In 1952, when India’s Supreme Court upheld the rights of citizens to assemble peacefully, it said the Constitution had assigned it the responsibility of guarding against violations of fundamental rights the way a sentinel protects a fort. Sixty eight years later, the sentinel seems to be letting its guard down. Across India, lakhs of migrant workers, their livelihoods devastated by the nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19, are walking hundreds of kilometers in an attempt to get back to their home villages.
So it has come as no surprise that several activists and lawyers have approached the Supreme Court over the last few weeks, urging it to help the migrant workers. They expected the court to act as the sentinel of the rights of the workers. But it has fared poorly, accepting the government’s submissions almost mechanically, not doing much to alleviate the sufferings of the workers.
If the Supreme Court was looking for models for how it could have acted, there were some that were right under its nose. Last week, two High Courts, through orders that were marked by empathy and concern, held up a mirror to the Supreme Court.