The Chief Election Commissioner of India v. Mr. Vijayabhaskar

Court: Supreme Court of India                                                         

Judges: Justice D. Y. Chandrachud and Justice M. R. Shah

Date of Final Judgment: 6th May 2021

Facts

  • Elections were scheduled in the month of April in the year 2021 in the state of Tamil Nadu, with results to be announced on the 2nd of May, 2021.
  • A writ petition, under Article 226 of The Indian Constitution[1], was filed in The Madras High Court by an AIADMK candidate of Karur Legislative Assembly Constituency in Tamil Nadu to ensure that the Covid 19 protocols were followed correctly during polling.
  • On 16th April, due to an increase in the number of Corona cases, the same candidate sent a representation to the Election Commission requesting to take necessary measures to ensure health and safety of officials and workers in the counting booth. There was no response from the commission. To seek directions that required steps are taken, regarding the Covid 19 rules and regulations and also for fair counting of votes, a writ petition was filed in the High Court on 2nd May 2021.
  • This petition was heard by a 2 judge bench of the Madras High, comprising Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthil Kumar Ramamoorthi, Court on 26th April, 2021.
  • The bench made certain remarks during the hearing which angered the Election Commission. They stated the Election Commission is the institution for being singularly responsible for the second wave of COVID-19 and should be charged for murder. This remark was widespread through various media platforms like newspapers, social media etc., even though there was no record of it in the final order.
  • This led the Election Commission to appeal to the apex body of judiciary in India i.e. Supreme Court of India alleging that Madras High Court did not consider the complaint on its merit and the observations and remarks were baseless.

Issues Raised

Should the media be restricted from reporting oral remarks made during judicial proceedings?

Oral remarks made by the Madras High Court during the hearing.

Madras High Court was not able to address the EC’s merits in providing necessary support.

Contention

Arguments from the appellant’s side:

The appellant i.e. the Election Commissioner of India was represented by learned Senior Counsel Mr. Rakesh Dwivedi along with Mr. Amit Sharma[2].

  • The appellant alleged that the remarks made by the Madras High Court were inappropriate and irrelevant in respect to the issue presented before it. ECI was responsible for safe vote counting rather than for the entire second wave of coronavirus in the country. The disparaging oral remark was unfair and detrimental to the EC.
  • The argument presented by the appellant also showed that an analysis of data would reveal that elections were not the sole cause for the rise of COVID 19 cases or the second wave of coronavirus.
  • These remarks were made without letting the EC to explain the measure it adopted for the maintenance of the COVID 19 protocols.
  • There was no solid evidence to back up the remarks made.
  • Such remarks have tarnished the image of the EC with it being circulated widely across the nation through media, newspapers, social media etc. and diminished faith of the general public in it.
  • The council also argued that the scope of judicial review was limited where the elections aren’t included. Thus, the courts must restrain themselves from making observations regarding the EC or the election procedures. Such matters are dealt with within the scope of another expert constitutional authority. EC is an independent constitutional authority.
  • The Media must ensure that proceedings which are to be reported are accurate. People often believe what is shown in the media, thus their impact might create some negative influence about a particular case or person.

Arguments from the respondent’s side:

Mr. Pradeep Kumar Yadav represented the respondent[3].

  • Respondent pointed out that the EC enjoys a wide range of powers in a State during elections. Hence, this independent body has the power to maintain order during elections as well as manage the protocols of COVID 19 as mentioned.
  • Transparency is one of the key functions of the EC which should provide the people with necessary information correctly.
  • It was also argued by the respondent’s side that media exercised its right to freedom of speech and expression[4] while reporting the remark made by the Madras High Court.

Rationale

The bench held that the oral remarks made by the Madras High Court are not to be considered a part of the official judicial record. Media has the right to inform and express opinions which are in regard to public interest[5]. Meanwhile, it was also held that this freedom extends to report proceedings of judicial institutions as well. This means that media cannot be restrained from reporting court proceedings[6].

This judgment created a subtle balance between the rights of the two constitutional bodies. Madras High Court is a constitutional court. This means that it holds a significant position in the Indian judiciary and is also responsible to protect the fundamental rights of the citizens. while, the EC is an independent body that must ensure conduct of fair and unbiased elections in the country. Acknowledging the High Court’s efforts in handling COVID 19 pandemic, SC also recognised the powers, functions and duties entrusted to the EC. The case of Mohinder Singh Gill v. Chief Election Commissioner[7] was also cited in support of EC.

The Judges have the right to express their personal opinion about a case. However the choice of words depends upon various factors. Just as it is essential to preserve judicial independence, it is equally important that judicial restraint is also maintained.

The concept of open court hearing also came into focus. An open court hearing is one where the general public has access to the information related to it. However, not all cases are dealt with in open court hearings. certain cases require privacy and integrity of individuals to be maintained and protected.

Inference

COVID 19 brought an immense amount of changes in everyone’s lives not only in the individual sense but also in the societal perspective. India conducted elections in various states during that period. The Election Commission of India has the power to conduct elections. Considering the scenario, it was the EC’s duty to ensure safety of the officials working the counting booth. According to the EC, it was responsible for safe vote counting rather than for the entire second wave of coronavirus in the country. In the case of The Chief Election Commissioner v. MR Vijayabhaskar, the Madras High Court made certain oral remarks about the EC.This remark was not recorded in the official report but was published by media which in a way ruined the EC’s reputation. This aggrieved the EC. SC held that the oral remarks made by the Madras High Court are not to be considered a part of the official judicial record. Media has the right to inform and express opinions which are in regard to public interest. Meanwhile, it was also held that this freedom extends to report proceedings of judicial institutions as well. This means that the media cannot be restrained from reporting court proceedings.

By: Sara Hussain Afzal


[1] Dr. J. N. Pandey, Constitutional Law of India 665 (Central Law Agency 2022).

[2] Neha Lalsare, Case Analysis: The Chief Election Commissioner of India v. M. R. Vijayabhaskar & Ors., The Legal Affair (April 20, 2023), https://thelegalaffair.com/case-analysis-the-chief-election-commissioner-of-india-v-m-r-vijayabhaskar-ors/.

[3] Arnisha Das, The Chief Election Commissioner vs. MR Vijayabhaskar, Canonsphere (Aug. 23, 2023), https://canonsphere.com/archive/the-chief-election-commissioner-vs-mr-vijaybhaskar/.

[4] India Const. art. 19, cl. 1, sub cl. a.

[5] India Const. art. 19, cl. 1, sub cl. a.

[6] Dr. J. N. Pandey, Constitutional Law of India 665 (Central Law Agency 2022).

[7] Mohinder Singh Gill v. Chief Election Commissioner, (1978) 1 SCC 405.

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