The top court has no business to appoint a panel to try and mediate between the Centre and the Punjab farmers
On the face of things, given the Centre’s inability to get the agitating Punjab farmers to negotiate and move from their all-or-nothing position, the Supreme Court (SC) has done a good thing by suggesting a panel be set up to decide on the course ahead. Given that the panel will have representatives of the farmers along with those from the government, among others, this will ensure the farmers will at least come to the negotiating table.
There are, however, serious problems with the SC’s approach and it doesn’t help that, on Thursday, no major farmer unions came to the court to agree to even be part of the panel; the bigger problem, of course, is that the SC solution looks like a bad case of straying into the executive’s functions. The farm laws that the Punjab farmers want scrapped, keep in mind, were passed by Parliament and are now the law of the land; if their constitutional validity had been challenged, the SC certainly had a role.
Nor has the SC ruled on what at least one of the petitions was concerned about, on whether the farmers could be allowed to try and blockade the capital. The apex court examining anything other than these issues—or setting up a panel to mediate—is beyond its mandate. Indeed, the verbal observations of the SC on the issue of whether farmers can blockade the capital suggest it is in two minds since it seemed to support the right of the farmers to protest while also saying they could not lay siege to the capital; the fact is, however, that they are protesting by gheraoing the capital.
Nor is it clear how the SC sees events unfolding in the plan it has in mind. If the panel is to take 4-6 weeks to come to an acceptable solution, are the farmers to be allowed to lay siege to the capital till then? If the SC asks them to go home now that a panel has been set up, and they refuse to do so, will it ask the Centre to forcefully evict them? Also, since it is unlikely the panel will come up with a solution that either the Centre or the farmers willfully agree to, how does SC plan to implement this?
And, how is the panel to decide? If the decision is unanimous, there is no problem—assuming the farmers decide that those on the panel represent all of them—but what happens if there are differences among the panel members; if the decision is to be taken by the majority of the members, then the composition of the panel by the SC becomes the clincher.
By agreeing to a solution that allows a panel of persons to suggest something different from the law of the land, the SC is showing a way to any group that is dissatisfied with what the government has proposed. Just get enough persons to gherao the capital, or an important building like Parliament, and then get a ‘neutral’ panel set up. At the very least, in order to arrive at a solution, the panel will recommend the government dilute the laws it has passed. It is important that everyone be heard in a democracy, but there is a forum for this; that forum cannot involve taking the issue to the streets, and certainly, the apex court cannot be seen to be giving its blessing to them by including them in a mediation panel.