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Alleged Violence During Contai Municipality Polls: Calcutta HC Refuses To Stay Counting Of Votes, Orders Preservation Of CCTV Footage

Aaratrika Bhaumik
1 March 2022 7:16 AM GMT
Alleged Violence During Contai Municipality Polls: Calcutta HC Refuses To Stay Counting Of Votes, Orders Preservation Of CCTV Footage
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The Calcutta High Court on Tuesday sought response from the State Election Commission (SEC) and the State government in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition moved by BJP leader Soumendu Adhikari alleging that large scale violence and rigging of votes had taken place in the recently concluded Contai Municipality elections. Elections to 108 municipalities in the State including the...

The Calcutta High Court on Tuesday sought response from the State Election Commission (SEC) and the State government in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition moved by BJP leader Soumendu Adhikari alleging that large scale violence and rigging of votes had taken place in the recently concluded Contai Municipality elections. Elections to 108 municipalities in the State including the Contai municipality took place on February 27.

The BJP had moved the High Court on Monday and had prayed for an urgent listing of the matter before a Bench comprising Chief Justice Prakash Shrivastava and Justice Rajarshi Bharadwaj

On Tuesday, the Division Bench refused to grant the prayer made by the BJP seeking a stay on the counting of votes pertaining to the Contai Municipality elections which is scheduled to take place tomorrow i.e. on March 2

The Court noted that since the allegations levelled by the BJP are yet to be responded to by the SEC and the State government and further considering the relevant Constitutional provisions, such a prayer seeking a stay on counting of votes cannot be entertained. 

It was however underscored by the Bench that any action taken in the meantime will be subject to the final outcome of this writ petition. Furthermore, the Court also directed the SEC to take adequate steps to preserve CCTV cameras and CCTV footage pertaining to elections of the Contai municipality. 

Pertinently, the Court also allowed the BJP to implead the Election Commission of India (ECI) as a party to the instant proceedings since a prayer has been made by the BJP seeking forensic audit of CCTV footage by the ECI in its capacity as an independent investigating agency in order to rule out any case of tampering. 

The matter is slated to be heard next on March 11

Submissions of parties 

Senior advocate Paramjit Patwalia appearing for Adhikari apprised the Court that there has been large scale violence and rigging of votes during the recently concluded elections to the Contai municipality. As a result, a prayer was made before the Court to conduct fresh polls by deploying central paramilitary forces.

The senior counsel also submitted that as per the previous directions of the Court, CCTV cameras were installed in the polling booths. However, 91 CCTV cameras out of the total 97 installed CCTV cameras had been destroyed and made non-functional in order to destroy evidence. 

He thus contended that audit of CCTV footage needs to be conducted by an independent agency in order to ascertain what had actually happened in the polling booths. In this regard, the senior counsel submitted that assistance of the ECI or the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) could be taken. 

Various complaints by aggrieved BJP candidates and voters were also referred to in order to contend that large scale violence and booth capturing took place during the elections. Accordingly, a stay on the counting of votes for the Contai Municipality elections were also sought. 

Senior Advocate Jayanta Mitra appearing for the SEC and Advocate General S.N Mookherjee appearing for the State government sought time to respond to the allegations levelled. 

Senior counsel Mitra appearing for the SEC apprised the Court that an enquiry into the complaints would be conducted by questioning the independent observers deployed as per the prior directions of the Court. He submitted that 108 State civil service officers and 16 IAS officers had also been appointed as General Observers during the recently concluded elections to 108 municipalities. 

However, senior counsel Patwalia took exception to the appointment of State civil service officers as observers and contended that the previous order of the Court has been frustrated in this regard. It may be noted that the Court vide order dated February 23 had directed the SEC to appoint impartial officers of the IAS cadre as observers.

Pursuant to the submissions, the SEC and the State government were directed to file their response in the form of an affidavit-in-opposition by March 11. The BJP was also permitted to file its reply to such a response before the next date of hearing. 

Background 

According to various newspaper reports, the civic polls to 108 municipalities in West Bengal was marred by widespread violence. It was reported that throughout the day yesterday, reports of intimidation allegedly by the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) workers, electoral malpractices and attack on journalists emerged from various parts of the State.

The Court last week had directed the State Election Commission (SEC) to collect information in respect of the conditions prevailing in each of the Municipalities where the elections are scheduled and hold a joint meeting with the Home Secretary of the State and the Director General and Inspector General of the Police within 24 hours. The SEC had also been directed to examine the ground situation of each of the 108 Municipalities and take a decision in writing with respect to the deployment of central paramilitary forces.

Opining that the State Election Commissioner will be personally liable if violence takes place, the Court had further ruled, "If the Commissioner, State Election Commission takes the decision not to deploy the paramilitary forces, then he will be personally liable to ensure no violence takes place and free, fair and fearless elections take place in the municipality where paramilitary forces are not". 

Subsequently, the SEC had decided to not deploy central paramilitary forces during the civic polls. The Court had been adjudicating upon a plea moved by the BJP alleging that large scale violence and rigging of votes took place during the recently conducted elections to 4 municipalities in West Bengal and accordingly sought for deployment of central forces for the upcoming elections to the remaining 108 municipalities.

Elections to four municipal corporations – Siliguri, Bidhannagar, Asansol and Chandernagore took place on February 12. Polls to these four municipal corporations were postponed at the instructions of the High Court considering the spike in COVID-19 infections a month back.

Subsequently, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice Surya Kant had dismissed the special leave petition filed against the decision of the Calcutta High Court which had declined to issue directions for the deployment of central forces for the upcoming elections to to the remaining 108 municipalities of West Bengal which took place on February 27.

The Court had earlier directed the State Election Commission to hold a joint meeting with the Chief Secretary and Home Secretary of the State as well as the Director General and Inspector General of Police within 12 hours and decide as to whether deployment of central paramilitary forces will be required for the peaceful conduct of the upcoming elections to the Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation.

Opining that the Commissioner of the State Election Commission will be held personally liable to ensure that no violence takes place, the Court had further directed, "In case, if the Commissioner, State Election Commission forms an opinion that deployment of the paramilitary forces during Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation election is not necessary, then he will be personally liable to ensure that no violence takes place and free, fearless and peaceful elections are held in Bidhannagar."

The State Election Commission had subsequently decided to not deploy central forces for the elections to the 4 municipal corporations.

It may be noted that the High Court in December 2021 had dismissed an appeal moved by the Bharathiya Janata Party (BJP) against a Single Bench order of the High Court wherein BJP's plea seeking deployment of Central Forces for the Kolkata Municipal Elections had been declined. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation Elections took place on December 19.

The Supreme Court had earlier refused to entertain such a plea by the BJP seeking deployment of Central Forces for the Kolkata Municipal Elections, by asking the party to approach the Calcutta High Court for such a relief. "We cannot take decisions with respect to the requirement of Central force. High Court will be in a better position to know the situation", the bench comprising Justices L Nagesara Rao and BR Gavai of the Supreme Court had told Senior Advocate Maninder Singh, who was appearing for the BJP.

Case Title: Soumendu Adhikari v. State of West Bengal 

Click Here To Read/Download Order 


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