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On farm protests, Supreme Court now says it is okay to protest, not block roads

The top court’s bench told the Centre that the Supreme Court has laid down the law on protest and the roads blocked by unions protesting the farm laws must be cleared. “You as an administrator must look into it that it is done,” the bench said.
The Supreme Court’s comment on Thursday appeared to be at variance with another bench’s observations on October 1 when it pulled up the farm unions for holding protests at a time the challenge to the three farm laws were pending in court. (Amal KS/HT PHOTO)
Published on Oct 21, 2021 08:41 PM IST
ByAbraham Thomas

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Thursday told agitating farmer unions that there is no bar to protest pending the legal challenge to the farm laws, but they should not block roads. The top court, which is hearing a petition by a Noida resident who complained that the farm protests have turned the commute between Delhi and the neighbouring districts into a nightmare, has given the farm unions three weeks to come up with a solution to ensure the roads are cleared for the public.

“Farmers have a right to agitate even if there is a legal challenge pending. We have no difficulty on that as we feel people have a right to go to the streets and protest. But roads cannot be blocked and ultimately some solution must be found,” the bench of justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MM Sundresh said on Thursday.

The bench’s comment on Thursday appeared to be at variance with another bench’s observations on October 1 when it pulled up the farm unions for holding protests at a time the challenge to the three farm laws were pending in court.

“We deem it appropriate to examine the central issue as to whether the right to protest is an absolute right and, more so, the writ petitioner having already invoked the legal remedy before the constitutional court by filing a writ petition, can be permitted to urge, much less assert that they can still resort to protest in respect of the same subject matter which is already sub-judice before the Court,” the bench headed by justice AM Khanwilkar said while hearing a plea by one farm union, Kisan Mahapanchayat, seeking permission to hold satyagraha at Jantar Mantar after Delhi Police turned down their request.

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There is another petition filed through lawyer Shashank Shekhar who wants the protesting farmers to be removed from the national capital’s borders where they have been camping for months. This petition is yet to be heard.

The 43 farm unions told on Thursday to respond within three weeks were added as parties by the top court on October 4 after the Centre told the court that attempts to persuade farmers to end their agitation have failed and a solution could be worked out only by bringing the farmer unions on board.

Four farmer unions appeared before the court on Thursday. These were Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) through President Rakesh Tikait, BKU-Rajewal through its leader Balbir Singh Rajewal, Gurbax Singh of Jai Kisan Andolan, Punjab and Hannan Mollah of Hind Kisan Sangharsh Talmel Samiti. Representing them, senior advocate Dushyant Dave assisted by advocate Prashant Bhushan told the court that the blockade is not by farmers but due to the security arrangement by Delhi Police.

“The police should allow us to come to Ramlila Maidan. Why did they stop us? At Ramlila, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was allowed to conduct a rally. This amounts to double standards. Why this selective approach,” Dave said, adding, “Certainly a part of the road is blocked. But it is because of the arrangement made by the Delhi Police.”

The court referred to the January 26 incident when the tractor rally carried out by farmers took a violent turn. “When some people were allowed to enter, there was a serious issue,” remarked the bench. The court posted the matter for hearing on December 7.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the court that when the farmer unions were called for talks by the central government, they refused to cooperate. An assurance was given to the court by lawyers for the farmer unions that their tractor rally shall be peaceful but on January 12, these lawyers did not appear. He urged the court to ascertain if Dave and Bhushan represented the farmer unions and not individual leaders. “Some of the farmer unions are willing for dialogue. We brought them on board as they were not parties to this petition. By the next date, the rest of the unions will also come,” Mehta said.

The bench said, “We have laid down the law on protest. It was only when you felt that the presence of farmer unions will help resolve the issue that we issued notice. Roads must be cleared. You (Centre) as an administrator must look into it that it is done.”

Dave alleged that an enquiry must be ordered into the January 26 incident to ascertain who engineered the violence. He said that persons who insulted the national flag on Red Fort were granted bail and the state consented to it.

Both Bhushan and Dave pointed out that the right to farmers to protest peacefully was upheld by the Supreme Court bench which is considering the validity of the three laws. Referring to the January 12 order staying the farm laws, Dave said that since the present PIL related to farmer protest and right to free movement of citizens, the same should be sent to the other bench.

“We will consider your prayer to send the matter to the other bench after the stand of parties is placed before us,” the bench added.

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