Puducherry Assembly polls | High Court disapproves of prohibitory order

‘ECI may have primacy on conduct of elections yet it has to act reasonably and rationally’

The Madras High Court on Sunday disapproved of a prohibitory order passed by Puducherry Collector under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr.P.C.)

The cour said there is no doubt that the Election Commission of India (ECI) has primacy on how to conduct elections and the control over law and order too passes on to the Commission during elections. However, just like any other authority, the Election Commission is also required to act reasonably, rationally and without the slightest hint of any bias on its part.

After holding a special sitting to hear a public interest litigation petition filed by R. Rajangam, secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Puducherry Pradesh Committee, the first Division Bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy disapproved of the prohibitory orders.

The judges agreed with the petitioner that the 48-hour prohibition on unlawful assembly and movement, shouting of slogans and use of loudspeakers from Sunday evening till the completion of polling in the Union Territory on April 6 might create a scenario of the committed voters alone stepping out to vote and the others choosing not to vote fearing that there was a possibility of trouble or violence.

ECI to issue clarification

The Bench recorded the submission of ECI counsel Niranjan Rajagopalan that a clarification would be issued forthwith “so that ordinary citizens do not remain under any fear over the next 48 hours and can go about their usual activities without any apprehension.” However, the citizens must follow COVID-19 protocol at all times and they must be seen wearing masks and maintaining physical distance, the judges added.

It was also ordered that the ECI should display the present court order on the websites of the ECI and that of the Union Territory of Puducherry. Recording the petitioner’s submission that the prohibitory order was passed on March 22 but made public only on April 1, the judges wondered how the Puducherry Collector could issue such a prohibitory order about a fortnight in advance.

“The present kind of unreasoned order prepared 10 or 15 days in advance and produced a day or two before goes against the ethos of Section 144 of the Code though it must be acknowledged that the Union Territory says that the notice was published on the Union Territory’s website on March 23, 2021. Officials must be reminded that curbs are imposed on citizens and their freedom of movement and the like only when there is an imminent need therefor or it is in the larger public interest. Due care and caution must be exercised to ensure that the restrictions are not unreasonable or suffocating,” the judges said.

Order has to be justified

Authoring the verdict, the Chief Justice went on to state: “Every citizen in a free country can do anything lawful that the citizen chooses and even the slightest of restriction on the citizens’ movement has to be justified. In the present case, the impugned notice of March 22, 2021 is singularly lacking in indicating any cogent reason for imposing restrictions on citizens’ movement and how citizens may choose to go about their business.

“It is also facetious that a blanket prohibitory order is passed merely because it was done on one or two previous occasions and despite the order not indicating any basis for any apprehension of trouble or unlawful activities. The issuance of a supercilious prohibitory order on the ruse that it would lead to a smooth conduct of the election cannot pass muster without there being any justifiable basis therefor.”

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