Opposition parties in Bengal question civic volunteers deployment during clashes
Several parts of Bengal witnessed sporadic clashes since June 8 when state election commissioner (SEC) Rajiva Sinha announced panchayat polling dates
Opposition parties in West Bengal questioned the deployment of civic police volunteers to tackle clashes on the eve of panchayat elections in violation of an order the Calcutta high court passed on March 21 this year.
Several parts of Bengal witnessed sporadic clashes since June 8 when state election commissioner (SEC) Rajiva Sinha announced that polls at three-tier panchayats in 20 districts and two-tier panchayats in Darjeeling and Kalimpong will be held on July 8.
The filing of nomination papers began on Friday and will continue till June 15.
A Congress worker was allegedly killed in Murshidabad on June 9 and several others were injured in other districts amid allegations that Trinamool Congress (TMC) workers stopped opposition candidates from collecting and filing nomination papers.
Citing media reports and videos, Samik Bhattacharya, chief spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state unit, alleged that civic volunteers outnumbered policemen at the trouble spots.
On March 21, Calcutta high court judge Rajasekhar Mantha ordered the government to issue a set of guidelines on duties to be performed by the volunteers.
The judge gave the order while hearing a case pertaining to a missing citizen whose family alleged that he was picked up from home by policemen and two civic volunteers in 2022.
On May 24, the West Bengal police directorate passed an order stating civic volunteers will assist police units deployed to manage traffic, tackle illegal parking, manage crowds during festivals and ensure public safety.
“A civic volunteer cannot be entrusted with any law enforcement duties,” said the order a copy of which was reviewed by HT.
The civic volunteers, who need to clear Class 8 school examination to be eligible for the job.
There are more than 70,000 civic volunteers drawing a monthly salary is ₹9000.
“We have information that civic volunteers in many areas have been asked to get police-like uniforms made for the panchayat polls. They are used in every election by the TMC to intimidate voters and candidates. In remote areas, they virtually run the police stations,” BJP’s Bhattacharya alleged.
In the last 2018 panchayat polls, Bengal witnessed widespread violence.
Citing the 2018 incidents, the BJP and Congress moved the division bench of the Calcutta high court chief justice on June 9, seeking deployment of central paramilitary forces.
Though the petitions will be heard on Monday, the SEC announced on Saturday that in view of the ongoing violence the filing of nominations will be recorded on video.
According to the data released by SEC, there are 61,636 polling booths in panchayat areas for 63,229 gram panchayat seats, 9,730 panchayat samiti seats and 928 zilla parishad seats.
The number of voters is 56.7 million.
CPI(M) state secretary Md Salim alleged that civic volunteers from one district might be deployed in police uniform in another district on July 8 so that local people cannot identify them.
“Some citizens have decided to move court. How can the state try to hoodwink the judiciary? Civic volunteers were recruited at random before the last state polls as well. Many are TMC activists. Job insecurity, low pay, prompt them to follow orders,” Salim alleged.
Reacting on the charges, TMC Rajya Sabha member Santanu Sen claimed that opposition parties are making baseless assumptions.
“The SEC never said civic volunteers will be used during the polls. Rather, he said that if required additional forces will be brought in. Why are the opposition parties making baseless assumptions?” Sen asked.