Questioning the West Bengal government's curbs on Durga idol immersion, the Calcutta high court on Wednesday said the State cannot hinder a citizen's right to practise 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," Acting Chief Justice Rakesh Tiwary said, asking the government to provide a "concrete ground" for its decision to stop the immersion of Durga idols after 10 pm on September 30 (Vijaya Dashami day) and on October 1 on account of Muharram.
Hearing three PILs challenging the restrictions on immersion of idols at the end of the five-day Durga Puja festival, a bench, also comprising Justice Harish Tandon, said a mere assumption that a law-and-order situation might arise, owing to Vijaya Dashami and Muharram falling one after the other, could not be the basis of imposing curbs on immersion timings.
Observing that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had herself told a public meeting that Hindus and Muslims lived together in harmony in the state, the bench said, "Listen to what the head of the state says and not a police officer."
"People have the right to practise their religious activities, whichever community they may be of, and the State cannot put restrictions, unless it has a concrete ground to believe that two communities cannot live together," the acting chief justice said.
"You must clarify why are you apprehending a law-and- order situation," the bench told state Advocate General Kishore Dutta, who claimed that it was the administration's prerogative to decide on steps to prevent any untoward situation.
"Public order and law-and-order are administrative issues," Dutta submitted, while claiming that the court's interference in it would amount to trudging into the administration's domain.
The West Bengal government has imposed restrictions on Durga idol immersions on September 30, the Vijaya Dashami day, after 10 PM and no immersion would be allowed on October 1, the day Muharram is scheduled to be observed.
The bench said the administration could regulate the routes for the immersion processions to follow and those through which the 'Tajia' processions of Muharram would pass.
"In the interest of maintaining law-and-order and in order to prevent an untoward incident, the administration can regulate a religious congregation or procession," the AG submitted before the court.
"It is a preventive action to rule out any possibility of a law-and-order situation," he said.
The court observed that it was not disputing the state's right to regulate, but the administration could not restrict the observance of one's religious rights.
"We are asking you to eliminate the element of arbitrariness and provide a concrete ground for your action," the bench said.
"If you say there is complete harmony, are you (the state administration) not creating a line of division between the two communities by your action?" asked Justice Tandon.
When the AG reiterated that the state had taken the decision to prevent any untoward incident, the acting chief justice observed, "Let them live in harmony, do not create a line between them."
The court further said it was advocating peace, harmony and living together.
The hearing in the three PILs was concluded and the order is scheduled to be passed on Thursday.
Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters