The Supreme Court today asked the West Bengal state election commission to "ensure fair and free" panchayat poll in the state and take appropriate steps to allay the apprehensions of BJP or other intending candidates of not being allowed to contest the elections.
The top court, however, refused to interfere with the poll process, saying that with the April 2 notification of the State Election Commission, the poll election process has been set in motion.
"We hope and trust that in order to ensure fair and free election to the panchayats, the State Election Commission shall take appropriate steps to remove the apprehensions of
the petitioner (BJP) and/or intending candidates and they may not be deprived of their chance to contest the panchayat elections," a bench of Justices RK Agrawal and AM Sapre said.
The apex court said if any grievances are raised by any political party or any candidate in writing, then the State Election Commissioner (SEC) would ensure disposal of such grievance strictly in accordance with the law forthwith.
It said the SEC should consider the grievance once made by any party or candidate and pass appropriate orders keeping in view the nature of grievance made and the relevant factors concerning the poll and its process.
"We are, therefore, inclined to dispose of this petition by granting liberty to all political parties, their candidates, including any independent candidate/s proposing to contest the election in question, to approach the State Election Commissioner with their any individual or/and collective grievance," the bench said.
Referring to the provisions of West Bengal Panchayat Elections Act, 2003, the bench said that law has empowered the SEC to pass appropriate orders in relation to any grievance, when made by any political party or their individual candidate or any independent candidate with regard to issues related to the election or its process.
The apex court referred to its 1996 verdict and said it was a settled law that "once the election process has been set in motion, the Court ought not to interfere. We are not inclined to interfere."
It noted that the West Bengal SEC had issued a notification on April 5 providing for additional venues for filing of nomination papers in the wake of media reports about incidents of violence and prevention of some candidates from filing their nominations.
The West Bengal unit of BJP had moved the apex court seeking direction to the SEC to issue nomination forms to the party candidates, so as to enable them file their nominations.
The party had also sought urgent directions to ensure submission of the nomination papers through email and provide police protection to the candidates. It had also sought deployment of central paramilitary forces to maintain the law and order during the conduct of the Panchayat elections in the state.
It had alleged that the "democracy is being murdered" in West Bengal as ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) was engaged in large scale poll violence.
The ruling TMC had told the apex court that it was a settled law that once the poll process has started, it cannot be tinkered with by the court and if the BJP had any grievances, they can easily file election petitions or approach the SEC.
Meanwhile, the violence rocked the poll process as BJP and the TMC workers clashed at Usti in South 24 Parganas district over filing of nominations, leaving six policemen injured.
The panchayat polls are scheduled to be held on May 1, 3, and 5. The votes will be counted on May 8. According to the notification, the last date for filing of nominations was today and the last date of scrutiny of the nominations is April 11.
Earlier in the day, the Supreme Court refused to extend the last date for the filing of nominations for the rural polls, saying it could not interfere with the election process.
The top court, however, granted liberty to all candidates to approach the West Bengal State Election Commission for appropriate relief.
The BJP, the CPI(M) and the Congress alleged that their candidates were attacked by TMC activists also at Baruipur, Diamond Harbour and Bhangar - all in South 24 Parganas district.
In Baruipur, a woman candidate was beaten up while trying to file nomination for the rural polls.
ADGP (law and order) Anuj Sharma told reporters in Kolkata that five people were arrested for the assault on the woman, and seven others were detained in connection with the incident at Usti.
District police sources said six police personnel were injured while trying to stop the clash between workers of the TMC and the BJP, and one policeman suffered bullet injury in his left hand.
The BJP alleged that their party workers were attacked by "armed goons" of the Trinamool when they were going to file nominations.
In Birbhum district Zilla Parishad, the TMC won 41 of the 42 seats uncontested, an official of the District Panchayat and Rural Development said.
There would be election only in Rajnagar seat where the BJP has filed nomination, he said.
A BJP leader alleged that the TMC has managed to make Birbhum opposition-less with the help of the musclemen and the police.
"We have no faith on the state police. Even our women candidates were beaten up and hundreds of our party workers were arrested," he said.
Denying the BJP's charges, TMC secretary general Partha Chatterjee said the opposition parties did not have the organisation to fight the rural poll.
"Wherever they don't have people to contest the election, they are blaming the TMC for the violence," he said.
Chatterjee, also a state minister, accused the opposition parties of trying to destabilise the state and alleged that the BJP was trying to divide the people on communal line.
By moving the courts, the opposition parties were trying to put pressure on the State Election Commission (SEC) that is conducting the panchayat polls, he said.
Chatterjee who met the state election commissioner during the day, said the commission should not bow down to any pressure.
The ADGP (law and order) said armed police would be deployed in all the polling booths during the three-tier panchayat election next month.
Asserting that the police were playing a "proactive role" in ensuring free and fair polls, he said 2,000 preventive arrests have been made since yesterday and 256 were arrested in specific cases.
Ten arms and two bombs were recovered from separate places in the state, he said, adding that checking at various points were being strengthened.
(With inputs from PTI)