27 Sep 2023 3:11 AM GMT
The State of Nagaland on Tuesday informed the Supreme Court that the state legislative assembly introduced a bill earlier this month seeking to reserve 33 percent reservation of seats in urban local bodies for women in terms of Article 243T of the Constitution of India.A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia was considering a contempt plea filed by the non-profit...
The State of Nagaland on Tuesday informed the Supreme Court that the state legislative assembly introduced a bill earlier this month seeking to reserve 33 percent reservation of seats in urban local bodies for women in terms of Article 243T of the Constitution of India.
A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia was considering a contempt plea filed by the non-profit People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) alleging non-compliance with its earlier order directing the Nagaland government and the state election commission to hold local body elections with 33 percent women’s reservation.
On the last occasion, the court criticized the Union Government for its inaction in implementing the constitutional provision of one-third reservation for women in municipal and town council elections in the State of Nagaland, even though the political leadership in the state aligned with that at the Centre.
Earlier, it also questioned whether the state government could repeal the Municipal Act providing for such quota, despite a clear constitutional mandate of women’s reservation in civic bodies. The court also doubted whether Article 371A, i.e., a special provision for exemptions on grounds of social, religious and customary practices of the Naga community, could be pressed into service as the Nagaland government had sought to do. The bench observed that the government had been unable to demonstrate that there is any social, religious, or customary practices that precluded women from participating in elections.
In response to the court’s repeated criticism, Nagaland Advocate General KN Balgopal had sought ‘reasonable time’ for the issue to be resolved. During yesterday’s hearing, the law officer informed the Supreme Court that a new bill had been introduced in the state legislative assembly on September 12, proposing one-third reservation for women in municipalities and town councils in terms of Article 243T, which has now been referred to a select committee. He said –
“On September 1, all 16 tribal organisations and seven minor tribes came forward to provide their submissions. All of them were in favour of women’s reservations. After that, we have introduced the bill on September 12. On September 14, the speaker has referred the bill to a select committee as per the usual procedure.”
“The proof is in the pudding,” Justice Kaul asked the law officer when women’s reservation was likely to be implemented in the civic bodies, even while acknowledging that there were complex factors at play that had to be considered by the State in view of the ‘environment’ prevailing in the region. Representing the petitioner-association, Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves expressed his scepticism, pointing to the string of last-minute volte-faces by the government.
“I want Your Lordship to pass a final order in this matter, having taken the pains so far,” AG Balgopal assured, referring to Justice Kaul’s impending retirement in December. Having said this, he urged the court to defer the hearing till November while the select committee deliberated on the bill.
“I hope to give finality to this before demitting office,” Justice Kaul remarked, while noting the submission of the advocate general and adjourning the hearing until November 10 –
“…The select committee should be able to shortly give its report. A request for a date immediately after the first week of November has been made, by which time he is hopeful that the legislative assembly will pass the bill.”
AG Balagopal also urged the court to provide a ‘blueprint’ for the execution of the process. “We would like to give a blueprint as well as schedule for the election to be carried out after the bill is passed,” the court told the law officer.
The current controversy is over the non-implementation of a February 2022 order of the Supreme Court directing the Nagaland government to introduce one-third women’s reservations in municipalities and town councils. This order was passed by a bench led by Justice Kaul while hearing pleas against a September 2021 state assembly resolution exempting the operation of Part IXA of the Constitution that contains the constitutional mandate for 33 percent reservation for women in local self-governance bodies.
After the Supreme Court’s nudge, in April last year, the state government informed the bench that as an outcome of a consultative stakeholder meeting, it had resolved to implement 33 percent reservation for women in local body elections. In July, the state election commission was directed to complete the election process by January 2023. The local body elections, however, were not notified within the stipulated time, with the state government seeking to justify its delay by citing a likelihood of violence if local body polls were ‘forced’ on the people of Nagaland. Rejecting this contention, earlier this year, in February, the Supreme Court directed the state election commission to notify local body elections in the north-eastern state along with the women quota, within March 14.
Accordingly, the elections were scheduled to be held in May, in terms of a March 2023 notification issued by the state election commission. Taking note of this development, the court categorically directed in March that the election schedule so notified should not be ‘disturbed at any cost’. However, despite the bench’s strictures, in the very same month, the elections were cancelled by the election commission with the chief minister’s consent in view of the opposition of three groups.
This ultimately prompted the apex court to not only stay the operation of the notification cancelling the election programme, but also initiate contempt proceedings against the Nagaland government and the state election commission for its failure to comply with the court’s March 14 order that barred ‘any endeavour to tinker with the local elections’. In response, the election commission filed an affidavit stating that it had no option other than to cancel the election since the Nagaland Municipal Act, 2001, and the rules made under it were repealed by the state legislative assembly. This, the Justice Kaul-led bench criticized, was an ‘ingenious method’ adopted by the state government to evade its undertaking to the court. The court also questioned whether the constitutional scheme of one-third reservation for women in municipal and town council elections can be breached by the Nagaland government by repealing the Nagaland Municipal Act, asking the central government to place on record its stand.
People Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) v. State of Nagaland | Civil Appeal No. 3607 of 2016