Calcutta, Sept. 29: Michhilnagari (the city of processions), they used to call it. Not any more, if the judiciary is given right of way.
Calcutta High Court today exiled from the city processions and rallies between 8 am and 8 pm on all days save Sundays and public holidays.
After a dramatic hearing, in which two Calcutta police traffic department officers were asked to go up to the witness box and questioned for 45 minutes, Justice Amitava Lala handed down a directive that police would have to implement within 24 hours of getting a copy of the order.
The order, by the judge who was late in reaching office last Wednesday as he remained boxed inside his car and watched the police give right of way to a procession, will set Calcutta free from multiple rallies from Wednesday (Lalbazar is likely to get its copy on Tuesday), if the administration does not appeal to a division bench.
Minutes after the landmark verdict, advocate-on-record Asim Kumar Chatterjee indicated that the state government might do just that. “Though we are yet to receive a copy of the order, a legal challenge looks the likeliest response,” he said on behalf of the administration.
The verdict united every party. From the CPM to the Trinamul Congress to the BJP to the Congress, all said the court was infringing on a citizen’s democratic right.
The party with the least number of members in the Assembly, the SUCI, said it would react to the verdict by bringing out more rallies.
Although chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said he would react only after reading the order, the CPM central committee sang the rights-violation tune.
Justice Lala, however, did not appear in any doubt that what he was doing was in the best interests of the citizen harassed daily by rallies and processions. Classing even religious processions and military parade rehearsals (like the ones before Republic Day) as rallies, the judge said they could end in a congregation at only three places and only between 8 pm and 8 am on working days.
On Sundays and holidays (under the Negotiable Instruments Act), rallies could take place during the day as well but — again — they would have to terminate at the three designated points (Rani Rashmoni Avenue, Shahid Minar and Brigade Parade Grounds).
These three happen to be the same points where the chief minister had suggested rallies should be held.
Even when rallies are on, the interests of pedestrians and vehicular traffic cannot be sacrificed. At no cost should people — heading towards examination halls, health-care institutes or bus or rail stations or airports — be made to suffer, the verdict said. “Even when rallies are held according to the law, police will have to ensure that space is left for others,” it added.
After getting permission, rally organisers will have to deposit a sum of money with the police that will be used to pay compensation to people who might be inconvenienced by their action.
The order said that anyone suffering losses due to a rally — for having missed a train, for instance — can file a complaint with the police claiming compensation. If the police delay in reacting to the complaint, the person can file a civil suit.
The amount of deposit, DC, headquarters, Kuldiep Singh, indicated, would be proportionate to the anticipated number of people participating in a rally.
If rally organisers flout the order, the police can treat the action as a law-and-order problem and arrest the participants. If, despite the best efforts of the police, the rally goes ahead, the law-keepers can initiate criminal proceedings against the organisers.
“Take information from the administration of the neighbouring districts — North and South 24-Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly — and the railways to ascertain how many rallyists are expected,” Justice Lala told deputy commissioner (traffic) M.K. Singh, who represented his department.
He directed the police to inform the court by February 9 about the extent to which they had managed to implement the order.