Idea of a committee to address farmers’ protests has merits
The Supreme Court’s indication that it will form a committee to address the farmers’ protests that have paralysed the outskirts of the national capital is one that might in fact work, and is in a way overdue — but it is a plan that should have emerged from the political leadership, and not from judges. A three-judge Bench of the Court has said that this putative committee would include representatives of farmer unions from across the country as well as some representatives of the government, and it would address the vexed question of the farm laws of this year, which was the spark for the farmers’ agitation. Certainly, structured dialogue around the actual issues that arise from the new farm legislation will bring down the temperature considerably. It is thus a step forward in what showed signs of becoming a long-running impasse.
Even so, there are disquieting elements to this development. For one, the government should have created a structured format for discussion long ago, when the farmers’ protests were just getting started. There is a danger in legitimising such forms of protest once it has already become severely disruptive — as the United Progressive Alliance government discovered to its cost when it sent senior politicians to negotiate with the self-appointed leaders of the anti-corruption “movement”. But, either way, managing the political and distributive impact of new laws is surely the province of the executive. It is because the government has shown insufficient inclination to actually resolve the outstanding issues that a way has been opened for the courts to take over this issue. The farmers’ leaders are themselves showing a great deal of intransigence. This was visible in their negative reaction to a meeting with the Union home minister and the subsequent list of written proposals to break the deadlock issued by the government. Many of the government’s proposals for the farmers were substantive, and would have gone some way to addressing their stated concerns. Yes, such consultation should have taken place before the laws were pushed through, but it is still the case that the government appears to be willing to negotiate. The fact is that the farmers, although they may at the moment have captured elements of the public imagination, must realise the limits of disruptive protest — especially if the target is legislative rollbacks.
The government only has to wait it out for the public mood to turn against the protests — if, for example, shortages of essential supplies begin to pinch the citizens of Delhi. It is, therefore, in the interest of both parties for a reasonable discussion to begin on the principles at stake in this dispute. But the government, which is speaking in many voices, is losing trust among farmers. While the prime minister reminded the nation recently that democracy is about “talking and listening,” some of his cabinet colleagues are labelling them as “tukde tukde gang” and the protests being “infiltrated by Leftists and Maoist elements”. This only creates more confusion. It is in the end the responsibility of the government of the day to ensure that its legislation is accepted by the public and implemented without disruption. Courts cannot rule on such matters; they must scrutinise if the law has been upheld and constitutional principles satisfied. If the executive’s failure to show satisfactory progress on negotiations with farmers allows the courts to open another front in the tussle between these two branches of government, then it must count as a double defeat.