SC raps EC over hate speeches

NEW DELHI, APR 15 (AGENCIES) | Publish Date: 4/15/2019 11:26:27 AM IST

Is EC ‘toothless’? SC to examine poll panel’s powers

Supreme Court on Monday gave the Election Commission of India (ECI) exactly 24 hours to explain its lawyer’s submissions in court that the poll body is largely “powerless” and “toothless” to act against religious and hate speeches by candidates during the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaigning.

During the hearing, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi even threatened to have the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) in the courtroom within the next half hour if the court did not get clear answers to its questions on the poll body’s powers under the law against candidates who spew vitriol.

It then said that besides sending a notice, an advisory and a criminal case can be filed only against such a leader. The top court then decided to summon a representative of the EC at 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday to examine the contention that the poll panel has limited legal powers to deal with hate speeches of politicians during electioneering.

The court found that the ECI had issued notices for hate speeches and campaigning for votes on the basis of religion in only three cases so far in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The three include Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and BSP supremo Mayawati.

The ECI, represented by advocate Amit Sharma, said Adityanath had been issued an advisory. Mayawati, the ECI said, had asked for votes in the name of religion. “So what about Mayawati? She was supposed to reply to you [the ECI] by April 12... Today is April 15. She has not replied. What does the law permit you to do in such cases? Answer us... What will you do now? What are you empowered to do?” Chief Justice Gogoi asked the ECI.

“We will issue an advisory... We may file a complaint,” Sharma replied. Sharma tried to reason, saying, “There is a procedure... We have to give them time to reply.”

“So you are basically saying you [the ECI] are toothless and powerless against hate speeches. The most you can do is send a notice to the offending candidate. If the candidate replies, send him or her an advisory. Despite this, if there is violation of Model Code of Conduct, you may then file a criminal complaint... That is all? Those are your powers under the law?” CJI asked Sharma.

Sharma concurred that was “no other power” with the ECI. “We [the ECI] cannot de-recognise or disqualify the person. This is the only power,” he submitted. Hearing this, the court decided to examine in detail the issue of the ECI’s powers to deal with hate and defamatory election speeches, and violations of the Model Code of Conduct. It ordered an ECI official to be personally present in the court on April 16.

Sharma tried to explain that the ECI had “standing instructions” to act against hate speeches and the violation of the Model Code.

“What do you mean by ‘standing instructions’? You are duty-bound... In certain matters like this, time is limited. You have to act promptly. Whether the outcome is good or bad, you have to get into it immediately,” Chief Justice Gogoi addressed the counsel.

The court was hearing a petition filed by a Non Resident Indian (NRI) Harpreet Mansukhani, highlighting the increase in hate and divisive speeches in the name of religion in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019.

The petition had called for strict action against political leaders and party representatives spreading hatred on religious and caste lines through the media, especially social media platforms. 

EC swung into action after the court’s observations and “strongly condemned” the four leaders for their remarks and barred them from campaigning. 

EC barred SP leader Azam Khan and Union minister Maneka Gandhi for 72 hours and 48 hours respectively for their controversial remarks. EC also barred UP chief minister Adityanath for 72 hours and BSP leader Mayawati for 48 hours for their religious comments.

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