West Bengal Panchayat Elections: Calcutta High Court stays directive for CBI probe into allegations against returning officer

A division bench passed the interim order on Friday. The final order in the matter is likely to be pronounced on Monday afternoon.
Calcutta High Court
Calcutta High Court

A division bench of the Calcutta High Court on Friday effectively stayed a single-judge direction for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into allegations that nomination papers filed by candidates seeking to contest the upcoming West Bengal Panchayat elections had been tampered with by a returning officer [The District Magistrate of Howrah & Others Vs Kashmira Begam Khan & Others]

Justices Arijit Banerjee and Apurba Sinha Ray passed the order on an appeal filed by the District Magistrate of Howrah and three other officers (appellants) challenging the single-judge's June 21 order in the matter.

"Since both parties have arguable cases, which require our careful consideration, let CBI not take any steps in terms of the impugned order till 26.6.2023. Other portions of the impugned order shall remain untouched for the time being," the Court ordered.

The division bench added that its final order in the matter would be pronounced on Monday afternoon.

The case concerns allegations that the panchayat returning officer had tampered with documents filed by two aspiring candidates (respondents) from opposition parties along with their nominations.

They alleged that despite filing caste certificates during the filing of nominations, it was later held that such certificates were not filed. As a result, their nominations were cancelled prompting them to approach the High Court for relief.

On June 21, Justice Amrita Sinha ordered a CBI probe into the matter and directed the agency to file its report by July 7, a day before the panchayat elections are scheduled to be held.

The Court also ordered that the video recording made of the scrutiny process by the panchayat returning officer, Uluberia I Block, be preserved and maintained till the same can be re-scrutinised.

Arguments before the division bench

In the appeal challenging this order, the appellants raised the following arguments:

  • A CBI enquiry or investigation cannot be ordered for the mere asking. Just because some allegations are made against the officers in the administration, the premier investigating agency of the country cannot be directed to conduct an enquiry. Any and every administrative lapse cannot be subjected to CBI enquiry.

  • Various documents are there to indicate that the candidates did not and could not have filed the caste certificate along with their nominations.

  • The writ petition filed by the candidates was bad for non-joinder of necessary parties. The appellants, against whom allegations have been made in the writ petition, were not individually served before the writ petition was moved or before the June 21 order was passed.

  • Since the single judge recorded reasons in the June 21 order under challenge in the appeal, it would make the order a "judgment" under the Letters Patent, 1865.

On the other hand, the respondents raised the following contentions:

  • The appeal before the division bench is not maintainable as the June 21 order is not a "judgment" within the meaning of Clause 15 of the Letters Patent, 1865. The single judge has not conclusively decided anything in the June 21 order. Rather, the judge has merely ordered a preliminary inquiry by the CBI.

  • The State is trying to shy away from a CBI enquiry.

  • The writ court (High Court) has sufficient power to direct CBI enquiry in a fit case.

  • It is not understood how the State got hold of documents that have been annexed to the appeal papers as such documents are supposed to be in the exclusive custody of the State Election Commission.

  • The appellant's contention regarding the non-joinder of parties was not urged before the single judge. Further, since the government of West Bengal has been made a party, non-joinder of any of the officers was of no consequence.

Question framed by the division bench

The Court opined that the question before it was two-fold.

"Firstly, what are the circumstances in which a CBI enquiry may be justifiably directed by the Court? Secondly, whether or not the facts of the present case portray or depict one of such circumstances?"

The final order in the case is likely to be delivered on Monday at 2 PM.

Senior Advocate Kalyan Bandopadhyay appeared for the appellants. Senior Advocate Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya assisted by advocate Srijib Chakraborty appeared for the respondents.

[Read Order]

The District Magistrate of Howrah & Others Vs Kashmira Begam Khan & Others.pdf
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