Karnataka High Court

Karnataka High Court: While deliberating over the instant petition seeking the writ of mandamus directing the electoral officials to release 530 bags of rice seized from the petitioner’s premises, the Bench of M. Nagaprasanna, J.*, held that Returning Officer or the election officials do not get any jurisdiction to search or seize any material before the announcement of elections. Merely because they are appointed as officers for conduct of elections, they cannot use the said power before the declaration of elections.

Background: The petitioner is a prominent social worker involved in charitable activities like distribution of food and clothes to the needy in the Shivajinagar area where he resides. The Electoral Officers visited the petitioner’s the premises 19.03.2023, and therein, found 530 bags of rice weighing 25 kgs each. A notice was issued to the petitioner and the petitioner submitted his justification by way of reply on 20-03-2023. Despite submission of reply, the rice bags are not returned to the petitioner and, therefore, the petitioner is before this Court seeking the writ of mandamus.

Contentions: Counsel for the petitioner argued that the petitioner has been distributing rice and clothes to the needy on all festivals of the year like Ugadi, Ramzan, Dussehra, Christmas etc. it was further argued that the respondents lacked jurisdiction for search and seizure.

Per contra, the respondents argued that petitioner had boarded the rice for distribution for the purpose of gaining votes in the upcoming Karnataka Legislative Assembly elections. However, the respondents admitted that the election was yet to be announced and that they had no authority to search and seize the material in question before commencement of elections even.

Court’s Considerations: Perusing the facts and contentions presented in the matter, the Court noted that when the seizure was made by the respondents, dates for the State elections had not yet been notified. The search and seizure of the petitioner’s premises was conducted on 19-03-2023 whereas elections for Karnataka Legislative Assembly were notified on 29-03-2023.

It was further stated that under normal circumstances, officers appointed under Essential Commodities Act, 1955 can exercise the power of search and seizure. Electoral officers can search and seize only after election dates have been notified and not before that.

The Court held that in the instant matter, since the search and seizure were done before the notification of election dates, therefore the action of the election officers is without jurisdiction and illegal. However, noting that the election dates have been notified, the Court directed the petitioner to not use the rice bags for distribution.

Taking note of the indemnity bond signed by the petitioner whereby he has undertaken that he would not violate the Model Code of Conduct, if the seized rice is released in his favour, the Court laid down certain conditions for the petitioner to abide by and directed the respondents to release the rice bags.

[Isthiyak Ahmad v. Election Commission of India, 2023 SCC OnLine Kar 12, decided on 31-03-2023]

*Order was written by Justice M. Nagaprasanna

Advocates who appeared in this case :

Petitioner- Syed Ummer, Adv.;

Respondent- S.R. Dodawad, Central Government Counsel.

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