CJI's Remarks on Women Farmers Are an Assault on Human Agency and Constitutional Rights

By asking why women and the elderly are being 'kept' at the protest sites, the country's top judge has done a great disservice to the contribution of female farmers to agriculture.

Chastising the Centre for its handling of the farmers’ protest, the Supreme Court on January 11 observed that it will not pass an order that “citizens should not protest”. This was encouraging. But subsequent remarks made by the Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde, have given cause for concern. He asked:

“Why are women and elders kept in the protest?” [Emphasis added]

He also asked advocate H.S. Phoolka to ‘persuade’ the women and elderly protesters to go back from the protest sites, indicating that an order may be passed by the court later to this end. On January 12, the CJI pronounced in the court, “We want to place on record our appreciation for this stand (about elders, women and children not participating in protests in future).”

These remarks irk the question – who is considered a citizen and who isn’t? Can there be a ‘guardian’ at a given protest site to decide who should be ‘kept’ there and who should not be? Such a stance is not only an attack on human agency, but also puts the custodian of law in a questionable position. The CJI’s statement takes women for granted and endorses infantilisation of labour by women. That he would seek women and elders to be sent back by ‘persuasion’ is condemnable, as his stance portrays either ignorance or a deep sense of prejudice on the role of women in farming.

CJI S.A. Bobde. Photo: PTI/File

The ‘invisible’ contributions of women farmers

It is a fact that women contribute as much to farming as their male counterparts. They walk miles to fetch water, collect and carry animal fodder. They sow, transplant, harvest, thresh and transport crops, process food, clean sheds and milk cattle. Yet, their labour remains unseen.

The National Council of Applied Economic Research highlighted the gender gap in land ownership in 2018 and mentioned, “Women comprise over 42 per cent of the agricultural labour force in the country, signifying increasing feminisation of agriculture, and yet they own less than 2 per cent of its farm land.”

A People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) report found that nearly two-thirds of the female workforce is engaged in agriculture, “either as cultivators or agricultural labourers”.

While the labour of women farmers may not be visible, they are remarkably visible in protests – be it those against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the farmers’ movements, workers’ movements or students’ movement.

During the great long farmers’ march from Nasik to Mumbai in 2018, PARI penned a story on women farmers, titled ‘They run the farm, they made the march.’ This was one of the few instances when stories of the ‘invisible’ women labour force in India was in focus.

If women farmers ‘made the march’ in 2018, they are writing history today along with their male counterparts – showing up in the thousands to protest against the three Central farm laws.

The CJI may have failed to see women and elder farmers as leaders of the movement. But farmers’ unions themselves hold a different position. The vice president of the All India Kisan Sabha, Amra Ram – camped at the Shahjahanpur border on the Delhi-Rajasthan highway – said on the eve of Christmas, “Women farmers are fighting the battle at the threshold, and we are here to follow them.”

The Samyunkta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of farmers’ unions, 13 released a press note on January which also found fault with the court’s observations. It said:

During the Supreme Court hearing, it was said “Why are women in this strike? Why are women and elders “kept” in this strike? They should be asked to go home”. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha condemns such statements. The contribution of women in agriculture is incomparable and this movement is also a movement of women.  It is shameful that women’s agency is being questioned. We strongly condemn this.

The CJI’s observation also adheres to the centuries-old feudal caste order and its regressive practices. It is appalling to see such positions emerging in the Supreme Court, from none other than the Chief Justice of India.

Women farmers raise slogans as they take part in the agitation against the Centre’s farm Bills in Amritsar, October 23, 2020. Photo: PTI

Selective approach?

So far as ‘humanitarian grounds’ are concerned, it appears that the court is selective in exercising its powers. Only recently, the Supreme Court was mum about the plight of millions of migrant workers –many of them women, children and elderly – caused by the imposition of the sudden and unplanned lockdown in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Or indeed, the government’s harsh policy measures such as demonetisation, which caused the deaths of many Indian citizens, including, but not limited to, women, children and old people. A comprehensive list of 90 deaths that was reported by CatchNews in late 2016 is evidence of this.

We are witnessing a historic movement by the farmers of India. They are on the streets today because they were forced to do so. The government has shown nothing but apathy towards them. Hundreds of kilometres away from their homes, they are battling not just the extreme conditions in Delhi today – a cold way and the harsh winter rain, but also attempts by the BJP and Union ministers to malign them as ‘Khalistanis, Naxalis and Maoists’.

Also Read: ‘We Have to Look After Our Homes as Well as the Movement’: Women at Farmers’ Protest

Their firm protest gives courage and inspiration to millions of Indians. The movement against the three farm laws and the Electricity Amendment Bill is inherently a peaceful and democratic movement. Despite coercive measures taken by the government – tear gassing them, using water cannons, lathis and even digging up roads – the farmers have remained democratic and disciplined.

To participate in the movement is well within the rights of every Indian citizen, which is guaranteed under Article 19 of the Indian constitution. The constitution does not impose restrictions on participating in a protest on the basis of a person’s age or gender. The Honourable CJI also has no right to do so.

An apology in the court, therefore, is a must. Taking a stance that denies any Indian citizen of her or his constitutional right to protest is a grave violation of the provisions of the constitution. And as responsible Indian citizens, we must register our voice of protest against such feudal, Brahminical and patriarchal values which fail to see all citizens as equal.

Satarupa Chakraborty is a member of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), and a researcher at the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.