Candidates Cannot be Barred from Contesting Elections Merely on Framing of Charges: Supreme Court

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While hearing a PIL filed by an NGO, Public Interest Foundation, before the Supreme Court demanding that a candidate contesting elections be disqualified if charges of serious offences are drafted against him or her, the Supreme Court expressed grave displeasure at the prospect.

Last year, the law commission and its Chairperson erstwhile judge, Justice AP Shah had recommended an amendment to the Representation of People Act providing that a candidate in the poll fray shall be disqualified immediately, if a court frames charges against him or her for serious offences. Presently, in accordance with the Representation of People Act, a person is barred from contesting the elections if he is sentenced to more than 2 years of imprisonment.

The bench hearing the petition comprised Chief Justice H.L. Dattu and Justices Arun Mishra and AK Sikri. Senior advocate Dinesh Dwivedi arguing against the criminalization of politics asked the bench to issue guidelines to prohibit politicians from entering the polls even after  they are officially chargesheeted for serious offences. However, the bench disagreed with his pleas.

Further, the learned senior advocate argued that the framing of charges include a prima facie scrutiny of the evidence and testimony placed on record. In accordance with the evidence and testimony, a presumption of guilt is drawn against the accused. He also pointed out that the accused has the option of availing the remedy available with the High Court for quashing the charges framed against him.

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However, the bench pointed out its discomfiture with the proposal by observing that since India is a multi-party democracy in which polls are marked by intense political rivalry between candidates, registering a bogus FIR for sexual assault or other serious offences against a prospective contestant is easy. Usually, in such cases the police take the matter at face value and file a charge sheet while courts prefer to try the accused in order to consider and measure the evidence available on record. In such cases, if mere framing of charges or filing a chargesheet were to disqualify the accused, the ethos of our democratic politics will be lodged in a serious danger, the Court observed.

The Court observed that the principle of presumption of innocence until an accused is proven guilty should ordinarily be the guiding principle. However, it said that the petitioner is arguing that the Court should presume a candidate (accused) guilty even before he is declared as such and to disqualify him thereafter without granting him appropriate opportunity to be heard. The Court questioned the Mr.Dwivedi on whether he is aware of the percentage of cases where a Court has quashed the proceedings, granting acquittal even after the charges have been framed. Since, the right to contest an election is a right and a privilege available to Indian citizens and the only exceptions to it have been provided for under the Representation of People Act, the Court failed to see the need to permit the law commission’s proposal.

Moreover, the Court noted that principles of natural justice and statutes prevent a person from being presumed guilty even before he is heard or convicted.  The Court asked whether in such a situation, won’t the Court be rewriting a law by accepting Mr.Dwivedi’s plea? The Court further stated that it is the legislature and not the Court’s job to debate and legislate upon issues regarding the criminalization of politics.

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by Siddhartha Singh.