Reprieve for Centre

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The SC committee is seen to help govt sail through farmers imbroglio

Some strange things are happening in the country. There is a government with a brute majority in Parliament. That government brought up and got three laws passed, insisting they were very crucial for the transformation of the Indian agriculture. Farmers oppose it and demand the repeal of the laws. Negotiations start between the government and the protesting farmers. The negotiations are still going on when the Supreme Court decides to set up a committee of experts and directs it to hold talks with all the concerned parties and submit its report to the court within two months. A legitimately elected government should have told the court there was no need for such a panel to hold talks as they were already engaged in holding talks with the farmers’ unions. Instead, the government welcomes the court initiative. Days before the court set up the committee, the ministers during their talks with farmers’ union representatives had told them they might leave the matter to the Supreme Court. The farmers union did not want the matter to go to the Supreme Court. And they were right: the farmers are not questioning the government or Parliament’s competence to make laws. They are questioning the overall policy direction embedded in the laws which they think threaten their existence as farmers. The policy direction can only be changed by the government. The Supreme Court has no role in it.

Yet, the Chief Justice S A Bobde and his brother judges have gone ahead and set up a committee headed by retired Chief Justice of India R M Lodha for holding talks in the middle of the ongoing talks between the government and the farmers’ unions. Another strange thing happened. The court selected four members of the committee — Bhupinder Singh Mann, President of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) and All India Coordination Committee; Pramod Kumar Joshi, Director, South Asia International Food Policy; Anil Ghanwat of Shetkari Sangathana and economist Ashok Gulati — who were all known to be pro-reforms! The protesting farmers unions have announced they will not appear before the committee. They were obviously not satisfied with stay on the laws and expressed their decision to continue with their protests until they were repealed. The situation is back to square one.

While the Supreme Court says that it wants the stalemate to end and has unilaterally decided to form the committee, legal experts feel that the apex court has sought to enter a territory it has not explored before. They say this was perhaps the first time that the top court has stayed laws passed by the Parliament without even hearing the matter to examine its constitutionality which is the apex court’s primary function. The SC’s stand on farm laws was in contrast to its position in previous instances when it underlined the presumption of constitutionality even in executive orders without the backing of legislation. What has surprised the legal fraternity is that the top court chose to hear a bunch of petitions, majority of which seek directions to implement the laws and others seek the court’s intervention to quell the protests. In contrast, the top court had earlier declined to hear the petition moved by the Punjab government that challenged the constitutionality of the laws.

According to the legal experts, rather than examining the constitutionality of laws and pronouncing its judgement, the SC has sought to expand its role into political and administrative management without expressed legal sanction. The apex court cannot project itself as the “saviour” of democracy while making a mockery of the parliamentary process. It is sad times for the Indian judiciary. Chief Justice Bobde and his brother judges cannot blame anyone but themselves if there is a perception that the SC is performing an unusual role in expanding its role to shield the government rather than doing justice to farmers. The apex court has been under public scanner in the recent years for one reason or another and the decision on farm laws only adds to bewilderment. The central government was at sea about how to handle the farmers’ protests. The SC’s expert committee is seen as an attempt to allow the government to sail through without having to undergo legal scrutiny.