In a setback to the West Bengal government, the Calcutta high court on Thursday allowed immersion of Durga idols on all days from Vijayadashami on September 30, including on Muharram on October 1.
A division bench comprising Acting Chief Justice Rakesh Tiwari and Justice Harish Tandon directed the West Bengal government to make necessary security arrangements and asked the state government to chalk out designated routes for immersion and tazia processions.
The state government had imposed restrictions on Durga idol immersion on Vijaydashami on September 30 after 10 pm and said no immersion would be allowed on October 1, the day Muharram is scheduled to be observed.
The directions by the high court came on three public interest litigations challenging the restrictions on the immersion of idols at the end of the five-day Durga puja festival.
Hailing the court verdict that immersion of the idols could take place all days from Vijayadashami according to the Hindu almanac, West Bengal Bharatiya Janata Party president Dilip Ghosh said the state government's attempts "to divide the people on religious lines and reap electoral benefits out of it" had been defeated.
"The same thing had happened last year also, but the government did not learn any lessons from it. This year also the state government and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tried to divide the people on religious lines, but it has been foiled. It is really sad that the Hindus in West Bengal have no religious rights. They have to depend on the judiciary to celebrate Durga Puja," he told reporters in Kolkata.
Hours after court's order, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee slammed critics for levelling the charge of Muslim appeasement against her and said it was "insulting".
"No one accuses me of appeasement when I attend programmes of the Hindus, Christians or Buddhists. This charge is levelled only when I attend programmes of the Muslims," she said after inaugurating a Durga Puja pandal in Kolkata.
The state administration had barred processions on October 1.
Passing an interim order, the court directed that processions with Durga idols reaching places of immersion by midnight would be allowed to complete the process on a given day.
The bench also directed the state government to put out advertisements to widely circulate information about the routes and also for ensuring amity and harmony between the communities.
It declined a plea of the Trinamool Congress government for a stay on the order.
The bench asked the state authorities to file its affidavit on the prayers made by the petitioners within three weeks after the puja holidays and the petitioners to give their reply within another two weeks.
The matter would come up for hearing again five weeks after the vacation.
During the proceedings, the acting chief justice observed the court cannot permit arbitrary use of power by the State when Advocate General Kishore Dutta submitted that it was within the State's powers to impose restrictions as a preventive measure and maintain law and order.
Giving an example, the court said that in case of a congregation turning restive, the police or the administration first tries to persuade, then uses water canon, mildlathicharge and so on if one measure fails after another.
But the police cannot resort to firing at the outset, it said.
"You have to go step by step. Here what you have done is that you have taken the last resort first," Justice Tiwari said on the state government's restrictions on immersion timings.
"None from the other communities has come seeking restrictions. There is no intervention by them," the bench said on the state's unilateral action.
"Show us the material by which you are exercising the extreme step. You are exercising the power without any basis," the bench told the state AG.
"You are the State, welfare State. You cannot say one can be there and another cannot be there," it said.
The high court had on Wednesday said the State cannot hinder a citizen's right to practice religion on the basis of a mere assumption of law and order disruption and must provide sound reasons for doing so.
"Let them (Hindus and Muslims) live in harmony, do not create a line between them," it had said.
"Public order and law and order are administrative issues," the AG had submitted, while claiming that the court's interference in it would amount to trudging into the administration's domain.