Farmers reject Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar’s proposals even as Supreme Court upholds their right to protest

Published : December 18, 2020 21:41 IST

Protesting farmers at the Delhi-Haryana border. Photo: Manish Swarup/AP

The protests by farmers under the banner of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha entered its 23th day on the borders of Delhi at Singhu, Tikri, Ghazipur, and at Shahjahanpur in Haryana even as the Central government mounted a frontal attack on the opposition, alleging that the protests were engineered by political parties.

Addressing a farmers’ rally in Madhya Pradesh on December 18, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that political parties did not have problems with the laws but with the fact that they could not deliver what they had promised in their own manifestos. He said that the political parties could take “credit” for the farm reforms if they wanted. The laws were not passed in a hurry, he said, and added that the demand for such farm laws had existed for decades. He claimed that it was his government that had “dug out the Swaminathan Commission recommendations” and implemented them. He did not say a word about the protesting farmers suffering under the open skies in severe cold conditions.

He did not mention the inconvenient fact that it was his own government that informed the Supreme Court in an affidavit that it was unable to implement the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations. He claimed that his government had raised the Minimum Support Price (MSP) of paddy at Rs.1,870 a quintal and wheat at Rs,1,975 a quintal. His claim was debunked by farmers’ organisations who said that paddy was sold at Rs.900 in Bihar where the APMC Act was abolished by Nitish Kumar in 2006. The farmers’ representatives said that the Prime Minister’s claim that the land of the farmers would be protected under the Contract Act did not inspire confidence as already an amount of one lakh crore had been allotted to companies to invest in agricultural infrastructure.

Meanwhile, farmer organisations decried Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar’s move to engage in talks with some obscure farmer organisations. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha stated that this was a ploy to engineer a split in the protests. Narendra Singh Tomar also sent an open letter to farmer leaders, including to Hannan Mollah, general secretary, All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and eight-time Lok Sabha MP of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), with a few proposals. Hannan Mollah told the media that there was nothing new in the proposals.

The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), the over-arching front representing all the 500 farmer organisations participating in the protest, stated that the Agriculture Minister’s letter made fictitious claims that the farmer would not lose his land under the Contract Act. But the Act, in fact, provides for the mortgage of land under Section 9 and for the recovery of dues from the farmer in the form of arrears of land revenue for advances taken from a company or sponsor. The letter, stated the AIKSCC. indicated that the government was unwilling to talk.

The farmers’ protest received an unexpected boost when the Supreme Court declined to intervene in the farmers’ right to protest while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) petition seeking the court’s intervention to remove the protesters. “We are of the view at this stage that the farmers’ protest should be allowed to continue without any impediment and without any breach of peace either by the protesters or the police,” held a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde. “We clarify that this Court will not interfere with the protest in question. Indeed, the right to protest is a fundamental right and can, as a matter of fact, be exercised subject to public order,” it held. The CJI, on his part, also suggested that the government could hold back the implementation of the farm laws in order to facilitate discussions.

It recognised the fundamental right to protest against a law, but held that it should not affect the fundamental rights and right to life of others. It also stated that it was familiar with the plight of the farmers. It said that the protests could continue in a non-violent manner and that the police “also cannot use violent means”. Stating that the “purpose of protest could be achieved if people talk to each other”, it held that it was willing to propose an impartial committee of experts.

The bench declined to enter into the domain of the validity of the farm laws. A petition filed by Tiruchi Siva, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) MP, to declare the farm laws as void and unconstitutional is pending before the apex court.

While farmer organisations welcomed the order, they were of the opinion that the onus to resolve the matter was on the executive and the government and not the courts. The AIKS said that the Supreme Court could have stayed the three farm laws on humanitarian grounds as farmers were sitting under the open skies, braving the bitter winter cold. It recalled that it was the supreme court that had taken notice of the more than five lakh farmer suicides in the country. The AIKS also pointed out that in 2017, the Supreme Court had declined to intervene in matters concerning the MSP, saying such decisions fell in the domain of the executive.

Since the protests began, an estimated 20 farmers have died so far in the protests and the farmers have decided to pay tribute to them. On December 16, Karnal Sant Ram Singh, a popular preacher, took his life at the Singhu border. Ram Singh was a popular preacher with a huge following in both Punjab and Haryana. In his suicide note, he said that he could not bear the pain and suffering of the farmers. All leading political parties and their leaders from Punjab condoled his death. Ironically, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar who let loose his police on the protesters also condoled the preacher’s death.