The Calcutta High Court on Wednesday directed the State Election Commission (SEC) to increase within 24 hours, the proposed number of central paramilitary forces to be deployed to oversee the conduct of the upcoming West Bengal Panchayat elections. [Suvendhu Adhikari and anr v. Rajiv Sinha, State Election Commission]
The Court passed the order after noting that the present number of such personnel proposed to be engaged, which was roughly 1,700 personnel, was thoroughly inadequate.
The bench of Chief Justice TS Sivagnanam and Justice Uday Kumar also opined that, prima facie, the SEC appeared to have deliberately not complied with its earlier orders on the issue in letter and spirit, despite such orders being upheld by the Supreme Court.
The Court, therefore, even suggested the election commissioner to give up his post if he is unable to follow through with the Court’s directions.
“Should we doubt the independence of the Commission (SEC)? That shouldn't be ... Let us be frank, you have gone to the highest court, the court has given directions.. Rightfully accept the judgment. Do what is needful, let us not toe the line …If it is very difficult for the [Election] Commissioner to take orders, he can step down. His excellency, the Governor may appoint someone else... because that is a very important post,” the Chief Justice said.
The Court orally observed that the SEC is expected to be a neutral body and that it failed to understand why the commission was not taking an independent decision in the matter.
“The Court shouldn't lose faith in the system, and, ultimately, if the people start losing faith in the system, what is the purpose of conducting the elections?” the Chief Justice queried
In its order, the Court has made it clear that the number of personnel to be deployed should at least be more than the 82,000 central personnel engaged during the 2013 West Bengal Panchayat polls, considering that the number of districts at present has increased from 22 to the earlier 17.
Consequently, the number of voters would also have increased between 2013 and 2023, the Court pointed out.
Further, the Court also took critical note that while the SEC had requested for police forces from five other States to reach West Bengal for peacekeeping efforts, these forces were asked to reach the State only on July 6 or two days before the July 8 polls.
This would hardly leave any time for these police officers to get acclamatised or to be prepared to carry out their task, the Court said.
The requisition of central forces must cover entire election process and not on date of polling alone, the Court proceeded to clarify.
The bench added that the deployment of forces from other States would also not yield the desired result if they are only put in place on the date of the polling.
The Court posted the matter to be heard next on Friday.
In the meanwhile, the SEC was ordered to make an independent and honest assessment of the situation, with the Court warning of adverse consequences if any attempt is carried out to make its directions unworkable.
The order was passed on a contempt plea filed in the matter by the Leader of the Opposition and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, Suvendhu Adhikari. During arguments, the petitioner asserted that the Court is being hoodwinked by the SEC when it came to complying with its earlier directions.
The counsel appearing for the SEC today assured the Court that the poll body would abide by any directions given by the Court if it feels that the present arrangements are not enough.
Another contempt plea in a related matter concerning directions to videotape the polling process, filed by an Indian National Congress (INC) leader (Abu Hasan Khan Choudhury v. Rajiv Sinha) is also slated to be taken up next Friday.
[Read live coverage of the hearing below]