Centre takes SC sucker punch on chin

The seventeen-month tenure of the forty-seventh Chief Justice of India (CJI), Sharad Arvind Bobde, was on the verge of coming to a tame end, partly due to the global pandemic which affected court proceedings in 2020. The agitation of Punjab and Haryana farmers over the demand to scrap the three game changing farm laws passed by Parliament in the monsoon session proved a godsend. It will help end his career with a minor flourish if not luster.

Barely 12 weeks away from joining the ranks of the superannuated, the agitation gave the CJI the chance to flex his judicial muscles by raiding the domain of the executive and legislature, thereby cementing his place as a tough champion of justice. This, in the hope that posterity will remember him as a judge who broke in the public interest the time-honored norm concerning the trinitarian separation of powers envisaged in Bharat’s secular Constitution.

The order of the CJI-led three-member bench on January 12 to suspend till further orders the implementation of the reformatory farm laws set a bad precedent with dangerous consequences in the future. That the enactments have come in for considerable praise from agricultural economists and scores of farmer unions not part of the ongoing agitation was clean ignored by the sinew showing CJI.

“We are the Supreme Court, and we will do our job,” said CJI Bobde with an air of authority which puzzled many. Till then he had been more in the news for extraneous reasons, be it being snapped sitting atop a macho Harley-Davidson or availing the services of the Madhya Pradesh government’s chopper to holiday at the Kanha National Park.

“We are doing this,” he told the government, “because you have failed to solve the problem…We don’t want anybody’s injury or blood on our hands.” Sharp words which should ideally have stung any government to the quick. The deafening silence of the authorities, however, conveyed the impression that this is exactly what was wished, secretly or otherwise. Agriculture minister Narendra S. Tomar’s blunt advice to farmers to knock at the court’s door during the last round of talks betrayed the government’s intent.

The SC’s incursion into executive territory may temporarily relieve the pressure on the government. This is presumably why recipients of the CJI’s tongue lashing never conveyed their displeasure at the usurpation of executive powers. Implicit from the government’s willingness to take the blows on the chin was the lack of political will to deal with recalcitrant situations on its own. That it prefers to deflect the ball to the top court on such occasions was again in evidence. Exempting farmers from paying the fine on stubble burning and the revised power tariff was a sign that the government would also yield on repealing the laws if driven to a wall.

The lessons of Shaheen Bagh lie unlearnt. The pathetic failure to break the festering anti-CAA agitation of the nation’s internal enemies was a direct cause of the communal riots in East Delhi just when the US President was on an official visit. Fifty-three people lost their lives in the violence. What the government still does not realize is that you cannot negotiate with just an olive branch on the table. Showing the stick also matters. Negotiations cannot be a one-sided process.

The new farm laws are specifically aimed at freeing poor farmers from the clutches of the corrupt Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMCs) by allowing them to sell their produce outside the mandi. The SC’s decision to set up a four-member committee to resolve the tangle is seen as a clever ploy to get the farmers to the talking table, failing which they are welcome to stew in their own juice, rendering the government free to devise its own means to end the stir or tire them out.

The decision of Bhupinder Singh Mann, president of the Bharat Kisan Union, and a former Congress MP, to recuse himself from the proposed committee within 24 hours of its formation could not have come about without pressure from his community. Mann, a backer of the farm laws, said he is ready to sacrifice any position if the interests of Punjab and the country’s farmers are at stake. His comments show that Sikh farmers will continue playing hardball till they realize that the government will not be bamboozled into submission, whatever the cost.

Their Lordships may legitimately claim to have been pushed to fish in the troubled waters of the executive to help break the logjam between the Centre and the protestors hellbent on a reversal of the legislation. Topping their minds, however, was the need to ensure the smooth conduct of the upcoming R-Day parade. A parallel tractor rally planned by farmers along Rajpath set alarm bells ringing in the corridors of the PMO and home ministry. Any hurly-burly would obviously play into the hands of the nation’s internal enemies keen to keep the cauldron of unrest alive on Delhi’s borders.

There is enough evidence to suggest that the funding of the protests have a Khalistani connect, the money trial extending to Canada and the U.K. which have sizeable Sikh populations. This was specifically mentioned by Attorney General K K Venugopal at Tuesday’s hearing. A letter dated 11 January 2021 signed by the representative of a body calling itself “Sikhs for Justice” has been making the rounds of the Net. The writer promises to deliver $250K to anyone who hoists the Khalistani flag at the India Gate on R-Day.

Reliable estimates suggest that anything between Rs 5-10 crore is being spent every day to keep the protests going. Behind the Khalistani threat lurks the shadow of Islamists and Maoists hoping to convert the unrest into a Shaheen Bagh encore.

Conveniently enough the court completely sidestepped ruling on the original plea filed by a law student that the farmers be immediately ejected from Delhi’s borders to a fixed place. Medical and emergency services, it was said, had been severely impacted due to the crowds blocking the highway. Instead of directing the farmers to clear the way, the CJI said they were welcome to keep agitating but consider moving from the road a little. The CJI’s civility towards a bunch of squatting middlemen posing as farmers could have taken one’s breath away.

The government, on the other hand, was roundly upbraided for its incompetent handling of the protests. People were dying in the cold with no solution was in sight. The CJI did not spell out how the protests ought to have been handled, much less where the government had gone wrong in its dealings. Eight rounds of discussions ended in deadlock solely due to the refusal of farmers to consider any solution other than a repeal of the laws. The demonstrators do not constitute more than 10 per cent of Bharat’s farming community.

Thousands of prosperous farmers from P&H have been camping along the Singhu border for the last 50 days disrupting normal life and causing losses worth hundreds of crores to the economy with each passing day. Ingress and egress to the capital has been thrown out of gear. The problem has been compounded by the Kejriwal regime’s desire to use the agitation to embarrass the Centre with the Congress barking from behind.

The protest site has transformed into a virtual picnic spot with gurudwara arranged langars, makeshift shops catering to every human need from food, milk, toiletry, mobile repairing kiosks, washing machines, multi-cuisine stalls, business centre, and gym etc. Lavish tents with luxurious bedding, spa, massaging chairs and heaters have been installed to help our richie-rich farmers beat the freezing cold.

Setting up a committee may be sound strategy or a well-timed stratagem on the part of the SC. But the pressure for the first time is on the farmers despite their resolve not to appear before any committee either government or court appointed. The CJI made it clear “that we are not catering to everyone’s idea of what a good committee is”. If the farmers want a solution, they must appear before the body and put forth their views. Failure to appear would only imperil their interests and alienate them from the rest of the country.


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About the Author

Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha. He writes regularly for the HinduPost as consulting editor.