Their lordships’ hearts were in the right place when the Supreme Court, on January 12, stayed the implementation of the three farm laws that raised the hackles of mainly a section of Punjab and Haryana farmers which has been protesting outside Delhi for more than 48 days now, and constituted a committee to resolve the impasse.
The court has taken care to make it clear that it is staying only the implementation of what arguably can be termed as contentious laws without removing them from the statute book, much less striking them down as unconstitutional or a colourable exercise of power available in the concurrent list.
This extraordinary action of staying the implementation seems to borne of the fear that on the Republic Day eve should the farmers barge into the national capital with tractors and trailers, all hell could break loose.
What, however, defies comprehension is why the apex court should take upon itself the burden not cast on it by the Constitution. Maintenance of public order is the responsibility of the state government. It is for the Punjab and Haryana governments to stop the destruction of roads and disruption of traffic by vehicles whose primary place is in the farms. If, somehow, they break free of the law enforcers in these states and trundle their way into the national capital, it is for the central government (which has the police powers in Delhi-NCR) to deal with the protesters.
It is true that thus far the Centre has been pussyfooting around if not kowtowing to the farmers which perhaps might have led the court to believe that prevention is better than expectation of enforcement of law and order with firm hands. Even if the court is moved by the plight of the farmers — some of whom have paid with their lives in the severe cold — it ought to exhort them to abjure their obstinacy in taking to the streets with alacrity. Obstruction of free passage of traffic was frowned upon by the same Supreme Court a few months ago when the Citizenship Amendment Act was in the eye of the storm.
Yet by staying the implementation of the three laws, the court has willy-nilly sent out a wrong message — obstinate obstruction of public place is worthwhile. By its overreach the Supreme Court has weakened the hands of the government. Violators of public order are quietly laughing in their sleeves.
This is not the first time the Supreme Court has stayed the implementation of a law fearing threat to public order and precious human lives. In the late eighties, when the VP Singh government opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box with a 27 percent reservation for OBCs for government jobs that sent the country into flames, the apex court stayed its implementation to cool tempers.
That it was not against reservation was vindicated in hindsight when later on it upheld the vires of the Constitution amendment that stretched OBC reservation. It is therefore possible that there might be an encore — the SC might in all probability uphold the progressive farms laws as constitutional and not trespassing into state powers.
But that’s not the point. The point is no one, least of all the apex court, should be seen to be giving a leg-up to violators of public order. It can examine the sustainability of the three farm laws and even strike them down if warranted, but to stay their implementation for fear of loss of lives and threat to public order is clearly a judicial overreach.
Indeed it could have immediately taken upon itself the task of examining the vires of the three laws though no one, including the irate farmers, is challenging them on constitutional grounds. Article 142 could have been invoked to do complete and quick justice to all concerned that would have called the bluff of the Opposition, besides ensuring that the matter did not fester.