Freedom of speech and expression doesn’t permit anyone to level unsubstantiated charges against constitutional bodies

Uttaranchal High Court: Addressing the present petition highlighting the apprehensions that are being raised upon the functioning of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and Verifiable Paper Audit Trial (VVPAT) Machines, especially in the light of the recently concluded Legislative Assembly Elections in five States, the Division Bench of Rajiv Sharma and Sharad Kumar Sharma, JJ., observed that, Article 324 of the Constitution has a wide ambit and gives the Election Commission powers to cope up with any unprovided scenarios vis-à-vis smooth conduction of elections. Thus the Election Commission can use its residuary power under Article 324 to fill the vacuum and to “meet unforeseen contingencies”. However the Court noted that off late various political parties have started a systematic campaign to tarnish the image of the Commission by casting doubts upon the EVMs. To this, the Court held that, it cannot allow the national parties to tarnish the image of a Constitutional body such as the Election Commission and that freedom of speech and expression doesn’t permit to level unsubstantiated charges against the constitutional bodies.

The petitioner, a politician had expressed certain reservations regarding the use of EVMs. Counsel for the petitioner Arvind Vashisth contended that the role of Election Commission gets over the moment election results are declared, therefore the proposed “EVM Hackathon” on 03.06.2017 as it has been notified in the Commission’s press release dated 20.05.2017, will affect the outcome of the pending election petitions in this Court and other High Courts. The respondent argued that the EVM is not hackable and it cannot be physically tampered during transportation or at its manufacturing stage and the proposed ‘hackathon’ has been undertaken by the Commission to allay the apprehensions of the political parties.

The Court held that broad meaning should be given to Article 324 and the Court also must “promote”, “nurture” and “maintain” independence of constitutional bodies and protect them from criticism. It further stated that use of EVM has been ordered by the Commission while exercising the power under Article 324. The Court lastly held that the faith of people must be safeguarded on fair and free election which is a basic feature of the Constitution, therefore in public interest the Court restrained all political parties, NGO’s and individuals from criticizing the use of EVM, till any decision is reached over the pending election petitions and the decision to hold the ‘hackathon’ challenge was left on the discretion of Election Commission with a caveat that the results of the challenge does not in any way affect the decision in the pending petitions. [Ramesh Pandey v. Election Commission of India, 2017 SCC OnLine Utt 676, decided on 02.06.2017]

 

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