A “murder of democracy”, cried BJP’s Bengal president Dilip Ghosh shrilly. The reference was to the Mamata Banerjee government’s repeated refusal to grant permission to the party to hold ‘Rath Yatras’ in West Bengal.
Planned since early 2018 as the programme that would kick-start the BJP’s massive Bengal campaign before the general elections of 2019, the ‘Ganatantra Bachao’ or ‘Save Democracy’ mega rallies were to take off from different parts of the state in December. BJP national president Amit Shah was supposed to flag off a procession from north Bengal’s Cooch Behar district. Other BJP leaders slated to be present for the programmes were Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal, BJP general secretary in-charge of West Bengal, Kailash Vijayvargiya and Tripura CM Biplab Kumar Deb. The centrepiece of the rallies was to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was to make an appearance during one or more segments of the rally on Sunday, December 16. But the Bengal Police, denying permission in a final, official communication on December 15, told the BJP state unit that as per intelligence reports, the rallies would ignite communal clashes and turn into events of ‘communal propaganda’. Organisations with an “overtly communal” ageNDA like Bajrang Dal, VHP and RSS would also be involved, it said.
BJP sources stated that if the rallies could not be held, it was not a loss just for the BJP but for West Bengal. “We had prepared events where the country’s top leaders would visit the remotest parts of the state to hear their problems, discuss solutions and challenges, but the cancellation of programmes deprived them of these opportunities,” Sanghamitra Choudhury, a BJP state unit leader tells Outlook. She pointed out that the BJP had started asking for permission to the state government and state police months ahead of the December dates because the scale of the political rallies were huge and it involved coordinating with schedules of the Centre’s top office-holders—a matter of meticulous planning. “But we were not even able to confirm whether or not the rallies would eventually take place,” says a party worker. “This is not just BJP’s loss. The state government and the police’s dismissal of our request to allow the country’s most important political figures to visit and address Bengal’s people is a loss for the entire state. Naturally, we are very disappointed.”
The state government maintained that the denial of permission was prompted by the threat of communal clashes on the polarising back of the proposed rallies. “BJP rallies have gone out of hand earlier,” a Trinamool Congress member tells Outlook. “In March, after the BJP took out a Ram Navami procession in West Burdwan, violence raged for three days in Asansol and Raniganj,” he says, referring to the gruesome communal conflagration. The TMC claimed that chosen routes of the BJP’s proposed yatras are through ‘sensitive’ pockets, including in Cooch Behar, from where Shah was to flag off a yatra.
In a further blow to the BJP’s plans, the government’s central argument, about communal unrest, was upheld by a single-bench judge of the Calcutta High Court. When the BJP moved court seeking a directive to quash the government’s dismissal, the HC refused to allow it permission, prompting the party to appeal to a division bench of the Calcutta HC. BJP sources have promised to appeal to the Supreme Court, if required. “We will not give up on our democratic rights to hold a rally,” Ghosh tells Outlook. He also called for an imposition of president’s rule in West Bengal. “We call it a murder of democracy because the state government’s decision to stop us from holding the processions is tantamount to throttling the voice of the opposition. If this is allowed to continue it will ring the death knell for democracy in the state,” he tells Outlook. “We repose faith in the justice system and will continue to appeal for our democratic rights.” The next hearing on the Rath Yatra is scheduled for January 9, 2019.
- The BJP had planned rath yatras, coupled with big rallies, in December as part of its final push before Lok Sabha polls.
- The state government and the police denied permission, saying they are designed to ignite communal clashes.
- The BJP moved court, but the Calcutta HC refused to budge. The BJP has appealed to a division bench, vows to go to the SC.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta