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‘Utter disregard’ salvo from poll panel More conflict on lawyer lips

Calcutta, April 2: The state election commission today urged Calcutta High Court to strike down as unconstitutional the government’s notification announcing panchayat poll dates and accused the administration of showing “utter disregard to the panel’s deep concerns” over conducting free and fair elections.

Appearing on behalf of the poll panel, barrister Samaraditya Pal said central forces were needed to conduct the panchayat polls as Bengal witnessed “more conflict” than other states.

“The state election commission wants central paramilitary forces as panchayat votes in the state are fought on local issues, with more conflict than in other states…. The situation is more problematic and volatile in nature,” Pal told Justice Biswanath Somadder in a packed courtroom this afternoon.

“Apprehending large-scale violence in the elections, the commission had sought the presence of central forces in the pre-poll, during-poll and post-poll situations,” he added as commission secretary Tapas Ray nodded in approval.

The state election commission had filed a petition in the high court yesterday seeking exclusive powers to schedule and conduct the panchayat polls.

The battery of lawyers appearing for the government, which is yet to be heard, sat through the day’s proceedings with stern faces. The team of the government, which is opposed to deployment of central forces, includes advocate-general Bimal Chatterjee, government pleader Ashok Banerjee, barrister Jayanta Mitra and advocates Shaktinath Mukherjee and Paritosh Sinha.

Pal said although seeking forces for elections was the constitutional right of the poll panel, the government was not prepared to provide them, forcing the commission to approach the judiciary.

“The government has shown utter disregard (to) and ignorance (of) the deep concerns of the state election commission in conducting free and fair elections…. The government never supplied information about the quantum of armed forces to be made available for the elections,” he said during his 25-minute initiation of the submission on the commission’s behalf.

The case was adjourned till Thursday, when Pal will continue his submission. The commission’s empanelled lawyer, Laxmi Chand Behani, is assisting Pal in the case.

The hearings are likely to be held twice a week — every Tuesday and Thursday — since Justice Somadder hears “original side” matters on these days. But if the judge feels it is urgent to dispose of the case, he can fix other days for hearing.

The case falls under the “original side” jurisdiction since the headquarters of the commission and the state government are in the city and more than Rs 10 crore of the state exchequer is involved in the poll process.

To highlight the alleged disregard for the commission’s concerns, barrister Pal referred to a letter the poll panel had sent to the government in September, seeking adequate central forces for peaceful conduct of the rural polls.

“In its reply, the government ignored the issue and said the state police would be enough to hold the panchayat polls in the state. The state also said it would procure forces from other states, if available, subject to assessment made by the local administration,” Pal said.

The commission, he said, cannot depend on “so many ifs and buts”, more so in the context of the recent violence during student union elections. “Panchayat elections are vast in nature, where a huge number of candidates would take part for more than 58,000 seats. How can we assume that violence will not take place in this election?” he asked.

Pal read out from Section 42 of the West Bengal Panchayat Elections Act, 2003, and said it empowered the government to announce the dates of rural polls in consultation with the poll panel.

The commission’s petition states that Section 42 of the act is “contrary to the provisions laid down in Article 243K of the Indian Constitution”. The poll panel has asked the court to strike down Section 42 and nullify the government’s notification.

The commission’s petition, which emphasises the “contradiction” between Section 42 of the state act and Article 243K of the Constitution, has made the Bengal government the sole respondent.

Although the state law, passed when the Left was in power, has been in place for 10 years, no occasion arose before for Section 42 to be challenged.

According to Pal, if the poll panel raises an objection, the state should change the election dates. “In this case, the state declared the dates on its own. Since the commission has raised an objection, the state should be asked to withdraw the notification,” he said.

After Pal’s submission, advocate Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya told the court that the Left Front would like to be added as a party to the case. “The Left Front believes that the poll panel’s decision should be final in electioneering matters. The Constitution and the 2003 act state as much, unequivocally. A deliberate misinterpretation of the 2003 act by the government has brought matters to such a pass,” Bhattacharyya said later.

BJP state president Rahul Sinha has filed a petition that may be tagged with the commission’s case.

Congress leader and advocate Arunava Ghosh said his party might take part in the case after state unit president Pradip Bhattacharya takes a decision on the matter.