In court, the government continues its game to drive a wedge between farm protest leadership

Farmers protest at the Singhu border against three recently enacted farm laws. Farmer unions have not yet agreed to become party to a petition filed in the Supreme Court challenging the protests. Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
20 December, 2020

On 16 December, the Supreme Court proposed the formation of a committee comprising representatives of the central government and farmers organisations to resolve the ongoing deadlock over three recently enacted farm laws. In its interim order on 16 December, the court granted eight farmer leaders, the “permission to implead as respondents” to a petition seeking the removal of the protesting farmers from the Delhi border. Though not officially stated, it is likely that these eight names were proposed by the centre. It is telling that the list of eight names does not include Joginder Singh Ugrahan, the leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), and one of the key people leading the ongoing protests.

Ugrahan has been at the forefront of the agitation at the Tikri border between Delhi and Haryana, leading over one lakh farmers. The central government had earlier invited Ugrahan alone for talks on 28 November when protesting farmers had first gathered at the Tikri and Singhu borders. Ugrahan had refused to participate. “They should call everyone and not try to divide us,” he told me at the time. The centre later attempted to isolate Ugrahan. He was not part of a delegation invited by the union home minister Amit Shah for an informal meeting on the evening of 8 December. That meeting did not yield any conclusive agreement.

On 16 December, I spoke to Ugrahan. He described the SC order as a “judicial intervention that the central government wants, to kill democracy.” He added, “Whenever there is a mass movement governments look forward to support from courts. I think such an act is an attack on the people’s democratic rights.” Ugrahan continued, “The court is looking at the masses, including women and children, sitting in protest in cold wave conditions as their democratic right. The judiciary knows that the farmers in the country are facing severe economic crisis.”

The eight farmer leaders named by the court represent different factions of farmers’ unions, primarily the Bharatiya Kisan Union. The list includes the following leaders—Rakesh Tikait of the BKU (Tikait), Jagjeet Singh Dallewal of BKU (Sidhupur), Balbir Singh Rajewal of BKU (Rajewal), Harinder Singh Lakhowal of BKU (Lakhowal), Buta Singh Burjgill of BKU (Dakaunda), Manjit Singh Rai of BKU (Doaba), Kulwant Singh Sandhu of Jamhoori Kisan Sabha, and Prem Singh Bhangu of Kul Hind Kisan Federation.

However, the farmer unions have not yet agreed to become party to the petition in the court. On 16 December, the leadership of the 30 main farmer organisations from Punjab, camped at the Singhu border, resolved not to become impleading parties suo moto in the court case. This includes all the eight leaders named by the court and their respective unions. This decision was taken at a meeting of the 40-member Sanyukt Kisan Morcha on 16 December. The SKM is a national farmer’s collective, comprising of 40 farmer organisations—the 30 farmer unions from Punjab, and 10 other organisations from outside the state. The SKM includes farmer leaders from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Kerala.

One of the key participants of the 40-member group spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. “It was a trap that we decided to avoid,” he said. Several other farmer leaders also described the act of joining the court process as a “trap” set up by the government. They implied that this was a way to get them to negotiate and comprise on their key demand that the three laws be fully repealed.

While briefing the media after the SKM meeting, Balbir Singh Rajewal of BKU (Rajewal), was somewhat more restrained. He is one of the eight leaders named by the court. He said that “any decision on the court matter” would be taken after consulting lawyers that the farmer unions had reached out to. He disclosed four shortlisted lawyers—Prashant Bhushan, Colin Gonsalves, H S Phoolka and Dushyant Dave.

I also spoke to Darshan Pal of the Krantikari Kisan Union, one of the key leaders during the talks with the government. Referring to the court petition, he said, “It seems this move is the BJP’s game plan after its failure during the talks with us.” Pal does not feature on the list of eight names proposed by the court. Since 3 December, the central government has held several rounds of talks with representatives of farmer unions at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan. These talks have failed, with the farmers demanding a complete repeal of the three laws.

On 17 December, a day after the entire farmer union leadership declined to join the court case suo moto, the SC issued a second interim order. “In order to bring about an effective solution to the present stalemate between the protesters and the Government of India, we consider it appropriate in the interests of justice to constitute a Committee comprising of independent and impartial persons including experts in the field of Agriculture for the purpose,” the court said. “This may not be possible without hearing all the necessary parties. Till the parties come before us, it would be advisable to obtain suggestions about the constitution of the said Committee from all the parties which may be submitted by them on the date of next hearing in the matter.”

In its 17 December order, the court added, “We clarify that this Court will not interfere with the protest in question. Indeed the right to protest is part of a fundamental right and can as a matter of fact, be exercised subject to public order.”  

During the proceedings, the court asked the government’s standing counsel whether the centre can give a commitment that the contentious farm laws will not be implemented while the court is hearing petitions seeking removal of the farmers’ protests. When SA Bobde, the chief justice of India asked KK Venugopal, the attorney general, whether the centre could assure that no executive action will be taken under the laws, Venugopal replied that he would get back after “taking instructions.” Tushar Mehta, the solicitor general, added, “It will be tough.” 

Since September, at least three petitions have been filed in the SC challenging the centre’s farm laws. While hearing Sharma’s petition to remove the farmer protests, the court made a mention of these petitions, but did not state when they will be heard. Referring to the three farm laws, the court said, “The writ petitions challenging the said laws have been filed before this Court and will be decided in due course.” In October, the court had asked the attorney general to file a reply to the petitions within six weeks.

After the court stated that it would not interfere in halting the protests, the farmers’ leadership at both Tikri and Singhu borders seemed to be in an upbeat mood. On 18 December, Ugrahan was speaking to the media at the Singhu border. “Imposing the flawed laws on the people is not right,” he said, pointing out the government’s “double standards” since the protests began. “The government has brought in some non-entity organisations of farmers which were never heard of and is trying to portray that the farmers were all for the farm laws,” Ugrahan told the media. “On the one hand they are talking about amending the laws, on the other hand they are telling the people that the laws were right. We won’t leave Delhi till the government annuls these farm laws.”