In first such action in India's electoral history, the Election Commission on Wednesday invoked Article 324 to curtail the campaigning in nine West Bengal constituencies a day before its scheduled deadline. The development came in the wake of Tuesday's violence between BJP and TMC workers in Kolkata, triggering a sharp response from state chief minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee.
In a hurriedly-convened press conference, Deputy Election Commissioner Chandra Bhushan Kumar said that campaigning for the last phase will end at 10 pm on Thursday, and mentioned that it was for the first time the poll panel has taken such an action using constitutional powers. "This would be the first time when EC has invoked Article 324 in this manner but it may not be the last in cases of repetition of lawlessness and violence which vitiate the conduct of polls in a peaceful and orderly manner," Kumar said.
"Now, therefore, the Election Commission of India, in exercise of its powers under Article 324 of the Constitution ...hereby directs that no person shall convene, hold, attend, join or address any public meeting or procession in connection with the election," the eight-page order read.
The Election Commission also ordered the removal of Principal Secretary (Home) Atri Bhattacharya and Additional Director General, CID, Rajeev Kumar from their postings in West Bengal.
Deputy Election Commissioner Sudeep Jain, who is in-charge of West Bengal, said Bhattacharya "stands relieved" from his current charge immediately, "for having interfered in the process of conducting elections" by directing the state chief electoral officer, which he was not supposed do. The state chief secretary will look after the charge of the home secretary.
He said Rajeev Kumar has been attached to the Ministry of Home Affairs here and should report to his new assignment by 10 am on Thursday.
The EC's action came a day after parts of Kolkata witnessed widespread violence after BJP president Amit Shah's massive road show in the city. A bust of 19th Century Bengali icon Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar was also vandalised during the violence.
The order also barred any musical concert, theatrical performance to attract people in connection with the polls. It said liquor or similar intoxicants cannot be served in election going areas in bars, hotels and traven shops during the ban period.
The commission said it has been brought to its notice of that there were growing incidents of disruption and violence during the political campaigns and processions in West Bengal during the ongoing elections. "During the review with the observers it clearly came out that while logistics arrangements... are mostly on track... there is distinct resistance and non-cooperation from the district administration and district police when it comes to providing level playing field to all candidates for campaigning and in providing a fearless and free environment to the voters," the order read.
It said the observers pointed out that while on the surface, everything looks fine, in their frank interactions with the public the fear psychosis that is widely prevails comes out.
"They pointed out that utterances of the AITC (Trinamool Congress) senior leaders on the lines of 'central forces will leave at the end of elections, while we will remain, sends a chilling message among the officers as well as voters alike," it said referring to the report of special observers Ajay Nayak, a former IAS, and Vivek Dubey, a retired IPS.
Reading out a statement, Kumar said, the commission is "deeply anguished" at the vandalism done to the statue of Ishwarchandra Bandyopadhyay (who was conferred the title of 'Vidyasagar'). "Besides his many other achievements as a philosopher, academic educator, writer and philanthropist, he worked all his life in the cause of widow remarriage which was unthought and unheard of in the ultra conservative society of those days. It is hoped that the vandals are traced by the state administration," Kumar said.
BJP behind EC's direction, says Mamata
Accusing the Election Commission of working at the behest of the BJP, Mamata called the order an "unprecedented, unconstitutional and unethical gift" to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mamata said she had never seen an EC of this kind, which is "full of RSS people". Speaking to reporters in Kolkata, she said, "There is no such law and order problem in West Bengal that Article 324 can be clamped... This is not EC's direction; it is the BJP's direction. This is the direction of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. The EC's decision is unfair, unethical and politically biased. Are you waiting for Prime Minister Modi to finish his two rallies tomorrow (Thursday)? You could have stopped campaigning from today (Wednesday) evening?"
She also asked why the commission did not issue a show cause notice to Shah. "Election Commission is running under the BJP. This is an unprecedented decision. Tuesday's violence was because of Amit Shah. Why has EC not issued a show cause notice to him or sacked him?" Mamata questioned. "BJP goons were brought from outside. They created violence wearing saffron clothes similar to when Babri Masjid was demolished (in 1992)."
Mamata took on the prime minister for not condemning the violent clashes during Shah's roadshow. "Amit Shah created violence through his meeting. Vidyasagar's statue was vandalised, but Modi did not feel sorry for that today. People of Bengal have taken this seriously. Action should be taken against Amit Shah," she said.
Countering claims by BJP that her government was "murdering democracy", Mamata said, "Amit Shah today held a press conference and threatened the EC. Is this the result of that? Bengal is not scared. Bengal was targeted because I am speaking against Modi."
"Bengal is not Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Tripura. Bengal is Bengal. Barring few incidents where central forces were there, such things would have been avoided had state forces been deployed during elections," she said.
Asserting that she would continue to fight against the prime minister, Mamata said that Modi should be "kicked out" from the country.
"Narendra Modi, you cannot take care of your wife. How can you take care of the country? You should be kicked out of the country. My fight is against you and will continue fighting. People of Bengal will give you a befitting reply," the TMC supremo said.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley took to Twitter to attack the Trinamool Congress after the EC's decision.
A free campaign is not possible and therefore the campaign has to be cut short. This is a classical case of breakdown of the Constitutional Machinery.
— Chowkidar Arun Jaitley (@arunjaitley) May 15, 2019
The vandalisation of Vidyasagar's bust and clashes during Shah's roadshow in Kolkata on Tuesday triggered a fierce blame game between BJP and the Trinamool Congress. Shah, at a press conference in New Delhi, alleged that TMC was involved in vandalising the bust and unleashing violence during his roadshow in Kolkata on Tuesday as part of a "conspiracy" to blame the BJP. For its part, the TMC released videos to claim that "BJP goons" damaged the statue of Vidyasagar and said the videos not only establish what the saffron party did, but proved that Shah is a "liar" and a "dhokebaaz" (betrayer). In a show of strength, Mamata also led a 'padyatra' in Kolkata on Wednesday evening.
The constituencies where campaigning has been curtailed are Dum Dum, Barasat, Basirhat, Jaynagar, Mathurapur, Diamond Harbour, Jadavpur, Kolkata Dakshin and Kolkata Uttar.
Campaigning was originally scheduled to end at 5 pm on Friday for the nine constituencies that will go to polls on 19 May. Voting for nine seats will be held in the seventh and final phase of the general elections on 19 May. Counting of votes will take place on 23 May.
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Updated Date: May 16, 2019 17:36:55 IST