While deciding the controversy relating to non-allocation of the Plough symbol to the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (first Respondent) for its candidates to contest the then-upcoming General Elections of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Kargil (LAHDC), the Supreme Court quashed the entire election process, initiated pursuant to Notification dated Aug 02, 2023 issued by the Administration of Union Territory of Ladakh, Election Department, UT Secretariat, Ladakh, under S.O.53 published vide No.Secy/Election/2023/290-301.

While emphasizing that the elections, which are a manifestation of the will of the people, are taken to their logical conclusion, without delay or dilution thereof,

Briefly, keeping in view that the upcoming General Election of LAHDC stands announced, the petitioner-party was directed to approach the office of the respondents for notifying the reserved symbol (plough) already allotted to it and respondents shall notify the symbol allotted to petitioner-party in terms of the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968, and allow the candidates set up by the petitioner-party to contest on the reserved election symbol (plough) already allotted to the party. The appeal against such order was dismissed.

A Two Judge Bench of Justice Vikram Nath and Justice Ahsanuddin Amanullah observed that “The request for allotment of the Plough symbol by R1 was bonafide, legitimate and just, for the plain reason that in the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir (which included the present Union Territory of Ladakh), it was a recognized State Party having been allotted the Plough symbol”.

Upon bifurcation of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir and the creation of two new Union Territories, namely the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and the Union Territory of Ladakh, though the ECI had not notified R1 as a State Party for the Union Territory of Ladakh, it cannot be simpliciter that R1 was not entitled for the allotment of plough symbol to it, in the factual background”, added the Bench.

ASG K. M. Nataraj appeared for the Appellant, whereas Advocate Shakil Ahmad Syed appeared for the Respondent.

After considering the submission, the Bench noted that the Election Commission of India (ECI) deals with the conduct of elections to the Parliament, the State Legislative Assemblies and the State Legislative Councils, and the Union Territory of Ladakh does not currently have a Legislative Assembly.

The Bench further noted that the last election to the Parliamentary constituency was held in the year 2019, and therefore, the ASG was correct in contending that the same would not create/confer any right in favour of first Respondent.

The Bench observed that elections to any office/body are required to be free, fair, and transparent, since elections lie at the core of democracy and the authority entrusted by law to hold/conduct such elections is to be completely independent of any extraneous influence/consideration.

It is surprising that the Union Territory of Ladakh not only denied R1 the Plough symbol, but even upon timely intervention by the learned Single Judge, has left no stone unturned not only to resist but also frustrate a cause simply by efflux of time”, added the Bench.

The Apex Court found that when the first Respondent moved the ECI, they were communicated that the ECI does not allocate any symbol for local body elections as the same falls within the domain of the State Election Commission concerned.

The ECI stated that as there is no Legislative Assembly in the Union Territory of Ladakh and the 1968 Order does not provide for recognition to parties in a Union Territory without a Legislative Assembly, R1 could not be recognized in the Union Territory of Ladakh”, added the Court.

The Bench went on to state that once a notification is issued and the election process starts, the Constitutional Courts, under normal circumstances are loath to interfere, is not a contentious issue.

However, the Bench clarified that where issues crop up, indicating unjust executive action or an attempt to disturb a level-playing field between candidates and/or political parties with no justifiable or intelligible basis, the Constitutional Courts are required, nay they are duty-bound, to step in.

Finding that there is no conflict with any other stakeholder for the reason that the Plough symbol is neither a symbol exclusively allotted to any National or State Party nor one of the symbols shown in the list of free symbols, the Apex Court clarified that there is no impediment in such symbol being granted to first Respondent.

Accordingly, the Apex Court dismissed the appeal and imposed a cost of Rs. One lac on the Appellant.

Cause Title: Union Territory of Ladakh and Ors. v. Jammu & Kashmir National Conference and Anr. [Neutral Citation: 2023: INSC: 804]

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