West Bengal panchayat polls: Calcutta HC orders deployment of central forces
The court also left it to the discretion of the State Election Commission to take a call on an extension of time for filing of nominations following petitions from the opposition
The Calcutta High Court on Tuesday ordered the requisition and deployment of central forces for the West Bengal panchayat elections scheduled to be held on July 8.
The court also left it to the discretion of the State Election Commission (SEC) to take a call on an extension of time for filing of nominations, refusing to consider a prayer in this regard.
A division bench presided by Chief Justice T S Sivagnanam directed the SEC to requisition central forces to work in tandem with the police force of West Bengal for the rural polls.
The 2013 panchayat elections in the state, the first after the Mamata Banerjee government came to power, were held with the deployment of central forces. The high court made it clear that the prayer for extension of time for filing of nominations, the last date of which is June 15, cannot be considered.
The bench, also comprising Justice Hiranmay Bhattacharyya, said the discretion to extend the time lies entirely with the SEC, and that it is competent to take a decision on the matter.
The SEC had on Monday told the Calcutta High Court that it can extend the last date of filing nominations for panchayat polls in West Bengal by a day to June 16.
The bench directed that at the first instance, the requisition and deployment of central forces be done in the areas and districts that have been declared sensitive by the poll panel. "Thereafter, the SEC shall review the assessment plan submitted by the state and wherever there is inadequacy of state police force, in all such areas the SEC shall requisition the deployment of paramilitary forces," it said.
The commission has also been asked to install CCTV cameras at all polling stations and where it is not technically possible, videography of the entire process from nomination to counting of votes has to be undertaken.
Refusing a prayer for appointment of a retired judge as observer for the panchayat polls, the court said provisions provide for the commission to appoint observers, who will be officers of the state government to watch the conduct of the election.
The SEC in a report before the court on Monday had stated that it appoints observers from among senior state civil service and IAS officers.
The petitioners prayed for deployment of central forces for ensuring peaceful elections, claiming that the state had witnessed largescale violence during municipal elections in 2022 and the Kolkata Municipal Corporation polls in 2021.
The court said that the SEC, on preliminary assessment, has marked several districts as sensitive. The poll panel had identified seven such districts in the report.
The bench said that the total number of seats for which elections have to be conducted is more than 75,000 and going by the past incidents in the state, on more than 12 occasions the high court had to intervene, directing the deployment of central forces or transferring the case to the NIA.
"We are of the view that the SEC should and shall requisition the deployment of central forces to work in tandem with the police force of West Bengal to ensure free and fair elections," it directed.
The high court said the charges towards such deployment will be borne by the central government.
The bench also refused a prayer for allowing the filing of nominations at the office of the district magistrates, which was prayed for claiming lack of security at the BDO offices where these are designated to be filed.
The bench said if contractual employees are to be deployed for election duty, they are to be given responsibilities lower than the tasks assigned to the polling officers, who are selected from the Group D staff.
Maintaining that safety and security of polling officials have to be of paramount importance to the SEC, the court said the direction to requisition and deploy central forces will adequately ensure their protection.
It said that wherever the central forces would not be deployed, it will be the responsibility of state police to ensure the safety and security of the polling personnel.
Appearing for the state government, senior advocate Kalyan Banerjee submitted that 15 battalions of police personnel have been requisitioned from other states.