The order of the Election Commission of the State of Andra Pradesh
directing the house arrest of P. Ramachandra Reddy who holds the State Ministry for Panchayat Raj and Rural Development, Mines and Geology has been stayed by the Andhra High Court.
In a rare incident that occurred on the 6th February,2021, the Andra Pradesh State Election Commission had issued orders against the state minister,confining him in his residential homeand restraining him from speaking to the press for a period of 15 days uptill the completion of the election process that are due to conclude on 21.02.2021.
The action by the Commission came as a reaction to the controversial remarksmade by Reddy in a pressconference dated 05.02.2021. Reddy had made remarks threatening to make a list of officers of the Commission who followed its directions during the ongoing Panchayat elections and blacklist them for the period his Government is in power However, the order did not bar him from exercising his constitutional duties and legitimate responsibilities that his post requires from him, seek medical aid etc.
The Minister filed a petition in the State High Court challenging the impugned order . He contented that the impugned order prohibiting him from leaving his house is violative of his rights under article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India. He further contended that the alleged threats made and the conclusions in the impugned order are disproportionate and that rules of natural justice are not followed and also referred to the decision in the A.C. Josh v/s Silvan Pillai
to argue that the Commission does not have the authority to override the rules and direct the postponement of the results. On the other hand , the learned senior counsel on behalf of respondent 1 i.e. the Election Commission submitted that according to Article 243(k) of the Indian Constitution, it is the Commission that has the power of superintendence, direction and control of preparation of electoral rolls including the conduct of elections and it is under this power, the impugned order was issued.
Further , it is the responsibility of the Commssion to ensure free and fair elections and the remarks made by the Petitioner were threatening in nature and a clear direction to disregard the Commission. The respondent 1 also relied on the judgement given in the case of Public Interest Foundation v/s Union of India and argued that the said order has been passed under its power of superintendence.
In the present writ petition, regarding the order of house arrest of the Petitioner, the Andra Pradesh High Court observed that “no person can be deprived of life and personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”
and held that the Commission does not have the authority to issue such an order under its power of superintendence and control of elections and its processes. With regard to the restraint on talking to the press, the Court observed that the statements made by the Petitioner “cannot be classified as propogation of Government policy”
and were clearly an “’interference with the exercise of duties by the officers during elections”
. The Court further observed that “freedom of speech is not absolute and reasonable restrictions can be placed”
and in the present case, there is an underlying purpose of the restrictions so placed that was to prevent statements that would interfere with the exercise of electoral duties by the officers. The Court relied on judgements given in the case of Jamshed Ansari Vs.High Court of Allahabad
and thecase of Bhim Singh Vs. Election Commission of India,
in which the Court had upheld the importance of the functionaries to adopt a realistic, pragmatic approach having due regard to the ground realities. Thus, the Andhra Pradesh High Court upheld that part of the order restraining the Minister from engaging with the press.