Bengal's legal, political brains pitch for Jantar Mantar-like 'opposition space'

The issue surfaced following observations by the Calcutta High Court raising doubts on the fairness of the West Bengal administration when it comes to giving permission to protest rallies

Jantar Mantar (Getty Images)
Jantar Mantar (Getty Images)


Can Kolkata, the hub of numerous legendary anti-establishment movements, have an exclusive "space for opposition voices" like Jantar Mantar in the national capital Delhi?

The issue surfaced following observations by the Calcutta High Court raising doubts on the transparency and fairness of the West Bengal administration when it comes to giving permission to political or apolitical protest rallies and more especially when it comes to the issues going against the state government or the ruling party.

The Calcutta High Court has asked why individuals or organisations have to approach the court every time to get permission to hold a protest.

The first such reference came up at the high court on May 2, when Justice Rajasekhar Mantha, while hearing a matter relating to permission to the West Bengal State Coordination Committee, the state government employees' union affiliated to the CPI(M), to conduct its "March to Secretariat" agitation on May 4, questioned the reluctance of the state government to allow peaceful agitations. The march was in protest against the alleged reluctance of the state government to pay enhanced dearness allowance and its arrears.

"Protesting peacefully is the democratic right of every Indian citizen. Why every time the protesting bodies will have to approach the court?" Justice Mantha questioned.

Later, while accepting the changed route of the rally instead of the one proposed by the trade union, Justice Mantha questioned whether the state government will impose similar restrictions in case of rallies by the ruling party.

Just two days after on May 4, Justice Mantha took a firmer stand when he refused to accept the state government's plea for a change in the route of a similar protest rally on May 6 by the Joint Forum of State Government Employees, an umbrella organisation spearheading the DA movement, on the grounds that the proposed route was adjacent to the residences of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool Congress' national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee.

Not a single Trinamool Congress leader was ready to come on record officially in the matter claiming that passing comments on a court order is against the party policy.

A senior member of the West Bengal cabinet said on condition of anonymity said that the administration may have its own reasons on security and administrative grounds to deny permission. "This happens at times," he said.

Calcutta High Court advocate and CPI(M) Rajya Sabha member Bikas Ranjan Bhattacharya said that it is quite unfortunate that he has to frequently appear as counsel in cases seeking court permission to take out rallies or hold gatherings or meetings after being refused by the administration.

"This happens not just for political events, but also events by apolitical bodies. Previously this was not the case in West Bengal. This trend started since 2011, when the Trinamool Congress came to power. They want to choke the entire space of the Opposition, political and apolitical," Bhattacharya said.

He said that Jantar Mantar in New Delhi can be considered a classic example of an exclusive "space for opposition voices".

"Jantar Mantar being located in the national capital, the focus of the international community is always there. So, at times, the rulers, whoever is in power, often hesitate to blatantly choke the opposition voices there. Jantar Mantar has proved an ideal space for opposition voices," he added.

The BJP's state spokesman, while agreeing that generally the state government is reluctant to give permission for rallies or public meetings on any issue that goes against it, said that the administration is especially aggressive when the rally or the meeting is organised by the BJP or any of its affiliated bodies.

"Look at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. These days it has become a permanent hub for protest against our party or the Union government. But no protesting body, political or apolitical can complain of denial of permission to protest there. Here in West Bengal while earlier the Trinamool Congress government was reluctant to permit any opposition rally or public meeting, of late they have started being soft towards the CPI(M). This is the chief minister's ploy to project the CPI(M) as an equal opposition like the BJP, so that the anti-incumbency votes in the state get divided," Bhattacharya said.

Calcutta High Court counsel Kaushik Gupta said that by unnecessarily denying permission, the state government is forcing that the matter be dragged to the court.

"Remember, any litigation involves costs and the state government has to bear the cost of such litigation from the taxpayers' money. I wonder why the state government is not accepting the suggestion given by Justice Mantha for online application for public rallies or meetings, where permission is given on a first-come-first-serve basis. Justice Mantha suggested that for the sake of transparency the status of the application can be viewed by the public also," Gupta said.

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