| Pranab Mukherjee welcomes Hungarian foreign minister Kinga Goncz in New Delhi on Friday. Before taking charge of external affairs, as defence minister Mukherjee had given an order that a “last-time” exception could be made for the Book Fair on the Maidan. Permission for the previous Book Fair was also given saying it was the last time. (AP)
New Delhi, Nov. 3: Army headquarters has told the defence ministry that allowing the Calcutta Maidan to be the venue for a permanent Book Fair “is out of the question”.
The eastern army command in Fort William, which is the custodian of the Maidan, has advised army headquarters that “a political decision to grant permission for the Book Fair on the Maidan can be taken only by the defence minister at the risk of provoking the ire of Calcutta High Court”, a defence source told The Telegraph.
Another source said Pranab Mukherjee had accepted the request of chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and signed an order to grant a second “last-time exception” for the Book Fair on the Maidan.
Mukherjee had signed the order shortly before moving from the defence ministry to the ministry of external affairs last fortnight.
His successor, A.K. Antony, has not yet passed down orders to the eastern army commander, Lt General Arvind Sharma. Antony is not expected to overwrite or reverse an order signed by his predecessor.
But he has few political stakes in Bengal unlike Mukherjee. Antony has been in his home state Kerala for the last four days.
The eastern command and army headquarters are quite miffed with the state government because, the sources said, Bhattacharjee has gone back on his word.
They emphasise that the chief minister had earlier committed himself to moving fairs (not only the Book Fair but also other non-sporting events) away from the Maidan for environmental reasons.
Army sources said that even last year Mukherjee had granted permission at considerable risk because the Calcutta High Court’s order explicitly prohibits use of the Maidan for these purposes.
Defence sources said Mukherjee had given the advice that the defence ministry can make the “last-time exception” only with the permission of the high court.
“As of now, the situation is that Lt General Sharma has been asked to implement the court’s order and that is what he is doing,” a source said.
The same situation had arisen last year after the high court set a deadline beyond which no fair could be held on the Maidan.
Accordingly, the army had denied permission for the Book Fair, but the government moved the high court.
After Bhattacharjee spoke to Mukherjee, the army turned around under pressure and the court allowed the fair to be held on the assurance of the state government that the winter of 2006 would be the last time the Maidan would be used.
All these promises, including the chief minister’s public pledge to build a permanent trade fair complex, went out the window yesterday when he announced that the government would request the court to allow the Book Fair to be held on the Maidan for all time to come.
He said he had spoken to Mukherjee about this, presumably to put in a word with Antony.
Sources in Delhi said the chief minister was told that new to the post, Antony would be preoccupied with other things for him to be immediately able to pay attention to whether or not a Book Fair should be allowed on the Maidan.
Bhattacharjee was advised to take up the matter with the new defence minister.