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Supreme Court stays cancelling local body polls, serves contempt notice

Supreme Court

“How can they say something contrary to a judicial order?” 

Nirendra Dev
NEW DELHI, APRIL 5: It’s a mega embarrassment for the Neiphiu Rio-led NDPP-BJP dispensation in Nagaland, which just got reinstalled with a convincing mandate after the keenly contested February 27 Assembly polls.
Now the State Government faces Contempt notice from the Supreme Court and the matter has been next listed for April 17, 2023, a source said.
The 2-Judge Bench seemed to have taken exception to theState Election Commission stating on March 30, 2023 that the elections would stand “cancelled” with the consent of the Chief Minister, who found three groups opposing the election.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed the Notification on cancellation of Nagaland local body polls and issued Contempt Notices to the State Government and the State Election Commission. In an interim order, the Court stayed the operation of the poll panel order dated March 30 cancelling the civic body polls. “This is not acceptable. Please convey that we will not allow this”, the Bench of the apex Court said.
Justice SK Kaul said, “But we had said that it will go ahead (with polls). How can they say something contrary to a judicial order?”
The Bench of Justice Kaul and Justice Ahsanuddin Amanullah maintained that at the request of the Advocate General for the State Government, KN Balagopal, directives were issued to the State Election Commission and the State to “make necessary arrangements to free and fair elections…Any authority/citizen is breach thereof would be in breach of orders of this Court”.
Civic body polls in Nagaland have been controversial earlier too and even the Supreme Court had earlier questioned the lawyer of the State Government whether they want to hold civic body polls with reservation to women in the year 2026.
“Twelve years have gone by…when you want to hold civic polls in Nagaland, 2026”, the
Supreme Court had lamented on July 30, 2022 questioning the ‘delay’. In 2017, the episode had snowballed into a major row and led to the violence and killing of two people. The then Chief Minister TR Zeliang had to step aside for a brief spell too.
A section of Nagas had earlier opposed the quota for women saying it was against the Customary laws which are guaranteed under Article 371(A) of the Constitution. In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court on July 29, directed the Nagaland State Election Commission to complete the elections of the local bodies and municipalities and declare the results by the end of January 2023.
A Bench of Justices SK Kaul and MM Sundresh had then ordered: “We clearly put to them that the election process has to be completed and the results declared before the end of January 2023”.
The poll schedule has to be worked out accordingly, the Bench said. The apex Court maintained categorically that “You cannot begin the election process after January”.
When the Counsel for the State, according to sources, had tried to assure: “We will hold elections….”, the Bench ventilated its anguish and said, “When? In 2026?” However, due to the Assembly elections things were allowed to be deferred and the State election panel had fixed May 16 for the ULB polls. According to sources, during Wednesday’s (April 5) hearing, Justice Kaul said, “You are in breach of the order of the Court. So is the Election Commission. We will notice in contempt. We had said that it (the election) would not be postponed.”
The development is seen as a big embarrassment for the Rio-led NDPP-BJP regime which got a convincing mandate and was reinstalled on March 7, 2023. The decision to repeal the relevant Act vis-à-vis functioning of municipal bodies and the elections were taken by the State Government in its first session of the State Assembly. The apex Court now has served Contempt notices to the State Government and the State Election Commission and to file their responses within a week’s time.
“The order of this Court dated 14.3.2023 is quite clear that any endeavour to tinker with the election would be in the breach of the order of the court, either by the Election Commission or by the State Government”.
As soon as the Court’s orders went viral on social media and electronic media, some onlookers raised the question: Does the Nagaland Government lack the basic knowledge that it has a constitutional obligation to abide by the directives of the apex Court of the land? A major argument that would go against the stance of the Government is that ‘repealing the Act while notification was already issued as per the Supreme Court directives’ was a clear challenge to the authority of the Court, analysts say.
Some political leaders including former Ministers told Nagaland Page that they would not like to comment anything on record as the matter is sub judice. But the common refrain was that inviting contempt proceedings from the Supreme Court is only a reflection of “bad governance, bad political judgment and gross inefficiency”.
On March 14, 2023, in a petition challenging the Nagaland Assembly resolution dated September 22, 2021 exempting operation of Part IXA of the Constitution of India, which mandates 33% reservation for women in municipal bodies, the State Election panel had told the apex Court that the local body elections in Nagaland have been notified and are to take place on May 16.
On March 28, the Nagaland Assembly resolved not to hold the elections to the urban local bodies. The resolution was moved by Parliamentary Affairs Minister KG Kenye.
Several Naga tribal bodies and civil society organisations opposed holding the ULB election under the Nagaland Municipal Act 2001, asserting that it infringes on the special rights for Nagaland guaranteed by Article 371 (A) of the Constitution.
Notably, the Bench seemed to have taken exception to the State Election Commission stating on March 30, 2023 that the elections would stand “cancelled by a notification of the Election Commission with the consent of the Chief Minister who found three groups opposing the election”.
The State Government’s argument was “we cannot certainly go against the will of the people”.
Justice Kaul said, “But we had said that it will go ahead…How can they say something contrary to a judicial order?”