail to two industrialists, suspended the execution of a convict who beheaded his five daughters, again at a midnight sitting. Why then the issue of farmers, who are one of us and who have been feeding us, cannot be taken up on an urgent basis, even if it calls for setting up a special bench in vacation to prevent the matter from snowballing into a national issue? Edmund Burke has famously said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
And those who want the farmers to be removed from the present site to a designated place, on the ground of inconvenience to the public and the pandemic, need to know that it was the Haryana government that tried to push the farmers to the brink when they were peacefully moving towards Delhi by using water cannons, erecting barricades and digging roads to prevent them from proceeding ahead. Ironically, all this happened on Constitution Day. These people also need to know that the authorities had declined permission to farmers who wanted to peacefully protest at Jantar Mantar, where many protests have been held in the past. Where were they to go then? As for the threat of COVID-19, if assembly elections could be held in Bihar and huge election rallies organised in West Bengal during a pandemic, why not allow farmers’ protests?
Let me end with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr, who was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, after he defied a court’s injunction and led a march of Black protestors without a permit. In response to his critics who objected to his holding the protests at Birmingham, he wrote a letter in which he said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 23, 2020 under the title “A blind eye to justice”. The writer is a former judge of the Delhi High Court
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