Bengal panchayat polls: Is there no neutral party to ensure law & order?
Calcutta HC questions SEC's neutrality, orders it to deploy more central forces within 24 hours for the panchayat elections, while 7005 seats go uncontested
As West Bengal heads toward its panchayat elections on July 8, violence and political wrangling — that defined the week of filing nominations from June 9-15 — progressively worsens.
The Calcutta High Court on Wednesday, June 21, ordered the West Bengal State Election Commission (SEC) to deploy 82,000 central forces personnel within 24 hours for the polls, specifying that the number of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) should not be less than those requisitioned in the 2013 panchayat elections.
The decision of the HC comes against the backdrop of opposition parties claiming that the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) is employing violence and intimidation tactics to discourage their candidates from filing nominations.
Violent clashes across several districts of the state has killed at least seven people, ever since the poll date was announced on June 8.
Earlier on June 17, the West Bengal government and the SEC approached the Supreme Court against the HC order directing deployment of central forces. The TMC-led government questioned the justification of the deployment of armed forces in the state. The SC had on June 20 dismissed the pleas.
Apprehending that the state government and the SEC may once again challenge the HC order in the Supreme Court, the leader of the opposition in the state assembly, Suvendu Adhikari, on Thursday, June 22, filed a caveat at the apex court. The caveat was filed so that the matter could not be heard ex parte.
While ordering the deployment of more central forces on Wednesday, the division bench criticised the SEC in unprecedented terms and even questioned the neutrality of the commission.
"After so many developments, I am bound to say that the question remains on the neutrality of the state election commission. This is most unfortunate that a contempt of court petition has been filed against the state election commissioner. I request to follow the court orders as it is," Justice Sivagnanam observed.
He also advised the state election commissioner Rajiva Sinha to quit his chair if he is unable to bear the pressure of his position. "In that case the governor will appoint someone else for that chair," Justice Sivagnanam observed.
On the same day, the office of West Bengal governor C.V. Ananda Bose refused to accept the joining letter of Rajiva Sinha as the state election commissioner, and instead sent back the same and the related files to the state secretariat.
Raj Bhavan sources said that the governor has taken strong objection to Sinha's refusal to honour the summons from the governor's house on June 17 for a discussion on the reports of violent clashes.
The governor has been at odds with the government over the poll violence, and while visiting the epicentre of violence, Bhangar in South 24 Parganas district, on June 16 said, "Perpetrators of violence will be silenced in a permanent way under the Constitution and the law of the land. Peace-loving people of Bengal should be able to exercise their franchise."
A 'Peace Room' has been set up within the Raj Bhavan premises in Kolkata for the governor to review daily ground reports on incidents of clashes and violence over the forthcoming panchayat elections in the state.
With over 1,500 calls already received in the first three days at the helpline number of the Peace Room, and the email inbox opened for the purpose being flooded with complaints, sources said the governor is willing to continue the initiative even if the results for the polls are announced on July 11.
The governor has reportedly told his close confidants that he wants the Peace Room to continue operating till "absolute peace is restored in West Bengal".
The governor does not rule out the possibility of continuing post-poll violence in the light of history. Large-scale violence has engulfed every panchayat election in the state, particularly the 2013 and 2018 elections which killed 39 and 50 people respectively; involved shooting, bombing, arson, stone throwing and cutting off body parts. Under the Left rule back in 2003, as many as 76 people lost their lives during the panchayat elections.
Meanwhile, almost 10 per cent of the total seats at gram panchayat (GP) level, which is the lowest tier in the three-tier panchayat system in Bengal, have remained uncontested.
As per figures from the SEC, of the 63,229 seats at GP level, 6,238 seats have remained uncontested.
At the panchayat samiti (PS) level, which is the second tier of the three-tier panchayat system in the state, there are 9,730 seats, out of which 759 seats have remained uncontested, which is almost 8 per cent of the total seats.
In the case of the 928 seats at zilla parishad (ZP) level, eight (1 per cent) seats remain uncontested.
In addition, according to SEC sources, the figures for uncontested seats at each level are slated to rise slightly as the numbers for the South 24 Parganas district are yet to be tallied.
At GP level, the maximum number of uncontested seats has been recorded in Birbhum (893), followed by North 24 Parganas (867) and East Burdwan (858).
At PS level, Birbhum again tops the list with 128 uncontested seats, followed by Bankura (106) and North 24 Parganas (104). Of the eight uncontested seats at the ZP level, three each are in North Dinajpur and North 24 Parganas and one each in Birbhum and Cooch Behar.
Although the SEC has not given a breakup of which political parties benefit from these uncontested seats, political observers are certain that the crude majority on this count is in favour of the ruling TMC.