“Why Didn’t You go to the High Court”: SC asks Himachal Pradesh Disqualified MLAs

The Supreme Court asked six rebel Congress MLAs on Tuesday regarding their failure to petition the High Court to challenged their disqualification, stemming from their cross-coting in the recent Rajya Sabha polls in Himachal Pradesh.

Himachal Pradesh Assembly speaker Kuldeep Singh Pathania had, on February 29, disqualified the six MLAs based on the Congress’s plea, citing their defiance of the party whip, which mandated their presence in the House and vote for the budget.

Their challenge against the Speaker’s decision was mentioned before a bench of Justice Sanjiv Khanna along with Justices Dipankar Datta and PK Mishra.

The counsel representing the six petitioners requested the bench to adjourn the matter for either March 15 or March 18, stating that senior advocate Harish Salve, who would represent them, was unable to join the proceedings. “But tell us one thing, why didn’t you go to the high court?” Justice Khanna asked.

When the counsel explained that the petitioners had detailed the reasons in the petition and emphasized their status as elected MLAs, the bench remarked, “That is not a fundamental right”. “It is a rare case where within 18 hours, the Speaker disqualified us,” the counsel stated.

The bench scheduled the matter for a hearing on March 18, 2024.

The petitioners have named Pathania, state Parliamentary Affairs Minister Harsh Vardhan Chauhan, and others as party respondents in their plea filed in the top court.

These Congress rebels, who had voted in favor of BJP nominee Harsh Mahajan in the Rajya Sabha polls on February 27, later “abstained” from voting on the Budget. Senior Congress leader Abhishek Singhvi had lost the Rajya Sabha election owing to the cross-voting. The disqualified MLAs are Rajinder Rana, Sudhir Sharma, Inder Dutt Lakhanpal, Devinder Kumar Bhutoo, Ravi Thakur, and Chetanya Sharma.

Following their disqualification, the effective strength of the House has decreased to 62 from 68, while the number of Congress MLAs has reduced to 34 from 40. The rebel MLAs, in their petition, have alleged a violation of the principle of natural justice, claiming they did not receive adequate opportunity to respond to the disqualification petition.

Announcing the disqualification of the six MLAs at a press conference on February 29, the Speaker stated they attracted disqualification under the anti-defection law as they defied the party whip, ruling that they ceased to be members of the House with immediate effect. The petition seeking their disqualification was filed by the Parliamentary Affairs Minister before the Speaker for defying the whip that required them to be present in the House and vote for the budget.

Under the anti-defection law, any elected member who relinquishes the membership of a political party voluntarily or votes or abstains from voting in the House contrary to any direction issued by his political party is liable for disqualification. These MLAs had signed the attendance register but abstained from the House during the voting on the Budget, the Speaker said.

These members were served notices for defying the whip through WhatsApp and email and were asked to appear for the hearing. The Assembly had passed the Finance Bill by voice vote after the Speaker suspended 15 BJP MLAs. The Speaker had then adjourned the session. In his 30-page order, he stated that the plea of the lawyer of the rebel MLAs, senior advocate Satya Pal Jain, for giving time to reply to the notice was not entertained as “evidence was absolutely clear”.

The Speaker emphasized that delivering quick judgment was necessary in such cases to maintain the dignity of democracy and check the “Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram” phenomenon. The judgment had no link with cross-voting by these MLAs in the Rajya Sabha polls, the Speaker added.

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