The Supreme Court’s intervention to protect the investigation in Uttar Pradesh following the murder of farmers at Lakhimpur Kheri, in which the son of a Union Minister is an accused, as well as the expressions of support for the farming community from the Bench of the Chief Justice of India created ripples days before the Prime Minister’s televised assurance to repeal the controversial farm laws on Friday.
In its November 17 order , a Bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana emphasised the cold cruelty of the crime by noting that the farmers, protesting the agricultural laws, were “rammed from behind” and “then run over” by the same SUV. The Supreme Court said the “tragic loss of lives” deserved an “impartial, fair, just and thorough investigation”. The court disapproved of the “ slow pace, manner and outcome of the investigation conducted so far” by the Uttar Pradesh Police.
November 17 also saw the Supreme Court lash out at “ people sitting in Delhi in five-star and seven-star hotels ” who blame farmers for the pollution. The court said such people do not understand the plight of farmers or their poverty. In an earlier hearing, Justice Surya Kant identified himself and Chief Justice Ramana as “farmers”. “I am a farmer, the CJI is a farmer… we know,” Justice Kant had told the government.
However, the court had not been so empathetic on October 1. A Bench led by Justice A.M. Khanwilkar had accused farmers of “ strangulating the city ”. On that day, the court was hearing a petition filed by farmers’ bodies for permission to hold a satyagraha at the iconic Jantar Mantar in the heart of the Capital.
On October 4, a day after eight people, including four farmers were mowed down at Lakhimpur Kheri, the farmers’ plea to hold a satyagraha had again come up before the same Bench. This time, the Bench had asked why the farmers were continuing to protest when the case against the farm laws was pending in the Supreme Court. Justice Khanwilkar observed the farm laws were passed by the Parliament.
“The government is also bound by the laws passed by the Parliament... We are on principle here. Once you go to court, how can you say ‘the matter is before court, nevertheless I will still protest’,” the judge had queried. The Bench had said that when incidents like Lakhimpur Kheri happen, causing deaths, loss to property and damage, “nobody takes responsibility”.
The Bench that day noted the “central issue” here was whether the right to protest was an “absolute right”. The court had said it would decide whether farmers’ bodies could resort to protests on a subject — the legality of three farm laws — which was sub judice. The observations from this Bench came despite the oft-taken view by another apex court Bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul that farmers had every right to protest peacefully without disturbing the right to public movement.
However, 48 hours after the hearing before Justice Khanwilkar’s Bench, the Lakhimpur Kheri incident was taken up by the Chief Justice’s Bench on October 6, and listed for hearing the very next day.