Pradeep Kumar Sonthalia v. Dhiraj Prasad Sahu.
Civil Appeal No. 611 of 2020 decided on 18.12.2020
Bench: S.A. Bobde, CJI, A.S. Bopanna, V. Ramasubramanian, JJ.
The case is set during the period of biennial elections held for two seats to the Rajya Sabha from the State of Jharkhand.
The time for voting was between 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM wherein an elected member of the Assembly, Amit Kumar Mahto (Jharkhand Mukti Morcha) cast his vote at 9.15 AM Hours. Only hours later, Amit was convicted by a Sessions Court at Ranchi, for offences punishable under Sections 147, 323/149, 341/149, 353/149, 427/149 and 506/149 IPC awarding imprisonment of 2 years. The conviction and sentence were handed over at 2.30 PM.
A letter of objection was lodged on the same day to the Returning Officer requesting to declare the vote cast by Amit invalid, as he has been convicted and sentence imposed in the afternoon itself. Despite the objection, on the next day, the Returning Officer declared the Samir Uraon and Dhiraj Prasad Sahu as duly elected.
As a consequence, on of the losing candidate, Sonthalia, approached the Jharkhand High Court with an election petition to set aside the election of Dheeraj Prasad Sahu on the ground that the vote cast by Amit was void on account of his conviction.
The Jharkhand High Court dismissed the petition with the observation that the election to the Council of States is based on a system of proportional representation through a single transferable vote. It held that the process is highly complex and technical. It held that it is not possible to find out if the election petitioner could have won the election if that one vote had been rejected. However, for the issue of the disqualification, the Court held that the disqualification came into effect immediately from the date of his conviction and sentence of two years and, therefore, the vote of Amit should not have been taken into consideration for the final counting.
Both the losing candidates, Sonthalia and Dhiraj Prasad Sahu, approached the Supreme Court in an appeal for the dismissal of the election petition by the Jharkhand High Court and its observation on the findings of the law respectively.
Whether the vote cast by Amit Kumar Mahto at 9.15 AM on March 23, 2018, should be invalidated for the reason of the disqualification suffered by him under Article 191(1)(e) of the Constitution of India read with Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (Act), by virtue of his conviction and sentence by the Sessions Court in a criminal case on the very same date.
The Court held that the vote cast by Amit Mahto was valid and if the vote cast by Amit Mahto was invalidated, it would imply that the resulting disqualification due to the conviction would go before the conviction, resulting in an absurd conclusion. The disqualification arising under Section 8(3) of the Act, is the consequence of the conviction and sentence imposed by the Criminal Court. In other words, the conviction is the cause and disqualification is the consequence. A consequence can never precede the cause. If the disqualification is upheld, the consequence will be deemed to have occurred even before the cause surfaced. It would imply that the Returning Officer should have had the foresight of the outcome of the criminal case, which was to be concluded in the afternoon, in the morning itself when Amit cast his vote. The Court held that if such a power is vested in the Election Commission, it will create endless confusion and needless chaos.
An interpretation in favour of the appellant would defeat the fundamental principle of criminal jurisprudence and a substantive right that presumes innocence until proven guilty. The Court also placed reliance on the de facto doctrine which states that the act of an officer has to be assumed to be in the interest of the public and not for their benefit. Thus it is regarded as valid and binding as if they were the acts of the officers de jure. The Court relied on the case of Gokaraju Rangaraju v. State of Andhra Pradesh[(1981) 3 SCC 132], where it was held that the de facto doctrine is founded on good sense, sound policy and practical expedience and that it is aimed at the prevention of public and private mischief and the protection of public and personal interest.
Article 191(1) of the Indian Constitution deals with five different grounds of disqualification. The Court noted that the interpretation to be given to the expression “the date” appearing in Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 will have a bearing upon the interpretation to be given to the date of happening of any one of the above events of disqualification. The appellant argued that the expression “the date” would mean the whole of the day as was held in a 1968 judgement of Pashupati Nath Singh v. Harihar Prasad Singh[AIR 1968 SC 1064].
The Court rejected the appellant’s interpretation of the expression “the date” with the observation that though it is easier to interpret with reference to Article 191(1)(e), it cannot be similarly tested against each of the sub-clauses of Article 191(1)
Relevant Provision of Law
191. Disqualifications for membership
(1) A person shall be disqualified for being chosen as, and for being, a member of the Legislative Assembly or Legislative Council of a State
(a) if he holds any office of profit under the Government of India or the Government of any State specified in the First Schedule, other than an office declared by the Legislature of the State by law not to disqualify its holder;
(b) if he is of unsound mind and stands so declared by a competent court;
(c) if he is an undischarged insolvent;
(d) if he is not a citizen of India, or has voluntarily acquired the citizenship of a foreign State, or is under any acknowledgement of allegiance or adherence to a foreign State;
(e) if he is so disqualified by or under any law made by Parliament Explanation For the purposes of this clause, a person shall not be deemed to hold any office of profit under the Government of India or the Government of any State specified in the First Schedule by reason only that he is a Minister either for the Union or such State
(3) A person convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years other than any offence referred to in sub-section (1) or sub-section (2) shall be disqualified from the date of such conviction and shall continue to be disqualified for a further period of six years since his release.