Police officers detain an activist of the youth wing of India's main opposition Congress party during a protest.
Police officers detain an activist of the youth wing of India's main opposition Congress party during a protest against new farm laws in New Delhi, India, Jan. 12, 2021.

NEW DELHI - India’s Supreme Court has indefinitely placed on hold three controversial farm laws that have triggered the biggest farmers protest in decades and formed a committee to resolve the impasse between the government and the farmers.

However, farm leaders spearheading the six-week long stir vowed not to call off the protest that has seen tens of thousands of farmers camp on major highways on the outskirts of New Delhi demanding the roll back of the legislation.   

"We are going to suspend the implementation of the three farm laws until further orders," Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde said on Tuesday after a three-judge bench heard several petitions challenging the laws. The court called it a “victory for fair play.”   

The farmers' protest has emerged as a major challenge for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with the government refusing to repeal the laws and farmers refusing to settle for anything less.   

Farmers stand outside their tents at the site of a protest against new farm laws, at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border in Ghaziabad, India, Jan. 11, 2021.

The government has defended the laws saying they would modernize agriculture and help farmers raise their incomes by affording them new opportunities to market their produce to private companies.

But farmers say the laws favor powerful corporations and fear they will dismantle the protection afforded by a decades-old system under which the government buys farm produce such as rice and wheat at what is called a “minimum price.”  

India’s Supreme Court has slammed the government’s failure in resolving the farm protest, saying it was “extremely disappointed.” Chief Justice Bobde said that the impasse between the two sides was causing distress to farmers and that the situation at the protest sites was getting worse.

Eight rounds of negotiations between the government and the farmers have remained deadlocked with farm leaders turning down the amendments offered by the government.   

“We don’t know what consultative process you followed before the laws. Many states are up in rebellion,” the court said on Monday.   

The court said the committee of experts would consider all issues related to the farm laws and told protesting farmers to cooperate with it.

"This is not politics. There is a difference between politics and (the) judiciary and you will have to cooperate,” the court has said to the farmer unions.

Farmer Harinder Singh, 28, stands for a photograph next to his tractor parked on a highway during a protest.
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The Supreme Court’s intervention to stay the implementation of the laws and tough comments to the government however failed to appease angry farmers.

Leaders of the protesting farmers told reporters they would not negotiate with the court-appointed panel saying that all its members are “pro-government” and reiterated that the laws must be repealed.  

A farmer gets a shave from a barber at the site of a protest against new farm laws, at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border in Ghaziabad, India, Jan. 12, 2021.

Some agricultural experts who support the farmers were also skeptical that setting up a committee would resolve the impasse.

“Looking at some of the names of experts on the committee, the outcome is preordained. All members are pro-laws and pro-reforms brought in by the government. Their public position on this is very clear,” says Devender Sharma, a farm economist.

Political analysts say a “trust deficit” that has emerged after the government pushed the laws hastily in parliament in September without adequate consultation with opposition parties has made it harder to end the standoff.

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