The Calcutta high court on Thursday gave the go ahead for the Bharatiya Janata Party's 'Rath Yatra' in West Bengal, quashing the state government's decision to refuse permission over apprehensions of communal unrest but set some conditions.
However, the state government has challenged the single bench order and the matter is expected to come up on Friday.
Meanwhile, following the court order, the BJP came up with tentative new dates from December 28 to 31 for its proposed three-phase programme.
Among the conditions set by the court was that the BJP will be vicariously liable for any damage or loss of public property during the conduct of the yatra.
Rejecting the state government's contention on its opposition to the yatra, the high court observed that courts can interfere if administrative authorities exercise their discretionary powers in a whimsical manner.
The state BJP unit has been mechanically denied permission to organise the yatra, it said.
Appearing for the state, Advocate General Kishore Dutta had submitted before the court that it has limited scope of judicial review in an administrative decision to not allow the yatra on the basis of intelligence inputs and apprehensions of communal tension.
While directing the police to deploy adequate force to ensure there is no breach of law and order, Justice Tapabrata Chakraborty asked the state BJP to inform the superintendents of police of districts where the rallies will enter at least 12 hours ahead of schedule and to ensure that the 'yatras' are conducted by abiding the law and they do not impede normal movement of vehicular traffic.
Welcoming the order, the BJP hit out at the ruling Trinamool Congress(TMC) in West Bengal for denying permission for its rally and questioned the ‘silence’ of opposition on the issue.
‘Why are human rights activists and opposition parties silent on denial of a right to a political party to organise its programme in West Bengal. If any NDA/BJP Government had stopped an opposition Programme, it would have been called an ‘Undeclared Emergency’. Why Silence now?’ BJP leader and Union Minister Arun Jaitley tweeted.
The Trinamool Congress claimed the yatra is being held to ignite communal passions in the state before the Lok Sabha elections next year.
"The sole intention of BJP is to create communal tensions in the state to divide the people on religious lines," TMC secretary general Partha Chatterjee alleged.
Shortly after the verdict was pronounced, a meeting of state BJP functionaries was convened which was attended by party national general secretary Kailash Vijayvergiya.
"We welcome the court's verdict ... Today we had a meeting with the party functionaries. The tentative new dates (for the Rath yatras) are December 28, 29 and 31. Nothing has been finalized as of now. We will inform the state government about it," Vijayvergiya said.
The yatra christened the 'Ganatantra Bachao Yatra' (Save Democracy Rally) will traverse across all the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state.
According to BJP sources, party national president Amit Shah will flag off all the three yatras.
The party had planned three 'Rath yatras' from different parts of West Bengal. The rallies are part of the BJP's aggressive campaign to make inroads in the state, where it is gradually increasing its vote share. It has three MLAs in the 294-member Assembly and two Lok Saha MPs from the state.
"I can assure that there will be no breach of law and order from our part," said state BJP president Dilip Ghosh.
The state government had on Saturday last refused permission for the yatra citing intelligence reports of possible communal violence in areas where the party was planning to take out the rallies.
On December 6, a single judge bench of the high court had refused permission to the BJP to hold the 'Rath Yatra', which was scheduled to be flagged off by Shah from Cooch Behar in North Bengal on December 7. The party had then approached the division bench.
The division bench on December 7 asked the state chief secretary, the home secretary and the director general of police to hold a meeting with three representatives of the BJP and take a decision on the 'yatra' by December 14.
After parleys with the BJP team, the three officers refused permission for the rallies on December 15 on the grounds that it might lead to communal tension. The state BJP moved the court again challenging the government's denial of permission to its programme.
Allowing the BJP rallies, Justice Chakraborty observed that the officials concerned did not have sufficient material to totally deny permission to the petitioner to organise the rallies, without even making an endeavour as to whether the yatras can be allowed by imposing reasonable restrictions.
The court observed that the discretion exercised by the administrative authorities can certainly be interfered with by the court, especially when such powers have been exercised in a whimsical manner.
Dutta had submitted before the court that it has limited scope of judicial review in an administrative decision to not allow the yatra on the basis of intelligence inputs and apprehensions of communal tension.
He had on Wednesday submitted a report in a sealed cover to the court apparently detailing the intelligence inputs of likely communal unrest if the yatra was allowed.
Justice Chakraborty said that as the yatras are not for any unlawful purpose, they ought not to be totally prohibited unless there is imminent threat of breach of peace and even then, the restraint should be just and reasonable.
Observing that the petitioner has been mechanically denied permission to organise the yatra, the court said reliance has been placed on intelligence reports by the administration for such denial, but names of the districts have not been disclosed.
The court also noted that the BJP had written several letters to different administrative and police officers from October 29 for consultations for the Rath Yatra, but none were responded to.
Justice Chakraborty, who presided over the earlier single bench that injuncted the yatras on December 6, said the sole ground of the earlier judgment was that the rally was to start from 10 am the next morning.
Praying for quashing the denial of permission by the three officers, BJP counsel S K Kapur alleged on Thursday that the decision communicated to the party was at the behest of the state government.
Kapur submitted that it does not reflect any independent application of mind by the court-appointed members and as such was not sustainable. Rallies are part of political activities of a political party and a decision to restrict or prohibit must be based on cogent reasons, he said.
Dutta submitted that rights under Article 19 of the Constitution are not absolute and are subject to public order, meaning that the sovereign can restrict or prohibit a rally. He further said there is an apprehension that the yatras will turn into communal propaganda.
With ANI inputs