SC rejects plea against Calcutta HC: WB

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The apex court also observed that the tenor of the high court order was to ensure a free and fair election in the state

Supreme Court of India (ANI)

NEW DELHI: Dismissing the petitions of the West Bengal government and the State Election Commission (SEC) challenging the Calcutta high court order directing the state poll body to deploy Central forces for the July 8 panchayat elections, the Supreme Court on Tuesday said holding elections cannot be a "licence for violence".

The apex court also observed that the tenor of the high court order was to ensure a free and fair election in the state.

Hours after suffering a loss of face at the Supreme Court, the West Bengal SEC requisitioned Central forces from the ministry of home affairs. However, as it asked for only 22 companies of Central forces for 22 districts, questions are being raised over the intention of the state poll panel about its plan to deploy the Central forces. Only 22 companies implies that one district will get only one company, which the Opposition parties claim is inadequate to cover all 61,636 polling booths in the state.

The main Opposition party in West Bengal, the BJP, claimed that the apex court’s order was a "resounding defeat" for chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who had made panchayat polls a "prestige issue and a launch pad for her nephew".

The BJP alleged that the SEC, by not requisitioning force within 48 hours of the Calcutta high court’s order, was "already in contempt" and that after the apex court’s "scathing comments," it leaves them with "little moral authority to conduct a free and fair poll." The party claimed that the TMC has "already faced moral defeat in court while the political outcome of the elections is awaited".

Several people have been reportedly killed in clashes in the run-up to the July 8 polls, including on June 15, the last day for filing nominations, prompting the Calcutta high court to order deployment of Central forces across the state. Polling will be held in over 61,000 booths, many in sensitive areas.

A Supreme Court vacation bench of Justices B.V. Nagarathna and Manoj Misra rejected the two petitions, observing that "Holding elections cannot be a licence for violence. Elections cannot be accompanied by violence."

"The fact remains that the tenor of the order of the high court is ultimately to ensure that there is a free and fair election conducted in the entire state of West Bengal since the state is conducting the said elections for the local bodies on a single date and having regard to the number of seats which are going to the polls," the bench said.

The apex court said that the order of the high court does not call for any interference, and the top court is not inclined to interfere with any other directions issued by the high court with regard to holding elections to the three-tier panchayati raj institutions.

The bench said West Bengal is one of those states where democratic set-up exists even at the lowest level and it is at the grassroots level that the elections are taking place.

"But, at the same time, elections cannot be accompanied by violence. If persons are not able to go and file their nominations or those who have filed their nominations are ultimately finished off, or there are group clashes, where is free and fair election?" the court said.

The counsel for the state government said that sometimes facts and figures are different from impressions.

Senior advocate Meenakshi Arora, appearing for the SEC, said that the poll panel is aggrieved by two directions of the high court, including the one that says it will requisition Central forces and deploy them across the state.

She said it is not within the jurisdiction of the SEC to requisition and deploy Central forces for the conduct of elections.      

"Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the SEC to conduct free and fair elections," the bench said, adding, "The question is, how are you aggrieved by the order? The point is this. You have yourselves requested for deployment of forces to the state government. Now, from where the forces come is not your concern. How is your SLP (special leave petition) maintainable?"

The bench told the counsel appearing for West Bengal that even according to the state, the police force, as of now, was inadequate to meet the situation and therefore, it has requisitioned police forces from half a dozen states.

"What the high court has thought is, instead of requisitioning police forces from half a dozen states, let the Central forces be brought in," it said, adding the high court has also said the expenditure will be borne by the Centre and not the state.

Reacting to the apex court’s order, BJP state unit chief Sukanta Majundar said, "The Supreme Court’s observation today has exposed the failure of Ms Banerjee…She wants to avoid the Central forces, SC has made it clear that elections can’t be any sort of justification for violence. She has left nothing to save her face. Her intention to project her nephew has also failed."

The WB EC's failure to comply with the Calcutta high court's order by refraining from using force within 48 hours constitutes contempt. Furthermore, the Supreme Court's harsh criticisms add to their lack of moral standing in conducting an election that is truly equitable and unbiased. In order to save face, her only option is to resort to poll rigging as a means to secure a victory."

BJP IT cell head and co-incharge of the state, Amit Malviya, said the court’s order was a "resounding defeat" of the CM" and that "irrespective of the political outcome, Ms Banerjee has "lost the perception battle, even before the first vote is cast."

BJP national spokesperson Sudhanshu Trivedi said, "After the Supreme Court's judgement, the Mamata Banerjee government stands completely exposed that it was not only giving protection to violent activities but it approached the apex court using constitutional tools to stop efforts being taken to stop violence in the state."

He added that after the violence, arson and murderous attacks on the BJP and other party workers, the apex court’s decision should be seen as a "protector of democracy and a lesson to the West Bengal government".

"They (TMC) have already faced moral defeat in the court while the political outcome of the elections is awaited," the BJP spokesperson said, hitting out at the West Bengal government over a series of incidents of violence in the state during the nomination filing process for the panchayat polls.