‘Court Can Turn the Clock Back’: SC’s Sharp Words on Ladakh Admin Denying NC Use of Party Symbol
Dinesh Singh Chauhan
Asserting its power to “turn the clock back”, the Supreme Court came down heavily on the Ladakh Union Territory administration run by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union Government for denying the J&K National Conference its “Plough” Symbol for the upcoming local body elections in Ladakh.
“This Court can…turn the clock back…even restore status quo ante…if the situation warrants such dire measures,” the Supreme Court Bench of Justices Ahsanuddin Amanullah & Vikram Nath observed in a 51 – Page Judgment on Wednesday, September 06, 2023.
“No litigant should have even an iota of doubt…that just because of systemic delay…and passage of time…(a) cause would be defeated and the court would be rendered helpless to ensure justice,” the court said, terming the Ladakh administration’s non-compliance of a Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh (J&K) High Court Order on the issue as “unprecedented.”
The Ladakh administration’s decision to deny the ‘Plough’ Symbol to the National Conference is being dubbed as “a move to keep Kashmir-based mainstream parties out of any electoral process in Ladakh” after it was downgraded into a Union territory without a Legislative Assembly in 2019.
Noting that the Plough Symbol was reserved for JKNC by the Election Commission of India because of its status as a recognized State Party of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir, the Court held that its demand for the symbol was “legitimate and just”.
The controversy involved in this lis is the non-allocation of the Plough symbol to the Writ Petitioner, the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference for its candidates to contest the then-upcoming General Elections of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Kargil. In view of the urgency in the matter, the Learned Single Judge passed an interim Order on 09.08.2023, the operative portion whereof at Paragraph 11 read as under:
“11. Keeping in view that the upcoming General Election of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) stands announced, the Petitioner-Party is directed to approach the Office of the Respondents 1 to 3 & 5, for notifying the reserved symbol (Plough) already allotted to it and Respondents 1 to 3 & 5 shall notify the symbol allotted to Petitioner-Party in terms of Paragraphs 10 and 10 (A) of Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968, and allow the candidates set up by the Petitioner-Party to contest on the reserved election symbol (Plough) already allotted to the party.”
Aggrieved, the Appellants – Ladakh Administration, led by Lieutenant Governor B. D. Mishra moved the Learned Division Bench of the High Court by preferring an appeal, which after hearing was dismissed Vide Impugned Judgment on 14.08.2023.
Instead of implementing the High Court Order, the Ladakh administration filed the Special Leave Petition challenging the Judgment and Order dated 14.08.2023 passed by Learned Division Bench dismissing Letters Patent Appeal No.151 of 2023 upholding the interim Order of a Learned Single Judge dated 09.08.2023 in Writ Petition (Civil) No.1933 of 2023.
The Supreme Court came down heavily on the Ladakh Administration for notifying the LAHDC elections while sitting over the representation made by JKNC seeking the allotment of the reserved symbol. “The Appellants (Ladakh Admin), while sitting on the representation of JKNC, went ahead and notified the elections on 02/05.08.2023. We are unable to appreciate such conduct. This recalcitrance to decide in time speaks volumes. Instances like these raise serious questions”, the Bench comprising Justices Vikram Nath & Ahsanuddin Amanullah noted.
Elections should be free, fair and transparent In its Judgment, the Supreme Court highlighted the fundamental principles of democracy and the necessity for impartiality and timeliness in election processes. It observed that “Elections to any Office/Body are required to be free, fair and transparent. Elections lie at the core of democracy. The authority entrusted by law to hold/conduct such elections is to be completely independent of any extraneous influence/consideration. It is surprising that the Union Territory of Ladakh not only denied R1 the Plough symbol but even upon timely intervention by the Learned Single Judge, has left no stone unturned not only denied R1 the Plough symbol but even upon timely intervention by the Learned Single Judge, has left no stone unturned not only to resist but also frustrate a cause simply by efflux of time.”
The Court took a firm stance against the appellants who had not complied with the Orders of the High Court to allot the symbol for JKNC. It opined “Having chosen, with eyes open, to not comply with successive Orders of the Learned Single Judge and the Learned Division Bench, both of which were passed well in time, such as not to stall/delay the notified Election Schedule, the Appellants cannot be permitted to plead that interference by us at this late juncture should not be forthcoming.”
The Supreme Court also highlighted the challenges faced by JKNC due to the unavailability of its recognized symbol while observing that “No candidate/representative affiliated with R1 could have filled up the form as the Plough symbol was neither a reserved symbol nor a free symbol, and thus, could not have been opted for by any candidate when filing the nomination form. The serious consequence was that R1’s identity as a political party was eclipsed, right before the election to the LAHDC, where it was the incumbent party in power.”
It further said that the authorities might have been “overconfident” that the Courts would not interfere in the election process and termed it a “misconceived notion”.
“The situation emanating herein is, in a manner of speaking, unprecedented. With a sense of anguish, it would not be wrong to say that the instant Judgment has been invited upon themselves by the Appellants.
The Orders of the High Court, in our considered opinion, were in aid of the electoral process, and no fault can be found therewith”, the Court observed. Not stopping there, the Court imposed a cost of Rupees One lakh on the UT of Ladakh.
In light of the above, the Supreme Court held that J&K NC was entitled to the “Plough” symbol and set aside the LADHC Election Notification. The Supreme Court further directed the authorities to notify the election afresh within seven days.
(The author is an advocate in High Court of J&K & Ladakh).