Calcutta, Nov. 16: The situation in Nandigram on March 14 was not provocative enough to warrant police firing in which 14 people died, Calcutta High Court has observed in a judgment that termed the action “wholly unconstitutional”.
The conclusion — possibly based on a preliminary CBI report saying the police shot to kill, not to scatter — suggests skilled crowd management could have averted the chain of events that triggered the gravest crisis in Bengal in recent memory.
The 172-page judgment punches holes in the government’s version of events, lengthening its list of woes in the middle of a fresh furore over Nandigram and before it could recover from the loss of face in the Rizwanur Rahman case.
The mob at Nandigram had not prevented the police from carrying out their duties, the court said while stepping up the size and sweep of compensation announced by the government. (See chart)
The judgment also cleared the haze over the number of casualties in the police firing by putting the toll at 14 — one of whom remains unidentified — and the injured at 162.
Government officials and politicians have been saying off and on that some victims had died of “various causes”, implying that bombs hurled or bullets fired by the mob itself could have killed them. But the judgment mentions “police firing” and “indiscriminate police firing” in which 14 “innocent villagers” died.
Another government claim — that the crowd was armed — has also not been borne out by the ruling.
State advocate-general Balai Ray later said four women were raped on March 14. The judgment does not mention the four incidents but it has specified compensation for victims of rape. All payments should be made within a month from today.
A division bench of Chief Justice S.S. Nijjar and Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose said in the judgement that the intention of the police seemed “to be to crush the demonstration rather than to control or disperse an unlawful assembly”.
“Also, the court does not accept that it is permissible to indiscriminately open fire to control the crowd…. The firing cannot be justified under any provision of the law.”
The judges said there was nothing to prove that the crowd was posing such a danger or threat to the police that the force had to open fire. There was “not enough provocation”.
They said confusion prevailed over who gave the order to open fire on a crowd that was unarmed. “The action of the police cannot be justified on the ground of sovereign immunity either.”
In the preliminary report to the court, the CBI is learnt to have said the police had violated regulations and had opened fire not to scare away the crowd but to kill. The police should have first opened fire in the air and then shot at the legs instead of firing indiscriminately, the report has apparently said.
The court gave liberty to the CBI to register cases against the accused, including the police, and start criminal proceedings.
CBI sources in Delhi said it would not be easy to pick up the threads eight months after submitting the preliminary report.
The court said it was legally justified in asking the CBI to conduct a preliminary investigation on the basis of media reports and the statement issued by the governor expressing “cold horror”.
The state had challenged the authority of the court to order a CBI inquiry on the basis of the governor’s statement. But the court said it was within its jurisdiction to seek a CBI probe without taking the consent of the state government.
Ray’s prayer for staying the operation of the order for at least three weeks was rejected.
Asked whether the government would approach the Supreme Court, Ray said: “I have advised the government to move an appeal. The high court cannot ask for a CBI probe without taking prior permission from the state government. This issue is pending before a larger bench of the Supreme Court.”
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee did not comment but CPM leader Benoy Konar asked: “Do they expect the police to contain rowdies by spraying Gangajal and reading out the Gita to them'”