In an unprecedented action in India's electoral history, the Election Commission on Wednesday ordered campaigning in nine constituencies of West Bengal to end at 10 PM on Thursday, in the wake of violence between BJP and TMC workers in Kolkata.
In a hurriedly-convened press conference, Deputy Election Commissioner Chandra Bhushan Kumar said it was for the first time that such an action has been taken using constitutional powers of the poll panel.
The poll panel 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 10.00 AM Thursday.
The crackdown came a day after widespread violence was reported from Kolkata during 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.
"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," Deputy Election Commissioner 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 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 order said it has been brought to the notice of the Commission that there have been 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.
The EC invoked Article 324 of the Constitution to curtail the campaigning for the last phase of the election on May 19.
The constituencies where campaigning has been curtailed are -- Dum Dum, Barasat, Basirhat, Jaynagar, Mathurapur, Diamond Harbour, Jadavpur, Kolkata Dakshin and Kolkata Uttar.
The order on curtailment of the campaigning was signed by Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora and Election Commissioners Ashok Lavasa and Sushil Chandra.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley took to Twitter to attack the Trinamool Congress after the EC's decision.
"A constitutional authority, the Election Commission of India, has effectively held Bengal to be a state in Anarchy. Repeatedly escalating violence, state supported Vandals, a partisan police and home department are the illustrations the ECI has given," he said.
He also said, a free campaign was not possible and, therefore, the campaign had to be cut short. "This is a classical case of breakdown of the Constitutional Machinery," he wrote.
The vandalisation of Vidyasagar's bust and clashes during Shah's road show in Kolkata on Tuesday triggered a fierce blame game between BJP and the Trinamool Congress.
Shah, at a press conference here, alleged that Mamata Banerjee's 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.
On 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).