Farmers have constitutional right to continue with protest: SC

Farmers protest on new farm law issue at Singhu border on Thursday.   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

The Supreme Court on Thursday said farmers have a constitutional right to continue with their “absolutely perfect” protest as long as their dissent against the three controversial agricultural laws did not slip into violence.

“We clarify that this court will not interfere with the protest in question. Indeed the right to protest is part of a fundamental right and can as a matter of fact, be exercised subject to public order. There can certainly be no impediment in the exercise of such rights as long as it is non-violent and does not result in damage to the life and properties of other citizens... We are of the view at this stage that the farmers’ protest should be allowed to continue without impediment and without any breach of peace either by the protesters or the police”, a Bench led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde observed in its order.

Also read | Voices of protest: what farmers have to say

The court, however, said the purpose of the protesting farmers would not be served if they continued to sit without engaging in talks.

“Yes, there is a protest that is going on... Yes, the protest is constitutional as long as it does not damage property and lives. It is an absolutely perfect protest. But their [farmers’ purpose cannot be realised if they continue to sit without talking”, the CJI observed.

Panel formation

The court reiterated its suggestion of forming an “impartial and independent committee” of experts in agriculture to hear both farmers and the Union government on the laws.

“If their [farmers] protest has a purpose other than just to sit in protest, we are thinking of an independent committee before whom both sides can state their case while the protest goes on... The committee can give its opinion after hearing them. We expect parties [farmers and government] to follow the committee's opinion. Meanwhile, the protest will continue without causing violence or damage on both sides”, Chief Justice Bobde suggested.

Watch | Why are the farmers protesting?

Caution against violence

The court cautioned the government against trying to “instigate” violence. The CJI stressed that as fellow Indians, the judges too understood the farmers’ problems.

But Attorney General K.K. Venugopal strongly objected to the farmers’ conduct. He said the farmers cannot corner the government into a ‘yes or no’ to their demand to repeal the laws. The government was ready for a clause by clause discussion on the laws.

Senior advocate P. Chidambaram, for Punjab, where most of the protesting farmers hail from, said the farmers actually wanted Parliament to discuss amendments to the three laws.

“When a massive number of people think that a law is unjust, there will be massive protests. Remember what happened in the U.S. against Vietnam war, in Paris... Farmers have not blocked the roads. Farmers wanted to march to Delhi. Who has stopped them and blocked them? The police have blocked them. We see photos of barricades, containers”, Mr. Chidambaram said.

But the CJI said whether the “mob” should be allowed into the city or not was a question best left to the police and not the court.

“Who is here who can give a guarantee that if a mob enters the city, there will not be any loss of damage or violence. This is not the Supreme Court’s decision. That will be based on police intelligence”, he stated.

“This is not a mob, but farmers”, Mr. Chidambaram reacted.

The CJI clarified, “I didn't use the word ‘mob’ in the Chicago sense”.

He then asked Mr. Venugopal whether the government could give an assurance to keep the implementation of the farm laws in abeyance in order to facilitate talks.

The top law officer was non-committal.

Instead, he said the “blockade will have to go”.

“Discussions can be held with their leaders. The protesters are standing there cheek by jowl. Pandemic is spreading. When they go back to their villages, they will spread the disease like wildfire”, he submitted.

“You [government] have not obviously been successful with them so far... That maybe because they were adamant or you were...”, Chief Justice Bobde responded.

He then asked whether it was, after all, factually true that farmers have blocked the entire city. “Is it a fact that just because they are sitting on some roads, the entire city is blocked? It is not like that Delhi is being choked by their protests...”, he said.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the Tikri and Singhu borders were blocked. The Noida carriageway was open, but farmers were threatening to close them.

Entry to Delhi hit: Salve

Senior advocate Harish Salve, for a Delhi resident, said entry to Delhi was severely restricted. “Right to protest is a part of the right to free speech. But free speech cannot affect right to free movement and right to life. Free speech cannot hold a city to ransom during a pandemic. Blockade of Delhi will see prices go up. That’s not rocket science... Right to free speech is not shouting fire in a closed theatre”, he submitted.

Chief Justice Bobde said that was why the court wanted the farmers to accomplish the purpose of their protest by engaging in active talks.

“By blocking Delhi, people may go hungry inside Delhi.. You [farmers] can continue the protest. You have the right. But you should have your purpose in mind too. That purpose will be served only if you talk, discuss and reach a conclusion”, Chief Justice Bobde addressed advocate A.P. Singh, appearing for the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Bhanu).

But the Delhi government disagreed with the Centre’s version that farmers were choking entry to Delhi. “There are 121 entry points to Delhi. Don't listen to all this unless they are placed on affidavit... Mr. Salve's petition is a mischievous one”, Mr. Mehra addressed the court.

The nearly hour-long virtual court hearing ended on an inconclusive note when the court found that many of the protesting farmer bodies were not present. The Bench asked the Centre to serve them notice. Since the court is closing for vacation on December 18, it gave parties liberty to move a Vacation Bench anytime during the holidays.

The court is reopens on January 4.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 12:07:59 AM |

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