Farmers’ protests across India continue to gain momentum nearly six months after they started. With several ‘mahapanchayats’ being convened across Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and other states, the Manohar Lal Khattar-led BJP government in Haryana has introduced a “riot bill” or a “protestors pay” bill aimed at recovery of damages to property by the protesters.
The bill has been introduced in the ongoing budget session by Home Minister of the state-- Anil Vij, as the Haryana Recovery of Damages to Property During Disturbance to Public Order Bill, 2021. It states that the aim is to recover damages caused to properties by persons during an assembly, lawful or unlawful, including riots. It will also constitute a claims tribunal to determine the liability, assess the damages and award relief to people.
‘Govt Wants to Break Morale of Protesters’
While the government claims that the bill will help maintain law and order, farmers feel that the government wants to stifle the movement with such bills and pressurise protesters.
Speaking to NewsClick, a farmer from Jind, Mahender Singh said, “Haryana has initiated a process of emergency. The government can name the bill whatever it wants, but to us this an emergency for farmers, firstly, this is a clear violation of the guidelines of the Supreme Court.”
He further said, “In April 2009, while hearing another case, the SC had given power to the government to create such laws, however, in that case, the claim commissioner was required to be a retired judge and the law was applied to public property, but now it has been extended to private property, making the SDM the claim commissioner. This is worrisome as the government wants to do recovery from the accused who is responsible for inciting violence and also the organiser of the movement. The government has also added an ‘etc’ column which includes anyone-- leading the protest/organising and planning the movement. Anyone who encourages the movement and participates will also be liable to pay for damages. This is a straightforward clampdown on protests.”
Encroachment of Power by State
Legal experts hold that bills and ordinances such as these are not only aimed at clamping down on resistance movements but are fundamentally an encroachment of power by the state governments.
Speaking to NewsClick, advocate Abubakr Sabbaq explained, “The Allahabad High Court had rejected this move of the Uttar Pradesh government on the basis of the fact that the state is a party to the matter, the state may complain in the matter, but it remains a party, with its advocates--so the basic principle of the law that the interested party, the state in this case, cannot be judicious. The protests are against the government, the protestors are levelling allegations of violations against the government, so then, if the state asses these things, it will be against the basic principles of law On the basis of this, previously issued notices of recovery of damages was withdrawn by the Allahabad High Court.”
He added, “A bill like this, therefore, is an encroachment of power by the government over the basic structure of the Constitution.”
Haryana has not witnessed major violence related to the movement. Instead, the farmers were met with water canons in November as they had tried to make their way to Delhi.
From December onwards, the government had issued many such notices to farm leaders to provide surety bonds amid the ongoing protest as a way of asking the protesters to pay for the movement that they are staging against the government.
A similar notice of personal bonds of Rs 2 lakh were sent to the farmers in Uttar Pradesh for participating in protests or organising against three farm laws. Shayam Singh Chahar, an Agra-based farmer who had served with a show-cause notice to “sign a bond promising lawful behaviour for a year against a surety of Rs 5 lakh” last month told NewsClick, “The purpose of the entire exercise is to spread fear fear among farmers so that they do not indulge in protest. Farmers in Haryana or Uttar Pradesh are united and not scared of legal notices or even ready to go to prison if needed, but they will not surrender,” said Chahar, extending solidarity to his Haryana counterparts.
Previously, during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act movement, the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh had also brought in a similar ordinance as a recovery exercise to collect damages to public property during anti-CAA riots. The ordinance was aimed at dealing with violent acts at public places; notices were issued to many protesters and hoardings were also publicly displayed seeking the recovery of damages during protests.
Read More: Farm Laws: Despite Allahabad HC Order, UP Farmers Served Notices for Personal Bonds