The Supreme Court on Monday stayed a Madhya Pradesh High Court order restricting physical political rallies in nine districts of the state due to the coronavirus pandemic, Bar and Bench reported. Bye-polls to 28 Assembly seats in the state will be held on November 3.

On October 21, the Gwalior bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court ordered nine districts under its jurisdiction to grant permission for public rallies only if virtual meetings are not possible. The districts include Gwalior, Guna, Morena, Bhind, Ashok Nagar, Datia, Shivpuri, Sheopur and Vidisha. The order also directed the political party or candidate holding the rally to deposit money “sufficient to purchase double the number of masks and sanitisers required for protecting those attending the event”.

A day later, the Election Commission of India and Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Pradyuman Singh Tomar, who is contesting the bye-polls, approached the top court against the order.

A bench of Justices AM Khanwilkar, Dinesh Maheshwari and Sanjiv Khanna directed the Election Commission on Monday to consider all the matters raised before the High Court and take action in accordance with law.

“We stay the operation of the High Court order of October 20 and 23,” the court said. “We direct ECI to take cognisance of issues raised in the petition before the High Court. All contentions are left open. It will be open to parties to invite attention of ECI in respect of issues arising. List the matter after six weeks.”

The poll body in its petition said the High Court order was passed without any regard to the commission’s guidelines on gatherings and the coronavirus protocol, which allowed such congregations of over 100 people with restrictions. The conduct and management of elections is overseen by the Election Commission of India under the Constitution, it added.

Advocates Rakesh Dwivedi and Amit Sharma, representing the Election Commission, told the judges that the High Court order had “paralysed” the election process in the state. However, the court responded that had the poll commission been more proactive, the High Court would not have interfered in the case.

“Your role as Election Commission is wider. You should have informed the authorities well. Public meetings need not be regulated, but see that the protocols are followed. Only you can ensure free and fair elections. High Court cannot take a call here. You need to set right the situation and check for illegalities and ask authorities to take action. We will say that you will take cognizance of all issues before High Court and take responsibility.”

— Supreme Court

On October 22, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had also said that the BJP would approach the Supreme Court against the order restricting rallies. “Political rallies are being held in Bihar every day,” Chouhan said. “There cannot be such contradicting legislation in the country.”