"Why Did You Put X Mark?" Supreme Court Pulls Up Chandigarh Poll Officer

The Supreme Court was hearing a petition on the Chandigarh mayoral election, which was won by the BJP with a margin of four votes.

The court will examine the ballot papers on Tuesday.

New Delhi:

Taking a strict view of the alleged defacement of ballot papers during the Chandigarh mayoral election, the Supreme Court has said that the returning officer, Anil Masih, should be prosecuted for "interfering with the election process". The court said this after seeking answers from Mr Masih, marking the first time in the history of independent India that a returning officer has been cross-examined by the country's Chief Justice. 

Conducting a hearing on a petition over the alleged irregularities in the election on Monday, a day after three AAP councillors switched over to the BJP, the Supreme Court also said that the "horsetrading" that is going on is a serious matter.

The court has asked for the ballot papers to be brought to it for examination on Tuesday. After initially proposing that, instead of carrying out a fresh election, the votes must be counted afresh by a new returning officer, the court said that it will decide on the issue after examining the ballot papers. 

During the counting of the mayoral election on January 30, eight votes had been declared invalid by returning officer Anil Masih and the AAP's mayoral candidate, Kuldeep Kumar, had been defeated by Manoj Sonkar of the BJP with a margin of four votes. The AAP had claimed that Mr Masih - a member of the BJP's minority cell - had deliberately invalidated the votes. 

A video had emerged of Mr Masih writing on the ballot papers of some AAP councillors while looking at the camera, and the Supreme Court had called his action a "mockery of democracy" during a hearing on February 5. 

'Answer Truthfully'

During Monday's hearing, the bench of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra took note of the fact that the BJP's Manoj Sonkar had resigned as mayor the previous evening. It then asked Mr Masih to come forward and answer a few questions.

Chief Justice Chandrachud said, “Mr Masih, I am asking you questions. If you don't give truthful answers, you will be prosecuted. This is a serious matter. We have seen the video. What were you doing looking at the camera and putting cross marks on the ballot papers? Why were you putting the marks?”

Admitting that he had put cross (X) marks on eight ballot papers, Mr Masih responded that he had done so because the ballot papers that were defaced had to be segregated.

"Why did you (Mr Masih) deface the ballot papers? You only had to sign the papers. Where is it provided in the rules that you can put other marks on the ballot papers," the Chief Justice asked.

Chief Justice Chandrachud then turned to Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta, who was representing the Chandigarh Administration, and said, “Mr Solicitor, he (Mr Masih) has to be prosecuted. He is interfering with the election process.”

New Returning Officer

Laying out the next steps, the Chief Justice said, "What we propose to do is this. We will direct the Deputy Commissioner to appoint a fresh returning officer, who is not aligned to any political party. The process shall be taken to the logical conclusion from the stage it stopped before the declaration of results. Let the results be declared disregarding any mark put by the returning officer. Let the process be overseen judicially by the high court."

Solicitor General Mehta said he had been told that some of the ballot papers were torn or defaced and that the high court should see them. Responding to this, the lawyer for the petitioner in the case - AAP's Kuldeep Kumar - claimed only eight ballot papers needed to be seen and that they were not torn.

The Supreme Court bench then said it would examine the ballot papers and asked for them to be presented before it, with adequate security, on Tuesday. It also asked Mr Masih to be present. 

When a request was made that the matter be heard on Wednesday, the Chief Justice said, "The process of horsetrading which is going on is a serious matter." 

The court said it would decide on whether fresh elections would be conducted or the earlier votes would be counted after examining the ballot papers on Tuesday.