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Violence During WB Municipal Polls: Calcutta HC Orders Preservation Of CCTV Footage, Seeks Response From SEC, State Govt

Aaratrika Bhaumik
16 Feb 2022 7:34 AM GMT
Violence During WB Municipal Polls: Calcutta HC Orders Preservation Of CCTV Footage, Seeks Response From SEC, State Govt
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The Calcutta High Court on Wednesday sought response from the State Election Commission (SEC) and the State government in a batch of petitions alleging that large scale violence and rigging of votes took place during the recently conducted municipal elections in West Bengal. The petitions also sought for deployment of central forces for the remaining 108 municipalities which is scheduled to...

The Calcutta High Court on Wednesday sought response from the State Election Commission (SEC) and the State government in a batch of petitions alleging that large scale violence and rigging of votes took place during the recently conducted municipal elections in West Bengal.

The petitions also sought for deployment of central forces for the remaining 108 municipalities which is scheduled to take place on February 27.

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 couple of weeks ago.

A Bench comprising Chief Justice Prakash Shrivastava and Justice Rajarshi Bharadwaj directed the State Election Commission and the State government to file their affidavits-in-opposition within 3 days

Furthermore, the Court directed the State Election Commission to preserve all CCTV footage and the diaries of presiding officers and registers containing the thumb impression/signature of voters of all polling booths with immediate effect in furtherance of the Court's earlier directions vide its order dated December 24, 2021

The Bench also extended police protection to an aggrieved petitioner who had allegedly been physically assaulted by members of the ruling party on the day of the polls. The police authorities were also directed to promptly record the concerned complainant's statement under Section 164 CrPC. 

The matter is slated to be heard next on February 21

Submissions on behalf of the petitioners 

Senior advocate Ranjit Kumar appearing for BJP leader Pratap Banerjee submitted that although the Court has time and again reposed confidence in the State Election Commission and the State machinery. However, such confidence has been belied since large scale violence took place during the conduct of the municipal polls in the State.

Accordingly, a host of directions were prayed for with respect to the elections of the remaining 108 municipalities- deployment of central forces, effective CCTV surveillance, establishment of an independent and impartial Observer, verification of photo identity cards before entry into polling booths, making the State Election Commissioner personally responsible if violence takes place. Additionally, the plea seeks cancellation of the elections that took place on February 12.

The senior counsel prayed the Court to pass appropriate orders with respect to the upcoming elections to the remaining 108 municipalities which is scheduled to take place on February 27. It contended further that the intervention of the Court is necessary since 'all confidence and faith has been shaken'. 

Furthermore, reliance was also placed on the observations of the Bench in its order dated December 17, 2021 with respect to The Kolkata Municipal Elections wherein the Bench had noted, "It cannot be disputed that free and fair election is the backbone of democracy. The forthcoming Kolkata Municipal Corporation Election must be held in a transparent manner in such an atmosphere where voters can vote without fear". In this regard, the senior counsel remarked further, "We are expressing the same fear today"

The senior counsel further referred to the order dated December 24, 2021 wherein the Court had directed the State Election Commission to to preserve CCTV footage of all polling stations of Kolkata Municipal Corporation Elections held on December 19, 2021. The State Election Commission had also been directed to preserve the diaries of the presiding officer and register containing the thumb impression/signature of voters of all the polling booths in a sealed cover with immediate effect. Thus, it was further submitted that the Court was aware that violence had erupted during the Kolkata municipal polls despite assurance given by the State Election Commission. 

Referring to the order of the Court pertaining to the Bidhannagar Municipal elections, the senior counsel argued that since these are not 'normal circumstances' considering the large scale violence that took place, reliance placed by the State Election Commission on the judgment of Basabi Raichoudhury v. State of West Bengal to contend that Court's interference should be limited is completely unfounded. 

Furthermore, referring to the directions issued by the Court in its order pertaining to the deployment of central forces during the Bidhannagar municipal polls, the senior counsel submitted that despite the Court's directions the State Election Commission had neither done a reappraisal of the situation nor were they successful in containing the violence. 

Pertinently, reference was made to a communication issued by the State Election Commission wherein the Commission had allegedly permitted implementation of various State government schemes such as "Duare Sarkar" (government at doorsteps) and "Paray Samadhan" (resolve issues at locality) in the municipalities wherein elections were ongoing in violation of the Model Code of Conduct. The Court was thus prayed to issue directions to ensure that implementation of such government schemes is immediately stalled to prevent undue influence of voters. 

The Court was further apprised that in many municipalities, it has been reported that votes have been cast in the name of deceased persons. Reliance was placed on newspaper reports of the Telegraph, the Indian Express and other media portals wherein it had been reported that large scale rigging of votes and violence had taken place during the recently conducted municipal polls. 

It was further submitted that many BJP candidates were unable to file their nomination papers due to intimidation and threats meted out by the ruling party. He referred to a chart in this regard wherein it had been disclosed that in Bolpur municipality out of 23 seats, nominations have been filed only with respect to 3 seats. Furthermore, in Bajbaj municipality, out of 20 seats, nominations have been filed with respect to only 8 seats. Similarly, in Tarkeswar municipalities, out of 15 seats only nominations have been filed only with respect to 9 seats. 

The senior counsel also argued that although representations had been made to the SEC regarding allegations of violence pursuant to the Court's earlier directions no action had been taken by the SEC in this regard. 

Advocate Sabyasachi Chatterjee appearing for another aggrieved petitioner contended that his client had been physically assaulted on the day of the polls by members of the ruling party. The Court was further apprised that medical evaluation revealed that the petitioner had suffered trauma and fracture in her finger.

He accordingly prayed for directions to ensure that police protection is extended to the petitioner and her statements is recorded under Section 164 CrPC on an immediate basis. The Court thereafter granted the prayers sought. 

Submissions on behalf of the State Election Commission 

Senior advocate Jayanta Mitra appearing for the State Election Commission apprised the Court that reports had been filed by police authorities and that only story incidents of violence had been reported. He further submitted that police authorities have taken immediate action whenever any complaint or report had come to their knowledge regarding any incident of violence. 

The Court was further apprised that no incident of violence had been reported on the day of the polls pertaining to the Bidhannagar municipal elections. Refuting the submissions of the petitioners that large scale of violence had taken place, the senior counsel contended that there are contradictory newspaper reports in this regard. He referred to newspaper reports in Jago Bangla, Aaj Kal, The Statesman, Ei Samay and other news portals wherein it had been reported that the recently conducted elections were peaceful in nature. 

"To what extent these allegations are true...I have my doubts and suspensions", the senior counsel remarked further. It was further submitted that since close to 72 percent voting had taken place, it is indicative of the fact that free and fair elections took place and that the public was not afraid to cast their votes. 

Submissions on behalf of the State government 

Advocate General S.N Mookherjee appearing for the State government apprised the Court that he had called for reports regarding the allegations of violence and further informed the Court that such reports shall deal with every single incident complained of in the writ petitions filed. 

The Court was further apprised that whenever any untoward incident came to the knowledge of the police authorities, prompt action had been initiated. He further submitted that some 'completely reckless allegations' had been made before the Court and contended further that in case statements of the petitioners are found to be untrue then they should be brought to task. Accordingly, he sought the Court's indulgence to file a response on the next date of hearing. 

Background

The Court on Thursday had 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: Pratap Banerjee v. State of West Bengal and other connected matters

Click Here To Read/Download Order 


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