West Bengal Panchayat polls will be held as scheduled between July 11 and 25 as the Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected religious sentiment coated postponement pleas, which pointed out that Ramzan clashed with poll schedule and could deprive devout Muslims from casting vote.
A bench of Justices A K Patnaik and Ranjan Gogoi said it has respect for religious sentiments of the Muslims, who constitute nearly 33% of voters in West Bengal. But, the bench clarified that this would not sway it from strict adherence to constitutional mandate for expeditious elections to panchayats, preferably before the expiry of their tenure. The five-year term of all panchayats had expired in May and June.
The court was firm that religious considerations could not persuade it to rearrange or postpone panchayat polls schedule as directed by it on June 28. The bench had ordered the state to contribute 35,000 security forces and the Centre between 15,000 to 25,000 forces for each phase.
The Mamata Banerjee government’s discomfiture at the presence of central forces during panchayat polls came out in open when senior advocate Kalyan Banerjee informed the court that the state was ready to provide 50,000 security forces for each phase.
The bench rejected the offer and said: “If you (Banerjee government) had wanted the elections in time, you could have given requisite forces as per the order of the (Calcutta) High Court instead of dilly dallying for a long time.”
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Progressive Youth Federation, espoused the religious cause of Muslims to seek postponement or rescheduling of the court directed panchayat poll schedule. He said the elections could be held after August 9, when Ramzan ends.
He said Muslims constituted nearly one-third of the voters and would possibly be deprived of choosing their representatives in local self government institutions as the elections clashed with Ramzan, when the devout Muslims keep fast and do not take food or water.
“Let an impression not go that no one is bothered about the Muslims,” He said suggesting either postponement of elections to after August 9 or rescheduling the last two phases of elections from July 22 and 25 to July 6 and 9.
But, the bench said Article 243E of the Constitution mandates that elections to panchayats must be held before their five-year term expired. “Should we bypass this constitutional provision? We have to ensure smooth elections to panchayats as early as possible and as soon as central forces were available. Can we overlook the fact that the term of the panchayats have already expired?” the bench asked.
It told Rohatgi: “You as a constitutional lawyer tell us fairly what should be the approach of the court in such a situation.” The bench of Justices Patnaik and Gogoi said it had already rejected the State’s plea for holding it after Ramzan on June 28 precisely because of the constitutional mandate and that it could not take a view contrary to it now.
“We will neither postpone the elections nor re-arrange it,” the bench said dismissing the applications.