Acknowledging that the fate of the Kamal Nath government is now in the hands of the 16 rebel MLAs, the Supreme Court on Wednesday said it will not come in the way of the Madhya Pradesh Assembly to decide on the floor test but asked how to ensure a free exercise of choice by the dissidents.
The 16 rebels, who the Congress alleged are being held captive by the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bengaluru, also offered to present themselves in the judges' chamber but the court rejected the proposal.
A bench comprising Justices D Y Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta said the proposal would not be appropriate and also refused to send its Registrar General to meet them.
The court also said it wanted to allay apprehensions that the 16 rebels are being held captive,
As the nearly day-long hearing witnessed forceful arguments by top advocates representing various sides, the court asked the Speaker when will a decision be taken on the resignations of the 16 rebels.
Observing that the rebel MLAs may or may not go to the Assembly but cannot be held captive, the court said it was not going to come in the way of the legislature to decide as to who enjoys the trust but has to ensure there is a free exercise of choice which they can make.
After the arguments, the hearing of cross petitions filed by former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Shivraj Singh Chouhan and the Congress was adjourned for tomorrow at 10.30 am.
The opposition BJP is demanded an immediate floor test to test the majority of the 15-month-old Kamal Nath government.
The Congress said the floor test should be deferred till by-polls for the vacant seats arising out of the resignations are concluded, saying 'heavens are not going to fall' if its government is allowed to remain in office till then.
The rebels for their part claimed they went to Bengaluru and were putting up in a resort voluntarily.
Releasing video messages, the rebels said they didn't want to meet senior party leader Digvijay Singh, who rushed to Bengaluru to woo them back.
High drama unfolded in the morning near the resort where Digvijay Singh staged a protest accusing the police of not allowing him to meet the legislators.
Singh, who was briefly detained, accused the BJP of holding the MLAs captive and said he would go on a 'hunger strike'.
During the hearing, the court said, "It is their (rebels) choice whether they want to enter, comply with whips etc. But certainly, when allegation is that they are being held in captivity, we have to see they are at free will. These 16 either proceed to the floor or don't but surely they can't be held captive and how do we ensure this."
"As a constitutional court, we have to discharge our duties," said the bench, adding, as of now it knows that the 16 rebel MLAs tilt the balance one way or the other.
The court then asked lawyers to assist it on the modalities for ensuring free access for the rebels to the Assembly and free exercise of choice.
When the counsel for Chouhan and the rebel MLAs asserted they are in Bengaluru at their own free will, the bench said, "We are not saying they are held captive. Our concern is to allay the apprehension."
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi appeared for Chouhan while another senior advocate Maninder Singh represented the rebels.
At the fag end of the hearing, the bench put a poser to the Speaker as to whether he will decide on the resignations of MLAs if they appear before him on Thursday and said, "A latest judgment asks the Speaker to decide quickly. Tell us when will you decide."
To this, senior advocate A M Singhvi, appearing for the Speaker, said: "I don't want the Speaker's discretion to be curtailed. I can inform about it tomorrow morning."
But Maninder Singh intervened to say, "We do not want to appear before the Speaker. It is a question of our safety."
A total of 22 Congress MLAs including six ministers had resigned last week putting the government on the brink of collapse.
After the Speaker accepted the resignation of the six ministers on Saturday, the party now has 108 legislators.
The BJP has 107 seats in the House, which now has an effective strength of 222, with the majority mark being 112.
The strength of the ruling party and the majority mark will further come down if the resignations of the Congress rebels are accepted.