20 Jun 2023 7:06 AM GMT
The Supreme Court, on Tuesday, affirmed the Calcutta High Court's order directing the West Bengal State Election Commission(WBSEC) to requisition central forces for all districts in West Bengal for the 2023 Panchayat Elections.A vacation Bench comprising Justice BV Nagarathna and Justice Manoj Misra dismissed the petitions filed by the State of West Bengal and the WBSEC challenging the...
The Supreme Court, on Tuesday, affirmed the Calcutta High Court's order directing the West Bengal State Election Commission(WBSEC) to requisition central forces for all districts in West Bengal for the 2023 Panchayat Elections.
A vacation Bench comprising Justice BV Nagarathna and Justice Manoj Misra dismissed the petitions filed by the State of West Bengal and the WBSEC challenging the directions passed by the High Court in a PIL filed by Leader of Opposition Suvendhu Adhikari.
"The fact remains that the tenor of the order of the High Court is ultimately to ensure that free and fair election is conducted the entire State of West Bengal, since State is conducting election for local bodies on a single day and having regard to the volume of booths which are being set up.We find that the order of the HC does not call for any interference. SLP stands dismissed", the bench observed. It noted that the panchayat elections are to be held in over 75,000 seats and nearly 61,000 polling booths have been set up.
The bench orally asked the SEC during the hearing why it should be concerned with the source of the forces, as its primary concern should be the free and fair conduct of the elections.
Arguments in Court
Senior Advocate Siddharth Agarwal, appearing for the West Bengal Government, submitted that the High Court went wrong in issuing a blanket direction to deploy central forces in all districts, as if all areas are sensitive and the State police is incompetent to handle the situation. He highlighted that the polling is to take place on July 8 but the High Court directed for deployment of central forces within 48 hours.
Justice Nagarathna however pointed out that the State has in the past requisitioned for forces from other states and this means that the State itself is admitting that its forces are inadequate. Also, the High Court direction is that the cost of the deployment is to be borne by the Centre, the judge underlined.
"Holding elections cannot be a license for violence and HC has seen earlier instances of violence... elections cannot be accompanied by violence.. if persons are not able to file their nominations and if they are finished off while they are going to file it then, where is the free and fair election?", Justice Nagarathna asked.
Senior Advocate Meenakshi Arora, for the WBSEC, submitted that it is for the commission to assess the sensitivity of the poll booths. She stated that the PIL in the High Court was filed on the 9th of June, just a day after the polls were notified, without waiting for the steps to be taken by the SEC. The Commission had written to the State in respect of security measures. "Where was the need for the petition to be filed on the 9th of June itself on which orders are passed on the 13th?", she asked.
"Today, I am aggrieved by 2 directions. HC first of all says EC will requisition the deployment of forces. That is to be done by State. Commission can only requisition the State. The second direction of the High Court which is unworkable is that to have Central forces for all districts. The forces deployment has to be done at the booths. It cannot be for the whole of the district", she said.
The EC makes the requisition to the State for forces after an assessment of sensitivity and a preliminary assessment showed sensitivity in 189 poll booths, Arora stated. She also referred to the 2018 order passed by the Supreme Court which directed the parties to first approach the Election Commission to seek additional security.
"Having done the assessment action, we will have the full requisition for forces. It will be for the State to decide from where to requisition the forces. We only have to request the State. And the direction to deploy the forces for the whole districts is not feasible", Arora stated.
The bench asked why the SEC is aggrieved with the order as after all it is a direction to increase security.
"Why are you aggrieved with the order? Why are you concerned with from where the forces come?Whether the forces come from the State or Centre or neighbouring states, should you be concerned?", Justice Nagarathna asked.
"You can be rest assured with this kind of the order. Having regard to the past history of the State and what is happening in the ground, the High Court entertained the matter. The directions are in the aid of the SEC and you cannot have any grievance", Justice Nagarathna added.
Senior Advocate Devadatt Kamat, also appearing for the Commission, stated that the High Court has passed strictures against the SEC as if it was not doing any duty. Justice Nagarathna said that the right of the Commission to seek expunction of those observations can be reserved.
State's counsel Agarwal submitted that the directions were passed by the High Court hastily even before the preliminary assessment by the SEC was over. If there are multiple mode of authorities, there will confusion and chaos, he said, while adding that in past, there was an incident of CRPF officers opening fire at people standing in queue.
"It is not the adequacy of forces which is being commented upon by the HC. It is the source of the forces which is being commented upon, that too without waiting for my response and getting by inputs. The Central Forces have been put on a pedestal", Agarwal said. The High Court's order will result in a situation that the entire districts of the West Bengal will be under the control of central paramilitary forces, he added.
Senior Advocate Harish Salve, appearing for Suvendhu Adhikari, submitted that the SEC was acting in a partisan manner and it was evident from the manner it has filed the SLP and supported the State Government. There are reports about widespread violence against prospective candidates, preventing them from even filing nominations.
"The agenda is not genuine concern of deployment but the agenda is that we don’t get central forces...The State has no real grievance. They are embarrassed to say that they do not want central forces, because they would not be under their control.", Salve stated.
Senior Advocate Vivek Thankha, appearing for Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhary, submitted that he has also written to the SEC seeking central forces deployment.
The State Election Commission (SEC) has challenged two orders, one dated June 13 which directed SEC to send requisition of the deployment for the Central forces for all the areas / districts which in its opinion have been declared as sensitive; and another dated June 15, which directed for deployment of forces in all districts, within 48 hours.
A division bench of the Calcutta High comprising Chief Justice Sivagnaman and Justice Uday Kumar had passed the order in a plea filed by Leader of Opposition in West Bengal, Suvendu Adhikari. The bench noted that though a direction for earmarking sensitive areas and deploying forces was passed, no appreciable steps were taken in this regard.
While the Commission submitted that it may take a couple of days to identify sensitive areas from a law and order point of view, the Court observed that taking more time would only cause more damage and would not help the “purity of the election process”.
The SEC was thus directed to immediately requisition the deployment of central forces within 48 hours of the Court’s judgment for all districts in West Bengal. The costs for the same would be borne by the central government and no costs would be charged from the State of West Bengal.
The High Court said the direction is required bearing in mind the electorate, the people of West Bengal, who will exercise their franchise in the ensuing election. Further, it was also directed that the SEC ask its election officers to display their identity cards and whenever called upon, prove their identity during the election process. With these observations, the Writ petition was disposed of.
[Case Title: State of WB And Ors. v. Suvendu Adhikari And Ors. SLP(C) No. 12294/2023]
Click Here To Read/Download Order