'Protest What?': SC Asks If Farmers Have Right to Agitate Against Sub-Judice Legislation

Hearing a plea by Kisan Mahapanchayat to protest at the Jantar Mantar, the Supreme Court said it would examine if the right to protest is absolute.

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New Delhi: Should farmers be permitted to protest against legislation which is sub-judice? A Supreme Court bench of Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and C.T. Ravikumar on Monday, October 4, asked farmers as to what the “point of protesting” was, considering that the three Central agricultural laws had been stayed by the Supreme Court. The court was hearing a writ petition filed by the Kisan Mahapanchayat for an agitation at the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.

Farmers have been protesting peacefully against the three farm laws in Delhi’s borders for almost a year amidst the pandemic and rough weather conditions.

The Supreme Court’s observation comes on a day when tensions are high in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri, over the death of four farmers, allegedly under the wheels of a minister’s son’s car. Four more have died subsequently.

A separate Supreme Court bench on Monday also sought responses from over 40 farmers’ bodies and farm leaders, including Rakesh Tikait, Yogendra Yadav, Darshan Pal and Gurnam Singh, on the Haryana government’s plea alleging that they have not been participating in talks with the state panel to defuse the issue of road blockade at Delhi borders.

‘Point of protesting’

Hearing the Kisan Mahapanchayat plea, Justice Khanwilkar considered, according to LiveLaw, the legality of the farmers’ protest.

“You can ask the court to decide the matter expeditiously that is a different issue. But how can a party which has gone to court go forward and seek permission to protest?…You are saying you want to protest, protest what? The Act has been stayed by the Court. The Centre has said it will not be implemented,” he said.

Also read: SC’s Shaheen Bagh Order: Fundamental Rights for Commuters, No Country for Protesters

In January of this year, the Supreme Court had suspended the implementation of the Centre’s three farm laws until further orders, saying it would constitute a committee to end the stalemate between the government and the protesting farmers’ unions. In the intervening time, this committee has submitted what one of its members had called its “pro-farmer” report, but the Supreme Court is yet to take cognisance of it.

The Sankyukt Kisan Morcha, the umbrella body of around 40 protesting farmers’ unions, had announced then that while they welcomed the stay, farmers would continue protesting until the law is repealed entirely.

“First we would like to decide the validity of the Act. Why do you want to protest the validity of the Act?”

The Kisan Mahapanchayat’s counsel Ajay Chaudhary said that the protest was not limited to the enactment of the farm laws but sought the guarantee of the Minimum Support Price. 

What is the point of protesting at Jantar Mantar when the procurement authority are the states?” Justice Khanwilkar asked, adding that the protests could take place on the road or farmers could challenge the laws in court.

Chaudhary said that the right to protest and contest a law in court were not mutually exclusive in nature.

‘Damage to property’

According to LiveLaw, Attorney General for India, K.K. Venugopal, cited the Lakhimpur Kheri incident to stress that “such protests destroy public peace.”

Justice Khanwilkar, then, appeared to agree and cited the destruction of public property:

“Exactly! When such events happen no one takes responsibility! There is damage to property.”

At this point, Justice Ravikumar noted:

“Persons also.”

The farmers, including the four who were killed (in total, eight people have died), had gathered at Lakhimpur Kheri to protest against three farm laws. Farmers accused the minister’s son of driving one of the cars that was involved in the accident, a charge the minister has denied. An FIR has been registered against the son and a probe by a retired high court judge has been ordered.

‘Is right to protest an absolute right?’

LiveLaw has reported that the Supreme Court said in its order that it would examine if the right to protest is absolute.

“After hearing, we deem it appropriate to examine the principal issue as to whether the right to protest is an absolute right and more so the Writ Petitioner having already invoked the legal remedy by filing Writ Petition should be permitted or assert that he can still resort to protest regarding the same matter which is sub-judice,” the court said.

Road block

A bench of Justices S.K. Kaul and M.M. Sundresh, hearing a plea by a Noida resident on commute troubles due to the protests, has issued notice to 43 farmers bodies and leaders.

Farmers have insisted that the road blockades are affected by the police’s barricades and not the peaceful demonstrations.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had requested to implead the farmers organisations in the earlier hearing and said on Monday that the farm leaders are necessary parties in the matter and he will ensure serving of notice on them and sought hearing of the plea on Friday, October 8.

The bench has now posted the matter just after the Dussehra break beginning next week.

At an earlier hearing of the plea, the same Supreme Court bench had said, “Highways cannot be blocked perpetually.”

Earlier this month, The Wire had reported how 10 months after the farmers’ agitation began at the borders of Delhi, the Haryana government announced it would repair roads to ensure alternative routes to Delhi became operational.

(With PTI inputs)