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COURTLY STEP

That no one is above the law is almost a slogan of modern democracies. So it is not too surprising that a judge of the Calcutta High Court ordered the appearance of the West Bengal police chief in court to explain why Anubrata Mandal, the Trinamul Congress leader from Birbhum, who is also an accused in the Parui murder case and charged with publicly inciting violence against independent candidates and the police, has not been arrested. It was not expected that the police chief would personally arrest him. But this is a case of murder and of incitement at election time, and the person in question is a political leader. The full, even if symbolic, responsibility of not just order but of law, too, at this crucial juncture must be borne by the chief of police. But the director general of police has been spared his appearance in court by a division bench headed by the chief justice of the Calcutta High Court. Responding to the West Bengal governmentís plea for a stay in the case, the division bench took it over and postponed the hearing till May.

That the chief justice-headed division bench has taken over the case is a reflection of its seriousness, and it is a pity that laymen may not fully comprehend why such a serious case should be pushed back three weeks. Mr Mandal would now be free to participate in all electoral activities, as Birbhum goes to poll on April 30. The law is best honoured in letter and spirit; so it is somewhat of a relief that the court itself has set the next date. It undoubtedly has its reasons. The election environment all over India now is particularly sensitive to politicians with criminal charges against them. But the police chief will obviously not be held accountable at this point of time, neither will remarks about Mr Mandalís closeness to the chief minister be considered acceptable. The last, however, is a question on the periphery of lawfulness, perhaps more to do with political wisdom and decorum. Does it behove the chief minister of a state to share the dais with a politician accused in a murder case during an election campaign? And if it is not quite right to bring this up in court, perhaps the question may be asked in the peopleís court: can the police here be expected to act freely in spite of a politicianís visible closeness to power? And do voters not need to be sure that it is not this that is slowing down the police inquiry against Mr Mandal?