Court proposes to form an independent panel chaired by a former CJI to ‘amicably resolve’ stand-off between protesting farmers and govt
The Supreme Court on Monday said it intended to stay the implementation of the controversial agricultural laws while proposing to form an independent committee chaired by a former Chief Justice of India to “amicably resolve” the stand-off between the protesting farmers and the Union government.
A three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Sharad A. Bobde underlined its “disappointment” at the Centre’s handling of the farmers’ protest, including the string of failed talks, States “up in rebellion”, suicides among protestors and the sight of aged farmers, women and children suffering in the biting cold amid the pandemic even as Republic Day looms close.
Handling of situation
“We don’t want to make any stray observations against you… But we are disappointed in the way you’re handling this situation. States are up in rebellion against you… The whole thing has been going on for months… You say you are negotiating, talking… What negotiating? What talking? What is going on?”, Chief Justice Bobde asked Attorney General K.K. Venugopal and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.
At one point when Mr. Venugopal questioned the court’s “hurry” to pass the order of stay, Chief Justice Bobde said, “Mr. Attorney, we are giving a very long rope to you. Don’t give us a lecture on patience…”
During the hearing, Chief Justice Bobde appealed to senior citizens, women and children at the protests to return home.
“Tell them the Chief Justice of India wants them to go home… Whether you have faith in us or not, we are the Supreme Court of India and we will do our job,” he said.
The court questioned the government’s “insistence” on the implementation of the laws.
“We don’t know whether you [government] are part of the solution or the problem. There is not a single petition filed here which says the laws are beneficial… If the laws are put on hold, negotiations before the committee will be much better,” Chief Justice Bobde said.
The court, however, made it clear that it would not at this stage go into the question of constitutionality of the laws.
Mr. Venugopal said the court would be taking a “drastic decision” if it stayed the laws. None of the farm leaders, during the discussions, had shown a single provision in the laws which was unconstitutional.
“Mr. Attorney, sorry to say, we may be taking a decision because you, the Union of India, did not take responsibility. You were not able to solve the problem… You should have been able to solve the strike, but you did not,” Chief Justice Bobde replied.
Mr. Venugopal said the farmers were going to bring 2000 tractors to “join” the Republic Day parade.
Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, however, refuted the claim. “Mr. Venugopal, these farmers too have members in the Army. They will do no such thing… Really don’t understand the attitude of the government,” he said.
Mr. Venugopal referred to how rioters recently destroyed the stage where the Haryana Chief Minister was to come.
Chief Justice Bobde said, “We are not saying we will protect law-breakers. Law and order is the job of the police. We will protect the right to peaceful protest like Gandhiji’s satyagraha.”
Dismissing the arguments that the “majority” in the country thought the farm laws were harmless, the CJI said the thoughts of the majority would not help resolve the farmers’ strike.
“We ourselves do not claim to know how to resolve every situation. We are only trying to break the tension and make the atmosphere more conducive for negotiations. We are a constitutional court… Who is going to be responsible if this sabre-rattling goes on?”, he stated.
Warning against violence
Everybody, including the court, would be responsible if any violence broke out, he said.
“Each one of us is responsible. The responsibility is on all of us, including the Supreme Court, that there will be no bloodshed. We don’t want any blood on our hands. There should be no violence. A stray incident can spark violence,” the court warned the parties, including the farmers and government.
To the farmers, the CJI clarified that an order of stay on the implementation of the laws would not mean they have to call off their protests, pack up and go home.
“Even after we stay the implementation of the laws, you [farmers] carry on the protest. We don’t want any criticism that the court is stifling the protest,” the CJI observed.
‘Move a little’
He, however, asked whether the farmers would “move a little” from their present protest sites to convenience citizens once the talks with the committee got going.
Mr. Dave and three other lawyers – senior advocates Colin Gonsalves, H.S. Phoolka and Prashant Bhushan – representing the farmers’ unions said they would have to first discuss with their clients.
They suggested the name of former CJI R.M. Lodha to head the proposed committee. The government said it would come back on this on Tuesday. The court said it would choose from a panel of names.
Towards of the end of the hearing, Mr. Mehta, in an apparent attempt at damage-control, said the court had made “harsh” observations at the government’s handling of the crisis.
“Why do you say ‘harsh’? It was the most innocuous observations made,” Chief Justice Bobde replied
“We did our best,” Mr. Mehta said.
“Alright, alright… you did your best, but it did not seem to have any effect,” the CJI said.
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