Farmers demonstrate in Kolkata as protests spread across India. Photo: Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto/AFP

India’s Supreme Court has urged that controversial new farm laws be paused as protests by more than a hundred thousand farmers on Delhi borders threaten to spread.

The court suggested suspension of the three laws until a committee of farmers, agriculture experts and officials work out a solution.

Led by Sikhs, the protests have drawn farmers from across most north Indian states. It is the most serious challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi since 2014 and is attracting support from opposition parties, unions, activists and the public.

The issue has also raised passions among Sikhs living overseas, notably in Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday expressed concern that protests could spread across the country as negotiations between the government and farmers were not yielding any result.

A Sikh priest from Haryana, Sant Baba Ram Singh, on Wednesday shot himself dead in protest at what he said was government cruelty towards the farmers.

“I can’t see the pain of farmers,’’ said a note reportedly left by the priest. “They are on the roads for their rights. My heart aches when I see them. The government is being cruel towards the farmers. This is a voice against cruelty.’’

Supporters of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions collect funds from shop owners in Siliguri in support of the farmers. Photo: Diptendu Dutta/AFP

More than 20 farmers have died as protests enter the fourth week, sleeping in winter chill of less than 5 degrees Celsius under their tractor-trailers, trucks or simply out in the open. Sanitation is a major challenge and could soon turn into a health risk.

Sportsmen, actors, singers, artists and politicians from Punjab have all lent their support to the protests.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party alliance partner in Haryana has put the state government on notice. Withdrawal of support could cause the state government to collapse. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Thursday tore copies of the farm laws in the Delhi Assembly to express his solidarity with farmers and support a motion to repeal the laws in the state.

Former Miss Universe Gul Panag, daughter of retired Lt Gen H S Panag, joined the protesters for a day. She said in a television interview that the government passed the bills stealthily in May through an ordinance and later a voice vote in the upper house, drawing protests by the entire opposition.

Her father and other uncles are back as farmers after serving in the army for almost four decades.

It’s a similar story for many soldiers who retire young and take up farming. The border state of Punjab, which has borne the brunt of several wars, skirmishes and infiltration of terrorists from Pakistan, has most families of soldiers and farmers. Key roads connecting Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh with the rest of India pass through Punjab.

Letting the situation escalate there could mean putting national security at risk, say commentators.

Sukhbir Singh Badal, a former chief minister of Punjab, will attend the Sikh priest’s last rites on Friday. Leaders of other political parties, not to be left out, will ensure their visibility, even though farmers have scrupulously kept politicians out. Leaders will likely attract workers too, escalating the situation.

The protests are hurting industry just when it is trying to recover from Covid-19. The Confederation of Indian Industry said the protest was increasing logistics costs by 8%-10%. Associated Chambers of Commerce of India said medium and smaller units are losing 35 billion rupees ($475 million) daily. The lawsuit in the Supreme Court was filed by businessmen against some highways being blocked.

The court next meets on December 23 or 24 for the next hearing. It has asked the government for its response and directed all farmer unions to be present.

The government has toughened its stand over the past three weeks and insists it won’t give in to farmers’ demands that the laws be repealed.

Farmers fear the new laws are a move to phase out minimum support prices for their produce and leave them vulnerable to corporate agents. The new law will also facilitate backdoor entry of corporate players which would threaten their livelihood and land ownership, they say.

Members of the government have at different points of time described the protests as being hijacked by politicians, and infiltrated by Khalistan elements, or pro-Pakistan and pro-China elements, upsetting the farmers and increasing the trust deficit almost irretrievably. Far from getting discouraged, women from back home are joining the men at protest sites.

Earlier this week thousands of widows of farmers who have committed suicide also joined. Farmer families back home are ensuring steady supply of foods and milk. Some students and non-governmental organizations are helping.

A farmer feeds his grandson during the protest near Delhi-Meerut expressway. Photo: The Times Of India/Anindya Chattopadhyay/AFP

Hemkunt Foundation, a voluntary organization is providing hundreds of tents for the sick and for women for privacy, safety and insulation against the elements. The tents come with toilets, drinking water, blankets and charging facilities.

Modi, on a visit to his home state Gujarat on Tuesday, described the protesting farmers as misled and misguided by the opposition parties. He plans to speak virtually to farmers in Madhya Pradesh on Friday.

So far no minister has visited the farmers, held by the police on Delhi borders with barricades, barbed wires and containers.

In a related action, the government has decided not to hold the Winter Session of Parliament, citing Covid and cold among the main reasons. Reactions have been sharp.

“As per the government, elections can happen, election rallies can happen, schools can reopen, colleges can conduct exams, hotels and restaurants can be opened, fitness centers too,’’ said Priyanka Chaturvedi, a member of the upper house from Shiv Sena party.

“The only place considered most dangerous by the government is its parliament, hence no session.’’

Randeep Singh Surjewala, spokesman for the Congress party, said, “Decimation of Parliamentary democracy is complete. Exams can be held, rallies can be held in Bihar and Bengal, but winter session of parliament can’t be held. Any semblance of democracy left?’’

The previous session of parliament was in September, when daily Covid-19 cases averaged more than 90,000, while today it is fewer than 20,000. Political observers say the government seems to be avoiding having to face the farmers issue in the parliament.