The Supreme Court’s act of putting on hold the three far-reaching agriculture laws under pressure from rich and already pampered farmers and brokers from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh belongs to the series of cases of judicial activism of the kind against which the Narendra Modi government, for reasons known best to it, is not making even a squeak of a protest. If the government is consoling itself by assuming that the apex court has facilitated dilly-dallying politics to put off the clamorous mendicants who have cordoned off the national capital with the help of pro-reform farmers on the panel, it is mistaken if it is inhibited to speak up against the highest court of the country. It is equally wrong if it believes that the refusal by the farm unions to engage in a dialogue with this committee has turned the judgment infructuous. Since judicial activism began, members of the parliament, especially of the ruling party, have time and again said this encroachment was unacceptable. And no such objection has led to contempt of court proceedings. The only dishonourable mention is that of Indira Gandhi who thought she could defy the Allahabad High Court order in 1973. While prime ministers and chief ministers have urged the courts to respect the space of the legislators through the 1980s and 1990s, now one hears only Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu carrying the baton of protest, as he did in November last year, citing examples of orders on Diwali “fireworks, cess on registration and movement of vehicles from NCR through Delhi, banning the use of vehicles of certain make after 10 or 15 years, monitoring police investigations, denying the executive any role in the appointment of judges by instituting collegium, invalidating the National Judicial Accountability Commission Act seeking to ensure transparency and accountability” as instances of judicial overreach.
The public angst might perhaps have been lesser if the judicial orders did not give the impression that the judges have a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul mindset of socialists. Like in several cases by different courts before, even in the case of farm laws, the bench comprising Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian did not spare a thought for the hapless taxpayers of the country who would end up subsidising the SUV-driving farmers who hail from that region of the country where 6% of the population in the occupation, who have been regularly getting the minimum support price for their crops for ages, is concentrated. This is not to say that the court has declared the laws null and void, but throughout the hearings, the tenor of speech of the judges suggested it was heckling a docile government while treating the shameless freeloading petitioners with kid gloves. This was grossly unfair also to the poor peasants from the rest of the country who had gradually begun discovering the fruits of freedom, with an Andhra Pradesh farmer, for example, getting an all-time high price of Rs 36,999 per quintal in Asia’s biggest chilli market at Byadagi in December 2020. Such market-driven income by a farmer would never be possible if the laws are repealed to return to the APMC and middlemen-driven regime to meet the demand of the protesters.
Finally, if the government is made to appear supine inside the courtrooms in the face of rampant judicial activism, Attorney-General KK Venugopal and Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta cannot escape the blame. Either they are arriving at the courts time and again ill-equipped or there is no channel of communication they have with the government, which is going about the country convincing other farmers that making these laws was the right thing to do. While there is scope for improvement on this front, the prime minister must sooner or later garner the courage to tell the courts making or breaking laws is none of their business unless the parliament has attempted to fiddle with the basic fabric of the constitution.