Affirming that the right to protest is part of a fundamental right, the Supreme Court on Thursday said it will not interfere at this stage with the farmers' ongoing stir, and the agitation should be allowed to continue “without impediment” and without any breach of peace either by the protestors or the police.
As the top court in its bid to break the deadlock between the Centre and the farmers even mooted the idea of putting the three contentious farm laws on hold for their talks to continue, Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar issued an 8-page open letter to farmers saying the Centre is ready to address all their concerns.
The Centre opposed the suggestion made by the court with Attorney General K K Venugopal saying the farmers would then not come forward for the negotiations. The government’s top law officer, however, told the bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde that he would get back after taking instructions on keeping on hold implementation of the laws. The two sides have held five round of talks so far.
As it acknowledged the right to non-violent protest of farmers and also explored options to find an “effective solution” to end the impasse, the court said it wanted to set up an "impartial and independent" panel of agriculture experts and farmer unions but did not pursue the suggestion as agriculturists' bodies, impleaded as parties by it on Wednesday, could not appear today to give their views. The agitation for the repeal of the three farm laws at Delhi’s border points entered the 22nd day.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Tomar through his letter to farmers has made an effort to engage in a humble dialogue, and appealed to the 'annadaatas' to read it.
Tomar in his letter said the Modi government is committed to the welfare of farmers and stressed that the new agri laws are aimed at benefiting small and marginal farmers.
"Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar has written a letter to farmer brothers and sisters and expressed his feelings, he has made an effort to engage in a humble dialogue. I request all 'annadaatas' (farmers), do read it. I also request all the people of the country to ensure that this letter reaches more and more people," Modi tweeted in Hindi.
Accusing the Congress and other opposition parties of spreading falsehoods on the new farm laws, Tomar also appealed to the agitating farmers not to fall prey to the "white lies" being spread by “politically motivated people”. The agitating farmers are demanding scrapping of the three new farm laws enacted by the Centre.
Tomar, who is leading the negotiations with about 40 farmer unions along with Food Minister Piyush Goyal and Minister of State for Commerce Som Parkash, assured that the minimum support price (MSP) will continue and mandi system will be strengthened .
In an apparent attack on the Left parties, the minister said they were still speaking the language they used in 1962 when India went to war with China.
The Delhi Assembly, meanwhile, witnessed high drama when Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and fellow AAP MLAs tore the copies of the three new agri laws.
As the Assembly passed a resolution against the legislations, Kejriwal said he cannot betray the farmers of the country.
Addressing the Assembly, he also alleged the laws have been made for "electoral funding of the BJP and not the farmers".
At the apex court, senior lawyer Harish Salve, appearing for one of the parties in connection with the plea for removal of the protestors, raised the issue of people of Delhi-NCR facing serious difficulties due to the ongoing stir as it is seriously inhibiting the supply of essential goods to the city because of restrictions on the free movement of goods vehicles.
“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 and is in accordance with law," the court said.
“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,” the bench, which also comprised justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, said in its order.
During the hearing conducted through video-conferencing, the bench observed that it recognises the farmers' right to protest but this right should not infringe the fundamental rights of others to move freely and in getting essential food and other supplies.
“The pendency of these matters will not prevent the parties from resolving the issue amicably,” it said.
On being told that the negotiations are not happening at the moment, it said farmers cannot keep on protesting without talking to the government.
“You continue the protest. You have the right. But you have a purpose also and that purpose is served only if you talk, discuss and reach a conclusion."
“We are worried about the plight of farmers. We are also Indian but we are worried with the way things are going on,” it said. and added “they (protesting farmers) are not a mob”.
Maintaining that in a democracy, police and authorities have to be given power to prevent the protestors from infringing the rights of others, the bench said "Who will take guarantee that if farmers are allowed to enter the city in such high numbers, they will not resort to violence?
"Court cannot guarantee this. Court does not have the wherewithal to prevent any such violence. It has to be the police and other authorities who will protect the right of others,” the bench said, adding that right to protest cannot mean blockade of the entire city.
The top court is hearing a clutch of petitions seeking the removal of thousands of protesting farmers.
Leaders of the protesting farmers welcomed the apex court's acknowledgment of the right of farmers to undertake non-violent protests, and said their agitation will continue until a concrete solution is found.
Regarding the move by the Supreme Court to set up an "impartial and independent" panel of agriculture experts and peasants’ unions to resolve the deadlock, the leaders said they will explore technical aspects by consulting senior lawyers - including Colin Gonsalves, Dushyant Dave and Prashant Bhushan.
"We will meet senior lawyers Colin Gonsalves, Dushyant Dave, H S Phoolka and Prashant Bhushan tomorrow and consult them about what can be done," Abhimanyu Kohar, a leader of the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdor Sabha, told PTI.
BKU senior leader Dharampal Malik said the Centre should first make their strategy clear on whether it wants to put on hold the contentious farm laws.
Union Home Minister and senior BJP leader Amit Shah held a meeting with Union ministers Nirmala Sitharaman, Piyush Goyal and Narendra Singh Tomar to discuss the farmers' agitation.
The hour-long meeting was held at the BJP head office in Delhi and was also attended by the party's general secretaries CT Ravi, Dushyant Gautam and Arun Singh among others.
According to sources, during the meeting Shah reviewed the BJP's outreach programme through press conferences and ‘chaupals’ or open meetings across all districts regarding the three agri bills.
"Many farmers unions have supported farm laws. But some farmer groups have created confusion. Being an agriculture minister, it is my duty to remove misconceptions and address concerns of every farmers. It is also my duty to expose the conspiracy being hatched around Delhi and present the truth and facts before you," Tomar said in his letter.
The minister cautioned the farmers against the entry of people and organisations which have nothing to do with farming and are "trying to spread anarchy and fuel discontent".
Such elements, he said, are taking advantage of farm agitation to pressurise the government to release people accused of spreading violence from prison.
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine