The Supreme Court on June 20 upheld a Calcutta High Court decision to throw open the doors for central security forces to enter West Bengal to ensure free and fair panchayat elections on July 8.
A Vacation Bench of Justices B.V Nagarathna and Manoj Misra reasoned that West Bengal has a “history of violence” during polls and the upcoming local polls was a mammoth exercise involving elections to 75,000-odd seats. Polling would take place across 61,636 booths in the State in just one day, requiring adequate security measures.
Noting that panchayat elections are to be held to a mammoth 75,000-odd seats and 61,000 polling booths have been set up, the top court said the High Court order was passed to ensure free and fair polls.
“Holding an election cannot be a licence for violence. There has been a history of violence...We appreciate that you are a State having a democratic set up right up to the grassroot level where elections are taking place, but, at the same time, elections cannot be accompanied by violence,” Justice Nagarathna addressed the State government.
The West Bengal government lawyer said the entire State, and not just the polling booths, would come under a “blanket cover” of armed central security forces. The High Court order of June 15 had effectively taken away the State’s power to maintain law and order in its own jurisdiction.
“Law and order is my responsibility. No superpower can take that away from me… This is not just about elections,” he argued.
Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for Suvendu Adhikari, the Leader of Opposition in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party and other respondents, said the West Bengal government imagines the Union forces as an “invading army”.
“They cannot come to the Supreme Court with this mindset… The High Court had never said the head of the central security forces would unilaterally deploy forces in the State… There is a problem of poll violence in the State which has manifested repeatedly and even an NHRC report had to once say ‘make it rule of law and not the law of the ruler’,” Mr. Salve submitted.
The Bench reassured the State that the Central forces were only meant to ensure the conduct of fair elections. It said the Central forces and the State would work together on the deployment of forces if and when the situation arose.
“Central forces cannot work unilaterally and ignore the State government… There should ultimately be coordination between the Central forces and the State government,” Justice Nagarathna observed orally.
Besides, the court pointed out that West Bengal had already requisitioned additional police forces from Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar, Punjab and Tamil Nadu for the panchayat elections.
“Therefore, even according to you, your police force is inadequate to meet the situation… The High Court has only said that you requisition forces from the Centre instead of asking half a dozen States… Look at the practicality of having security forces from one source,” Justice Nagarathna reasoned.
‘State’s discretion to requisition forces’
The West Bengal counsel responded that only 189 booths out of 61,000 were identified as sensitive. The State had over 50,000 police personnel to watch over the 189 booths. Additionally, 8,000 constables had been recruited.
“The requisitioning of additional forces from other States is only an insurance. It is certainly not an admission that my police force is inadequate or incompetent. Please do not see it that way,” he told the court.
The West Bengal State Election Commission, represented by senior advocate Meenakshi Arora, said it was the State’s discretion to requisition forces from either the States or from the Centre. The High Court had erred by directing the State Election Commission to requisition central forces forthwith.
Ms. Arora agreed with the State that it was not “feasible” to deploy Central forces across all districts of West Bengal. Forces are placed only to secure polling booths, she argued.
“The 189 polling booths were identified as sensitive and requiring additional deployment on the basis of historical factors and intelligence reports,” she submitted.
But the court reacted to the submissions by asking what difference it made for the State Election Commission whether the forces were drawn from neighbouring States or the Centre.
“You cannot have any grievance… whatever the security forces are, they are to aid your conduct of free and fair elections,” the Bench addressed the poll body, dismissing the case.
The High Court had passed its order on June 15 on the basis that “there was a slackness on the part of the administration in promptly reporting the identification of sensitive areas, although the District Magistrates and Superintendent of Police had initiated the process of identification of sensitive areas from the law-and-order point of view on June 9, 2023, no decision was taken in this regard till June 15”.
The State had challenged the High Court’s reasoning that requisition of police forces from neighbouring States would not deter violence, and the “assistance of central forces is vitally required” and their “distinct methodology” to control violence has been quite effective in the past.
West Bengal had recalled in its petition how “during the last Assembly elections at Sitalkuchi, CISF personnel opened fire on voters standing in a queue to cast their votes, thereby resulting in the death of four persons and injuring 11 others”.