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Calcutta High Court to Examine Plea for Free and Fair Panchayat Polls in West Bengal [Read Petition]

By Harshvardhan Sharma      13 June, 2023 01:52 AM      0 Comments
Calcutta High Court to Examine Plea for Free and Fair Panchayat Polls in West Bengal [Read Petition]

NEW DELHI: The Calcutta High Court has decided to examine a plea for deployment of central police force to ensure free and fair panchayat polls in West Bengal and granting of at least 12 days time, instead of five days, for filing of nomination papers for the candidates.

A bench of Chief Justice T S Shivagnanam and Justice Hiranmay Bhattacharya said prime facie five days window for filing nomination papers was inadequate and it seemed to be hurrying up the process even the terms of Panchayat bodies would come to end in August, 2023.

The court sought a response from the West Bengal State Election Commission on June 12 on the two separate writ petitions filed by senior Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and BJP leader Suvendhu Adhikari.

Chowdhury sought deployment of central forces from the date of filing nomination till the declaration of results. He also sought a direction upon the Election Commissioner, West Bengal State Election Commission to ensure that the candidates are permitted to file their nominations before the designated authorities.

He also sought a direction to set aside the notification issued by the State Election Commission for the elections on July 8 for the Panchayats and issue a fresh notification after implementation of the demands made by him in April.

Adhikari, in his plea, sought orders to appoint a retired Judge of the High Court as Special Officer/Observer to ensure the conduct of a free, fair, transparent and peaceful election to the three-tier Gram Panchayats in the State of West Bengal. He said the prospective candidates should be allowed to file their nominations in the head office of the West Bengal State Election Commission or in the alternative allow the filing of their nominations online and provide adequate number of Central Para Military Forces immediately for the conduct of free and fair election. He sought a direction to extend the time for filing of nomination papers by at least 12 days from the date of notification of election to complete the process of filing such nomination papers.

After hearing the counsel, the bench said, "The object of the writ petitions is not to stall the elections nor interdict the election process. This is presumably because the petitioners are aware of the legal position in this regard. The endeavour of the petitioners appears to be to ensure free and fair election. Therefore, the Court is required to consider as to how best the same can be ensured so that not only the nominations are filed in a peaceful manner, the election is also conducted and results are declared in a fair and peaceful manner."

Senior advocate Kalyan Bandopadhyay for the respondent submitted that there is a decision of the Supreme Court which has set aside the order passed by this Court in the election conducted during 2018 directing the filing of nominations electronically.

"Be that as it may, the endeavour of the State Election Commission should be that there should be fair and free elections and the electorate should have confidence in the Election Commission that all will be done well so that they can exercise their franchise in a peaceful manner and elect their desired representatives," the bench said.

"Prima facie, we are of the view that the time limit fixed in the notification is inadequate. The notification has been uploaded/published today i.e. on 9th June, 2023 and filing of nominations would start from 11 AM today. This, in our view, would appear to be hurrying up the process which needs to be reconsidered by the State Election Commission. We are also informed that the term of office of the present elected bodies of all the Panchayats at the three-levels is to come to an end in August, 2023," the bench said.

The court asked the State Election Commission to fix a reasonable time for the prospective candidates to file their nominations because it is insisted that nominations have to be filed in physical form.

The bench also asked the State Election Commission to look into apprehension expressed by the petitioners in filing nomination papers with the Block Development Officer at the Pachayat level. The petitioners sought a direction for filing nomination before the District Magistrate or the State Election Commission.

"So far as ensuring free and fair polls, it goes without saying that right from the stage of filing of nomination till the counting of votes and publishing results the entire process should be videographed and the said video footages have to be protected and preserved and the duty lies with the State Election Commission in this regard," the bench said.

With regard to the deployment of Central Forces, the bench said the State Election Commission should take a call on the issue. It also asked the poll panel to respond to a plea against deployment of contractual employees and badli workers as election officers.

The polls for gram panchayats, panchayat samitis, zila parishads are seen as very critical for the ruling TMC, BJP and Congress-left alliance, just months ahead of the Lok Sabha election, next year.

In 2018, the TMC won uncontested in 34 % of the seats in panchayat elections, which also witnessed a series of violence.

[Read Petition]



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