Supreme Court Stays Implementation of Farm Laws, Sets Up Committee for Talks

Agricultural economist Ashok Gulati, Bhupinder Singh Mann of the Bhartiya Kisan Union, Anil Ghanwat of Shetkeri Sangthana and Pramod Kumar Joshi will be the members of the committee.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday suspended the implementation of the Centre’s three contentious farm laws until further orders, saying it would constitute a committee to end the stalemate between the government and the protesting farmers’ unions.

Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde proposed agricultural economist Ashok Gulati, Bhupinder Singh Mann of the Bhartiya Kisan Union, Anil Ghanwat of Shetkeri Sangthana and Pramod Kumar Joshi as members of the committee. Each of these members, however, have made statements in the past publicly supporting the new laws.

Bhupinder Singh, Anil Ghanwat, Pramod Kumar Joshi and Ashok Gulati. Illustration: The Wire

The court in its order said that the committee should submit its recommendations to the court within two months from the date of its first sitting. Its first sitting should be within ten days of Tuesday, the court said. It listed the matter for hearing again in eight weeks.

On Monday, the top court had criticised the Central government for its handling of the farmers’ protest, hinting that it would stay the laws. The court was hearing three ‘categories’ of petitions: those opposing the laws; those in favour of the laws; and those by residents of Delhi and its surrounding areas which said the protesters were infringing their rights by blocking the roads.

Resuming the hearing on Tuesday, the bench of CJI Bobde and Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian sought the cooperation of farmers who are protesting at Delhi’s borders and said no power can prevent it from setting up a committee to resolve the impasse.

The bench’s observation came in view of a statement released by the Samyukth Kisan Morcha that the unions were not willing to go to a committee for resolution of disputes and reiterated their demand to repeal the laws.

“Looking at the attitude and approach of the government which made it clear before the court today [January 11] repeatedly that they will not agree to the discussion for repeal before the committee,” the statement said, hinting that the Centre’s attitude suggests that mediation will be fruitless.

Before pronouncing the order, the bench urged the farmers’ unions to cooperate and go before the committee to be appointed by it to resolve the dispute. “We are concerned about protecting the lives and proerty of citizens of India and we want to solve the problem,” said the bench.

In the proceedings conducted through video conferencing, it said no power can prevent us from making committee to resolve the impasse on new farm laws.

It reiterated the apex court has powers to suspend the legislation in order to solve the problem.

The bench said those who “genuinely want resolution, will go to the committee” that the court will constitute.

It highlighted the difference between judiciary and politics, asking the farmers to cooperate with the judiciary. “This is not politics. There is a difference between politics and judiciary and you will have to cooperate”, it said to farmer unions.

Earlier, attorney general K.K. Venugopal informed the court that ‘Khalistanis’ had ‘infiltrated’ the protests. This came after an intervenor in the hearing alleged that the banned group ‘Sikhs for Justice’ are involved in the protests. When CJI Bobde asked the AG to confirm the allegation, Venugopal said, “We have said that Khalistanis have infiltrated the protests.”

According to the Indian Express, the Supreme Court also asked the Centre to file an affidavit by Wednesday on whether banned organisations have infiltrated the farmers’ protests. Venugopal agreed to file an affidavit with Intelligence Bureau records.

Many right-wing groups have pushed the claim that the farmers who are protesting against the laws are ‘Khalistanis’. This propaganda has not found traction with the general public, as Kusum Arora reported for The Wire. Many politicians, artists and celebrities have also extended support to the farmers.

Protestors at a ‘Sikh Museum’ near Singhu border during the farmers’ agitation in New Delhi, January 11, 2021. Photo: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

Farmers have been protesting at the borders of Delhi since late November, demanding that the three laws – Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance & Farm Services Act 2020, Farmers Produce Trade & Commerce (Promotion & Facilitation) Act & Amendment to Essential Commodities Act – should be repealed.

They have also demanded that minimum support price (MSP) – which they fear will be done away with through the implementation of these laws – should be declared as a legal right.

Court’s reasoning

In the interim order that the court issued later on Tuesday, the court said it is of the opinion that the the constitution of a “committee of experts” in the field of agriculture to negotiate between the farmers’ bodies and the Government of India may create a “congenial atmosphere and improve the trust and confidence of the farmers”.

“We are also of the view that a stay of implementation of all the three farm laws for the present, may assuage the hurt feelings of the farmers and encourage them to come to the negotiating table with confidence and good faith,” the court reasoned.

The order also revealed that the attorney general had agreed to the constitution of a committee but had ‘vehemently’ opposed the grant of an interim stay, citing past cases.

Venugopal argued that none of the petitioners who have attacked the farm laws have “pointed out any single provision which is detrimental to the farmers”.

“…the laws enacted by Parliament cannot be stayed by this Court, especially when there is a presumption in favour of the constitutionality of legislation,” the court said of Venugopal’s arguments.

The bench said though it appreciates the attorney general’s submissions, the judges added: “this Court cannot be said to be completely powerless to grant stay of any executive action under a statutory enactment”.

The court said all the petitioners were opposed to the dismantling of the MSP regime. Solicitor general Tushar Mehta had also informed the bench that there are inherent safeguards built into the farm laws for the protection of the land of the farmers and that it will be ensured that no farmer will lose his land, the order notes.

After hearing these submissions, the court said it found it appropriate to suspend the implementation of the three laws. “As a consequence, the Minimum Support Price System in existence before the enactment of the Farm Laws shall be maintained until further orders. In addition, the farmers’ land holdings shall be protected, i.e., no farmer shall be dispossessed or deprived of his title as a result of any action taken under the Farm Laws,” the order said.

The committee that was constituted would listen to the grievances of the farmers relating to the farm laws and the views of the government and consequently make its recommendations, the court said. This committee shall be provided a place as well as secretarial assistance at Delhi by the Centre, which will also bear the expenses for the Committee to hold sittings at Delhi or anywhere else.

“The representatives of all the farmers’ bodies, whether they are holding a protest or not and whether they support or oppose the laws shall participate in the deliberations of the Committee and put forth their view points,” the order says.

“While we may not stifle a peaceful protest, we think that this extraordinary order of stay of implementation of the farm laws will be perceived as an achievement of the purpose of such protest at least for the present and will encourage the farmers’ bodies to convince their members to get back to their livelihood, both in order to protect their own lives and health and in order to protect the lives and properties of others,” the order concludes.

File image of the farmers’ protest. Photo: PTI

Farmer leaders welcome SC order, but to continue protest

Farmer leaders welcomed the Supreme Court’s order to stay the implementation of the three farm laws but said they would not call off their protest until the legislations are repealed. The Sankyukt Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of around 40 protesting farmer unions, has called a meeting later in the day to decide its future course of action.

Leaders once again reiterated their stand that they are not willing to participate in any proceedings before a committee appointed by the Supreme Court. However, they said a formal decision on this will be taken by the Morcha.

“We welcome the court’s order to stay the implementation of the farm laws, but we want a complete repeal of these laws,” Abhimanyu Kohar, a senior leader of the Morcha, told news agency PTI.

Another leader, Harinder Lokhwal, said the protest will continue until the laws are repealed.

(With PTI inputs)

Note: This article was originally published at 2:12 pm on January 12, 2020 and updated with details of the complete order at 6:10 pm on January 12, 2020.