Punjab-Haryana farmers are unlikely to cancel the protest after the Supreme Court suspended implementation of agricultural reforms for a year, until they are reviewed by a panel of experts. However, contrary to the perception that the suspension of the three agricultural laws and the formation of a panel of experts is a setback for the government, we believe that the latter may indeed have reason to feel relieved.
The Center was at the end of its rope, unable to break the deadlock despite holding eight rounds of talks with the leaders of some 40 farmers’ unions squatted on the Delhi border for more than six weeks. The talks turned out to be completely unnecessary, especially when the farmers insisted on outright repealing the laws and did not agree to amendments to clarify matters and allay their doubts and suspicions. The all-or-nothing approach was clear from their response to Tuesday’s SC decision.
They said the siege would continue, regardless of the suspension of the laws. And furthermore, they would not cooperate with the panel of experts which would be headed by a former chief justice of India. In other words, the intervention of the Supreme Court may also not resolve the impasse. It is remarkable that the lawyers who appeared Monday on behalf of the farmers’ unions did not participate in the virtual hearing of the case on Tuesday.
The four lawyers, all known to be anti-Modi, skipped school, calling for a stern rebuke from Chief Justice SA Bobde. Lawyers cannot appear when it is convenient for them and be absent from proceedings when they are not. In all likelihood, after enthusiastically taking up the farmers’ case, the lawyers were rejected by their clients when they refused to commit to abiding by the court ruling.
Or, the lawyers themselves felt trapped, realizing that the court’s decision to suspend implementation of the laws would force them to suspend the agitation and cooperate with the work of the proposed group. After all, the four members appointed to the panel on Tuesday were independent experts of impeccable integrity. Or it could be that the lawyers in question realized belatedly that any decision the court might make to break the deadlock would help ease the pressure on the government, which would not serve their political agendas.
Either way, the Supreme Court has now shifted the onus on the protesters to appear reasonable and accept its decision in good faith. To continue the siege of the capital would use up the last ounce of public goodwill that farmers can still enjoy. That prominent opposition leaders felt compelled to welcome the court’s decision should be taken into account by farmers when they officially deliver their response to the court on Wednesday. It is significant that the government reassured the court to provide evidence of Khalistanis infiltration into the protests.
Meanwhile, Tuesday’s hearing revealed how far the government was prepared to go, to dispel doubts about the three pieces of legislation. She told the Court that she was ready to make a formal commitment to maintain the current system of purchasing food grains under the minimum support price mechanism. In addition, he agreed to make appropriate changes to ensure that farmers who entered into a contract farming deal would not lose their land under any circumstances. In any case, contract farming was voluntary and no farmer, even under the current law, was required to join if he did not consciously want to.
The will of the court to break the deadlock is clear from the remarks of the CJI during the hearing. He repeatedly said that there was no policy, “we are looking for the cooperation of all parties to solve the problem.” The only party that will refuse to cooperate, it seems, are the farmers’ unions who, misled by special interests. Barring an outright repeal of the laws, the government has always said it will change them to allay farmers’ fears, real or imagined. In the meantime, it would be interesting to observe the response of the Congressional government to the Punjab, which has been one of the main supporters of the protest.