New Delhi: For the second time in two days, the Supreme Court sought to defend the expert committee it had set up to resolve the stalemate between farmers and the Centre over the new farm laws.
On Tuesday, while hearing a case unrelated to farmers’ protests, Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde had observed that “just because a person has expressed a view” on a matter does not mean that this disqualifies them from inclusion in a committee.
On Wednesday, the apex court said no adjudicating authority has been given to the experts and appeared to equate outrage with the panel’s composition with a purported attempt to “tarnish” the image of the panellists.
The four members of the committee are celebrated pro-market agricultural economists Ashok Gulati and Pramod Kumar Joshi, along with Anil Ghanwat of Shetkari Sangathana and Bhupinder Singh Mann, leader of one of the factions of the Bharatiya Kisan Union.
Farmers had throughout their agitation held that they would not be participating in any committee. Upon formation of the committee, they refused to associate themselves with it and criticised the fact that its members comprised people who supported the laws.
The Kisan Mahapanchayat farmers’ body from Rajasthan had filed a plea seeking the removal of three remaining members of the apex-court-appointed panel and the replacement of Bhupinder Singh Mann who had later recused himself from the panel.
A bench headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde issued a notice and sought the response of Attorney General K.K. Venugopal on the plea, and said:
“You people unnecessarily cast aspersions. People expressing views in some other context would be debarred from the committee?”
“Everyone should have an opinion. Even judges have opinion. This has become a cultural thing. Branding people which you do not want has become a norm. We have not given any power of adjudication to the committee.”
In a hearing conducted via video-conferencing, the bench, also comprising Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian, said experts have been appointed on the committee to look after the grievances of parties affected by the new law “and moreover, we are not the experts.”
“Where is the question of bias in this? We have not given adjudicating powers to the committee. You don’t want to appear is understandable, but casting aspersions on someone because he expressed his view is not done. You don’t need to brand anybody like this,” the CJI said.
Lawyer Ajay Chaudhary, appearing for a farmers’ union, referred to news reports about the opinions of experts of the panel.
“Do you think, we go by newspaper. Public opinion is not the basis. How can you tarnish the image of someone like this? You all said that court was interested in this. I am very sorry the kind of opinion which have been appearing in this press,” the bench said.
It is noteworthy that news reports alone did not claim that the four committee members were for the farm laws. Gulati and Joshi had both written their views in favour of the very farm laws that farmers have asked to repeal in columns on national dailies.
The bench also defended the opinions shared by panellists:
“You say all the members [are] to be disqualified. These four people who have expressed opinion are more experienced than the critics. They are the experts… Tell us, have you not come across people who have expressed opinions. You are an advocate…” the bench asked a farmers’ union lawyer.
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan, appearing for some farmers’ unions, said that his clients have taken a stand that they will not participate in the meeting of the committee as they wanted the farm laws repealed due to the firm belief that they are against their interests.
The bench asked Bhushan to “counsel” the farmers. “Suppose, we uphold the law then also you protest. You counsel them properly. The only rider is that ensure that people of Delhi are in peace.”
Thousands of farmers, mainly from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, are protesting at various border points of Delhi for over a month against the three laws brought by the Centre. Presented as farm reforms, the laws were brought without consultation with farmers. Farmers’ unions have asked for their complete repeal.