The announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 19, on the withdrawal of the three farm laws and his urging “all agitating farmers to go back to their families and villages and let’s make a new beginning”, did not raise eyebrows in the country. There were compulsions, both internal and external, for the Bharatiya Janata Party to do so notwithstanding the fact that the laws were under legal scrutiny by the Supreme Court of India. The forthcoming elections to the Uttar Pradesh and Punjab Assemblies may have also been a factor in shaping the Prime Minister’s decision.
A long battle
After Parliament hurriedly passed the three enactments, to bring in ‘reforms’ in the agriculture sector, the volley of protests began. Swarms of farmers along with their tractors converged along the borders of Delhi marking the beginning of an over year long battle. Surprisingly, many State legislatures have passed resolutions opposing the three farm laws. When someone questioned the authority of the legislatures to pass such resolutions, it was correctly negatived by the Supreme Court.
Editorial | Seeds of hope: On farm laws repeal
When cases were filed in the Supreme Court, it not only granted a limited stay of the implementation of the laws but also appointed an expert committee to submit a report on these pieces of legislation. The Court also raised the question whether it was proper for the protesters to continue with their agitation even when the Court was seized of the matter. Another question was also raised over how long the agitating farmers would occupy the roads and that there must be a limit for such sit-ins.
The Modi Government did not wait for any verdict from the Court but took the pragmatic position to withdraw the farm laws in view of the “large-scale misconceptions” among the people. However, the farmers have indicated that they will still continue to protest until the repeal law is passed in the winter session of Parliament. In a democracy, ultimately, sovereignty vests with the people and elected Parliamentarians have only a limited brief of legislating on the subjects allotted to Parliament. On the other hand, there is nothing in the law to prevent those aggrieved from lobbying against such laws which according to them is harmful, even though, significantly, the higher courts have the power to scrutinise any law made and to determine whether they are inconsistent with the fundamental rights enshrined in Part III of the Constitution. Many a time the delay in determination also makes the aggrieved impatient by taking the matter to the streets.
Plan for a capital
But the announcement of the withdrawal of the farm laws was not surprising when compared to the announcement of withdrawal of the Andhra Pradesh Decentralisation and Inclusive Development of All Regions Act, 2020 and the A.P. Capital Region Development Authority Repeal Act, 2020 by the Y.S.R. Congress Party (YSRCP) Government led by its Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy. After the election of his party, the YSRCP, to form the government, he decided to dismantle the only capital of Andhra Pradesh at Amaravathi; he also decided on its trifurcation: Amaravathi (legislative), Kurnool (judicial) and Visakhapatnam (executive). This new law was passed when the YSRCP won 151 seats in the 175-member Andhra Pradesh Assembly in 2019. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) which became the first ruling party of the newly formed Andhra Pradesh State was reduced to 23 seats.
N. Chandrababu Naidu who led the TDP after the bifurcation of the undivided Andhra Pradesh State into Telangana and Andhra Pradesh decided to locate the new capital at Amaravathi which is situated between Vijayawada and Guntur and inaugurated the interim secretariat there. To locate and develop the infrastructure of the capital, the TDP Government acquired an estimated 33,000 acres from farmers while also proposing to acquire another 50,000 acres, leading to large-scale protests from the farmers of the region. Notwithstanding this, the TDP Government proceeded with the construction of the capital, allotting plots to judges of the High Court for their residences. The High Court also approved the plan submitted to create judicial infrastructure for locating the new High Court and other subordinate courts at Amaravathi.
The twists and turns
Taking advantage of the farmers’ unrest, the successor Y.S. Jagmohan Reddy Government began a campaign to have three different capitals, even enacting a law. An inquiry into the land purchase and allotments was ordered. Controversy arose when a case was registered against a former Andhra Pradesh Advocate General and the family members of a Supreme Court judge alleging that there had been insider trading. On a petition filed by the former Advocate General, the Andhra Pradesh High Court issued a gag order on the press from reporting on the first information report filed by the Anti Corruption Bureau. The gag order was stayed by the Supreme Court of India on a petition filed by the Andhra Pradesh Government. Subsequently, several developments took place in the Andhra Pradesh High Court. Justice D.V.S.S. Somayajulu stayed the SIT probe ordered against the land scam pursuant to a decision taken by a cabinet sub-committee.
There were several shocking developments subsequent to the probe being ordered against the Amaravathi land deal. A Division Bench of Justice M. Satyanarayana Murthy and Justice Lalitha Kanneganti J.J. ordered an inquiry into a telephonic conversation allegedly about a plot against the Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh and another sitting judge of the Supreme Court. The inquiry was to be headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge, Justice R.V. Raveendran, to verify the authenticity of the conversation. It is interesting that Justice Raveendran has been appointed by the Chief Justice of India, Justice N.V. Ramana, to supervise the three-member expert committee that will go into the Pegasus snooping case.
It was more shocking when a division Bench of Justices Rakesh Kumar and J. Umadevi while hearing a habeas corpus petition (on a request on behalf of the Advocate General for a short adjournment, passed an order dated October 1, 2020) which said: “On the next date, learned senior counsel appearing on behalf of the State may come prepared to assist the Court as to whether in the circumstances, which are prevailing in the state of Andhra Pradesh, the Court can record a finding that there is Constitutional breakdown in the State or not”. It is unheard of for a court to make a mention about bringing President’s Rule in a case between the state and an individual.
It was under these circumstances that the Chief Minister, Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, wrote a letter dated October 11, 2020 to the then Chief Justice of India for an inquiry into the role of the Supreme Court judge, who, according to him, was involved in a scam. However, no such in-house enquiry was ordered. However, the letter by the Chief Minister was released to the press by the personal adviser to the Chief Minister.
Things did not end with a complaint made to the highest judicial authority. The next day, the same division Bench while entertaining another case observed: “Even some occupying high positions and Constitutional posts are not restraining themselves in committing the same mistake... due to the result of [a] larger conspiracy, the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] is required to take appropriate action against such culprits irrespective of the post and position. It goes without saying that the CBI immediately after taking up investigation may take steps so that all the defamatory posts available on social media, i.e., private respondents, may [be] struck down and may also take steps to block such users in accordance with law.”
The Chief Minister’s woes continued. The new Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh, Prashant Kumar Mishra, and Justices Satyanarayana Murthy and Somayajulu, constituting the full Bench, held a fresh hearing of the batch of writ petitions that challenged the Andhra Pradesh Decentralisation and Inclusive Development of All Regions Act, 2020 and Capital Region Development Authority Repeal Act, 2020. The Government of Andhra Pradesh filed a recusal petition asking Justices Satyanarayana Murthy and Somayajulu to withdraw from the full Bench hearing as they were admittedly recipients of a housing plot at Amaravathi allotted to them. When this issue was raised before the court, the Chief Justice presiding over the Bench refused the recusal, and when asked for an order on this issue, said that orders would be passed along with the main case. In normal course, when even allegations of apparent bias on the part of the presiding officers are raised, appropriate orders will be pronounced then and there as such matters go to the root of the issue.
Even while the arguments are in progress, the Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy Government came up with the withdrawal of the two pieces of legislation with a reservation to introduce an appropriate Bill at a later date. It is not clear whether the Government was giving in to the pressure mounted by the Opposition TDP or that it did not want to face litigation at this juncture becoming adverse. In any event, the withdrawal proposal followed from the developments the Government faced vis-à-vis the judiciary. The Government had not given up the proposed trifurcation of the capital and locating them in three regions. This may be a litigation strategy normally adopted by litigants expecting changes in the judicial spectrum.
The withdrawal of the legislations by two governments has a different background but what is worrisome is the circumstances surrounding the State government’s decision that has no parallel in the judicial history of India.
Justice K. Chandru is a retired judge of the Madras High Court