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Insights into Editorial: End the impasse: On prolonged impasse over three farm laws

 

 

Context:

The time may have come for a more concerted effort by the Government and the protesting farmers to find a solution to the prolonged impasse over the three agriculture-related laws enacted last year.

The Supreme Court has emphasised that public roads cannot be blocked indefinitely by protesters.

In an observation in the context of more petitions from members of the public, complaining that their right of free movement has been curtailed by the ongoing protests by farmers, the Court has said a solution has to be found, that roads cannot be blocked for long and there is no reason for it to lay down the law again and again.

The reference was to last year’s judgment on the Shaheen Bagh protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, wherein it was held that public ways and public spaces cannot be blocked indefinitely even during a peaceful protest.

The observation can be seen either as a disapproval of the tactic of holding interminable protests or as an implicit criticism of the Government for being unable to find a solution to the farmers’ grievances.

 

Fundamental Right: Right to Protest in India:

The right to protest is the manifestation of three Fundamental Rights:

  1. Right to Freedom of Assembly
  2. Right to Freedom of Association and
  3. Right to Freedom of Speech

The Constitution of India provides the right of freedom, given in Article 19 with the view of guaranteeing individual rights that were considered vital by the framers of the constitution.

The Right to protest peacefully is enshrined in Article 19(1) (a) guarantees the freedom of speech and expression;

Article 19(1) (b) assures citizens the right to assemble peaceably and without arms.

 

Fundamental Right: Right to protest and express dissent:

  1. The Constitution guarantees the right to protest and express dissent, but with an obligation towards certain duties.
  2. Article 19 confers upon citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) and right to assemble peacefully without arms under Article 19(1)(b).
  3. These rights, in cohesion, enable every citizen to assemble peacefully and protest against action or inaction of the State.
  4. However, these rights are also subject to reasonable restrictions mentioned under Article 19(2), imposed in the interest of sovereignty, integrity and public order with the help of police regulations.
  5. Fundamental rights do not live-in isolation. The right of the protester has to be balanced with the right of the commuter and has to co-exist in mutual respect.

 

Freedom to protest vs. Right to free movement of the public:

  1. The conflict between the two competing rights, freedom to protest and the right to free movement of the public is not the only aspect that requires immediate attention.
  2. There seems to be no attempt to break the deadlock on the core issue, with the farmers demanding an outright repeal of the laws and statutory validation for the claim that the MSP regime will not come to an end.
  3. Previously, SC appreciated the existence of the right to peaceful protest against the legislation and held that “democracy and dissent go hand in hand, but then the demonstrations expressing dissent have to be in designated places alone”.
  4. The seeds of protest and dissent were sown deep during the Freedom struggle but dissent against the colonial rule cannot be equated with dissent in a self-ruled democracy.

 

Protestor’s viewpoints:

The protestors argued that the protest is for the democracy, protest is to protect the integrity of flaws in the country.

Something which was passed in our Parliament both in Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, because the protest was against the Citizenship amendment Act.

Subsequently, government said that they are right now not going ahead with it and the protest was supposed to protect the constitutional values.

The court said that the protestors themselves did not adhere to the constitutional values i.e. that you cannot inconvenience others and in name of democracy you cannot create problems.

 

Way ahead steps:

  1. Late last year, the protesting farmers and Union Ministers did come to a partial agreement on decriminalising stubble-burning and safeguarding power subsidies, but the two core demands have not seen any breakthrough.
  2. It is not out of place to recall that an expert committee constituted by the Court has submitted its report, but nothing has been heard about it after that.
  3. To an extent, the fact that the Court has not taken it up again or made the report public may be a factor in the continuing impasse.
  4. An expedited hearing that involves further review of the panel’s recommendations, or any such similar initiative from the Government, is needed to arrive at a solution.
  5. The objective must not be merely to resolve the incidental issue of blocked roads, but to reconcile or eliminate the deep differences over what the Government sees as necessary reforms in the farm sector.
  6. Any reform that seeks to eliminate distortions in the sector must also win the confidence of farmers, the principal stakeholders.

 

Need to address Farm laws as early as possible:

Government should massively fund the expansion of the APMC market system, make efforts to remove trade cartels, and provide farmers good roads, logistics of scale and real time information.

Rather than opting for heavy centralisation, the emphasis should be on empowering farmers through State Farmers Commissions recommended by the National Commission for Farmers, to bring about a speedy government response to issues.

The Centre should reach out to those opposing the Bills, including farmers, explain to them the need for reform, and get them on board.

Without strong institutional arrangements, the free market may harm lakhs of unorganised small farmers, who have been remarkably productive and shored up the economy even during a pandemic.

 

Conclusion:

In a democracy, the rights of free speech and peaceful protest are “treasured” and must be encouraged and respected.

However, the most important observation that was made by court and it categorically said that Peaceful protest is a constitutional right of protestors, peaceful protest should be allowed.

But it does not mean that there can be a blockage, people can be inconvenienced or a protest which disrupts the normal life.

The court’s verdict strengthens that right to protest is constitutional right but it can be restricted if it harms the rights of other people as it happened in Shaheen Bagh case as the protestors blocked a stretch of the road for several months which caused a lot of problem to commuters.