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Does freedom of expression need more restraints?

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Er. P.L.Khushu

Farmer’s protests against the introduction of the farmer’s bills are presently being witnessed, when its potential effect is in Delhi at its borders. For a common resident of Delhi, it is not known as to how long these protests will continue. Also it is not known as to what turn it takes. Delhi people faced a similar situation when Shaheen Bagh siege was observed which continued for about more than three months and probably came to an end with the supervisory role of the COVID-19 pandemic which made the protesters to call of their protests. Delhi and its people suffered a lot during that period for no fault of theirs.
It can be said that the protest over the three farm bills at Delhi borders has brought back the memory of the Shaheen Bagh agitation over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Thousands of farmers, primarily drawn from Punjab, have constricted entrance to Delhi demanding a rollback of the three farm bills. They also called for an all-India shutdown on (December 8) to force the Government to accept their demands, which had a mixed response. There is a lot of similarity between the farmers’ protest over the three farm bills and Shaheen Bagh agitation earlier this year. The farmers’ protest is centered at the Delhi borders with limited agitation outside. The smaller farmers in big states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh among others have given only a token support to these protesters. The primary reason is that the protest is centered on a guarantee over the Minimum Support Price (MSP), which is not a matter of practical concern for over 90 per cent of the farmers.
The Government’s response to both anti-CAA protest at Shaheen Bagh and farmer’s protests over the three farm bills at Delhi borders is similar. In both the cases, the Government expressed its firmness on its legislative decision while stating that it is open to allay all fears of the protesters.
In both cases, the Government said the law has been brought to fix the problems which were left unaddressed for decades. In the situation of the farmer’s protests, a ministerial panel headed by the agriculture minister of India held negotiation with the farmers’ leaders, which as on now is still inconclusive. In the situation of Shaheen Bagh agitation nothing of that sort happened during the anti-CAA protests when the anti-CAA protesters of Shaheen Bagh did not form a group of representatives to hold talks with the Government, when they were invited for that.
However, there is a material difference between the protests at Shaheen Bagh and the one about the farm bills. The former one is a structured political challenge to the bone-fide merits of the CAA, which can hardly be accepted, being of utmost national interest, on account of its historical need. The latter one is a phenomenal objection to the newly introduced farm bills which as per the protests of the farmers may not infringe upon their farming interests along with lax deterrents to their economic status.
May be such protesters are not fully abreast in their assessment of the plus points of the new farm bills, as per expert opinions, yet, it can be presumed that their grievances are genuine, as it is the wearer who knows, where the shoe is pinching. Simultaneously while the government very wisely and coolly held negotiations with the farmers on a number of occasions, yet, nothing tangible has come out so for out of these meetings, because of the rigid attitude of the farmers, that all these farm bills should be repealed. It is not that easy to repeal such of the bills which have been constitutionally passed by the majority vote in both the houses of parliament, which farmers and their leaders should understand. When the government is very religiously accepting and saying that amends and modifications to these bills will be made to suit the requirements of the farmers, their rigid attitude in this behalf may not be acceptable. When two differing sides come on the table of negotiations, a middle path is always adopted when both sides are required to compromise and find an acceptable solution, to avoid chaos and panics to the public at large. ‘It needs to be remembered that one may take a horse to water, but it is hard to make the horse drink it, if it doesn’t want to’. That is the case here. The demand for repeal of the legislation by Parliament is clearly aimed at prolonging the stir, since under no circumstances would the Government concede it. Admittedly, the Government faces a peculiar dilemma. Despite the government’s good intentions to modernise the long-stagnant farm sector, to inject private capital and modern technology for higher yields per acre and better incomes for landowners, it finds itself stymied by vested interests.
As per a brief study about these bills, the first one seeks to create one country and one market for farm produce, envisaging greater use of e-trading in agricultural commodities on a nationwide platform, ensuring better price for producers without middlemen cornering hefty commissions. Farmers are free to sell to any one they want at prices agreed between them and buyer, with middlemen playing no role whatsoever. The second one seeks to give legal sanction to contract farming by private players. The third law is a corollary of the second. Deleting cereals, pulses, potatoes, onions, etc from the list of essential items so that these can be bought in bulk without quantity limit and preserved in cold storage for longer periods to meet market demand. It is observed that these three bills, which are now regular acts of parliament, have elicited endorsement of farm experts across the world. Yields per acre in India are probably the lowest in the world. In contrast China has smaller arable land, but grows far more than India does. In short, the farm reforms can begin the process of modernisation of Indian agriculture, if allowed to do so by the vested interested. Those spearheading the protests belong to the class of capitalist farmers who rose during the Green Revolution in north-western India. This segment of farmers have mostly acquired monopoly hand in this trade and commerce, which they think is under threat with the entry of the agri-business companies, which is not a fact. The real farmers of our country are small and marginal farmers, who constitute 86 per cent of farmers in the country. Let us not refuse to accept that agriculture is a private sector and farmers are private producers. There is no obligation on the part of the State to ensure desired prices and profits to one class of private producers over others. Why only farmers then? It should apply to other such trades and traders too. Let us hope that the protesting farmers find reason in the modifications and amends being offered by the Government to them in these bills, to suit their genuine grievances in this regard. Otherwise these protests will appear to be a part of some bigger conspiracy to destabilise the peace and the economy of our country.
So far, as the protests of farmers are concerned they are within their rights to do so as per the constitutional provisions in this regard. But it should not infringe upon the rights of the other citizens when with such protests the roads are blocked, communication comes to a grinding halt, commuters face immense difficulties, supplies of essential goods receive setbacks, health sector becomes a big casualty in this sensitive times of COVID-19 disaster and the like. Are these protesters the only privileged citizens who have a right to do, whatever they like to do, in the name of holding of protests. Apart from that these protests of farmers have now been hijacked by the desperate politicians of country.
These desperate opposition politicians are not only misleading the farmers, but actively egging them to take a maximalist position in talks with the government, at the same time maximising the awful impacts of miseries and disturbances of sorts, on the common citizens as also on the developmental schemes and priorities of this country for their selfish political gains and ends. It is reported that secessionist elements too, having a link with earlier Punjab’s terror modules, have been viciously meddling in these protests of farmers, when it has completely gone out of hands of common protesting farmers now. It is a protest of farmers when there is no real farmer involved in it now. Foreign interference like that of the unwarranted utterances of the Canadian Prime Minister for the cause of farmers is an intervention in the internal affairs of India and thus an issue of a concern for India. Similar show-ups from UK when some MPs of Britain did show sympathy for the protesting farmers equally show that the farmers protest has been hijacked for other purposes other than the real farmers problems. Such situations are going to pose a big threat to both the internal and the external security of our country. What happened in the aftermath of Shaheen Bagh agitation in Delhi? North Eastern Delhi saw bitter clashes resulting in the deaths of so many people. It almost turned in to communal clashes, thanks to the immediate action of the home ministry of India, when this carnage was arrested in the shortest possible time.
Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India mentions about the right to free speech and expression. It includes that every person has right to express their personal opinions but subjected to reasonable restrictions. Article 19 (1) (b) states about the right to assemble peaceably and without arms. Thereby, right to peaceful protest is bestowed to Indian citizens by our Constitution. Article 19(2) imposes reasonable restrictions on the right to assemble peaceably and without arms and to freedom of speech and expression, as none of these rights are absolute in nature. Article 51A makes it a fundamental duty for every person to safeguard public property and to avoid violence during the protests and resorting to violence during public protests results in infringement of key fundamental duty of citizens. These reasonable restrictions need to be imposed in the interests of the sovereignty & integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality. The other tragic side of this sad picture is that the politicians of states, where the governance is differing in its political structure, with that of the central government, like Congress ruling Punjab, some other political party ruling Delhi and the like, are compounding the whole situation for their political petty gains by encouraging these protesters by showing their false support to them. It sounds very dangerous. It is more harmful than that of other eventualities as mentioned above for the country as a whole. These politicians are misusing the concept of the federal structure of India as defined in our constitution.
The Supreme Court of India recently ruled against the protest at Shaheen Bagh, being conducted against CAA that right to protest in public places is not absolute and public places cannot be occupied indefinitely for such protests. This judgment said that the protest against CAA was not even one of protests taking place in an undesignated area, but was a blockage of a public way that caused grave inconvenience to everyone. Therefore, right to protest needs to be balanced with the right to movement of the public. This holistic judgment speaks about the grave inconvenience being caused to the public due to protests.
What about the other implications of these protests which are becoming very much common now in its aim and objectives, almost likely to threaten the inbuilt security and integrity of India. What is done under a democratic process by the Parliament of India is being sought to be undone on roads by holding protests. Does it mean that similar protests and agitations will come forth on the roads by certain sections of our society for annulling other such enactments which have vital relevance to the cumulative integrity and good governance of our country? No this has to be stopped somewhere before it turns into anarchy for the country. It may even mean to frame new laws in this regard or making amendments to the constitution for regularising such protests to the level of actual and the defined fundamental rights of the protesters, without infringing upon the rights of other citizens, as also ensuring the security and the integrity of India, which is probably under threat if such protests go unabated.
(The author of this article is a chartered consultant civil engineer, who loves his mother land the union territory of Jammu & Kashmir)

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