Asking if dissenting voices were being shut down, the Supreme Court Thursday refused to stay the relief given till Friday to rebel Rajasthan Congress MLAs to reply to the disqualification notices issued to them.
Rajasthan Speaker C P Joshi had moved the Supreme Court against the high court order asking him to give the rebel MLAs time till July 24 to reply to the notices.
While declining Joshi’s appeal for a stay, the Court adjourned hearing on the “question of jurisdiction” raised by him till July 27. Joshi has contended that courts cannot interfere in disqualification matters before the Speaker has taken a final decision.
“As the high court has already heard the matter after prolonged arguments and reserved the order, we are not staying the passing of the order. However, whatever order is passed, shall be ultimately subject to the outcome of this petition,” the Supreme Court Bench, comprising Justices Arun Mishra, B R Gavai and Krishna Murari, said.
“These are important questions relating to democracy. How will democracy function? These are very serious issues. We want to hear it,” the Bench said.
It also turned down a request to stay further proceedings before the high court or to transfer the pending case to the Supreme Court.
Appearing for the Speaker, Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal said the high court could not have directed Joshi to extend time to the MLAs before he had taken a final decision.
Sibal cited the 1992 decision of a Supreme Court Constitution Bench in Kihoto Hollohan vs Zachillhu, where it was “expressly held that Courts cannot interdict the Speaker from proceeding ahead at the quia timet stage (where action is threatened or imminent but has not yet commenced)”.
He also referred to a recent top court judgment directing the Speaker of the Manipur Assembly to decide on a disqualification petition within a specific time.
At this, Justice Mishra asked, “The question is, can voices of dissent be shut down like this?… After all, these are MLAs elected by people.” Sibal replied that these were questions of facts and courts could not go into them.
Sibal also contested that the Supreme Court going in for a prolonged hearing without staying the high court order would be “giving the MLAs time to do what they can”.
“Every judicial order has political consequences. So it’s better your Lordships stay further proceedings if you don’t want to stay the HC order,” he said.
Declining, the Bench reiterated that there were “larger questions of democracy” involved and said it wanted to examine the matter in detail.
Referring to the ground for the disqualification notices, Sibal said there were allegations against the rebel Congress MLAs. “They are in a resort in Haryana and are incommunicado… They have given statements in the media accusing the Rajasthan government… Why are they not replying (to the notices)?… If they are voicing their opinion, they should come to the party and explain.”
Justice Mishra then asked, “Can a whip be issued for things happening outside the House?” In their petition before the Rajasthan High Court, the rebel MLAs have questioned the disqualification notices on the ground that they only skipped two Congress Legislature Party meetings and that a party whip doesn’t apply outside the Assembly.
Sibal said that what was issued to the MLAs was not a whip, but a notice by the Chief Whip asking them to attend a party meeting. He said it was up to the Speaker to decide “whether this amounts to voluntary giving up membership (of a party)”.
Sibal submitted that judicial decisions had earlier held that this was indeed the case. Speaking on behalf of Joshi, he said, “I as Speaker have to examine the conduct of members. That they did not attend two meetings is just one aspect of it. Neither can HC nor SC decode that.”
The rebel MLAs led by Sachin Pilot were represented by Senior Advocates Harish Salve and Mukul Rohatgi. Opposing Joshi’s plea for a stay, they said the Speaker had given two letters in the high court agreeing to deferment of proceedings. “If the Speaker can himself agree to defer twice, why can’t he wait for another 24 hours?” asked Rohatgi.
Sibal said the Speaker did so in deference to the dignity of the court. “He was not acquiescing to anything.”