High Court Fails to Defend Secularism in WB Over Puja Grants
In shameful act of statist cowardice, the High Court of Judicature at Calcutta, today, failed to protect secular principals in permitting Trinmool Congress-ruled West Bengal government to disburse Rs 10,000 each to 28 community (28 Crores in total) Durga puja committees across the state.
While many had remarked that while the state cried fowl at having insufficient funds to repair flyovers that are in dire condition, some recently falling down and killing citizens, the announcement that 280 million rupees should go to social clubs to erect Puja pandals seemed gratuitous to say the least.
That said, the ruling that comes as a major relief to the social clubs ahead of the month-long festival after an interim stay on the move.
“We are not inclined to entertain the petiition at this state,” a division bench comprising acting Chief Justice Debashish Kar Gupta and Justice Sampa Sarkar said rejecting the public interest litigation challenging the state government’s decision to fund the community Durga puja committees from the exchequer.
The division bench on Friday passed an interim stay asking the state government to put on hold the disbursement of funds to Durga puja committees till Tuesday.
“The Legislature is the ultimate forum to decide the nature of expenditure incurred by the state government. The court can intervene only at a later stage,” the apex bench observed.
The court order also mentioned the arguments by advocate general Kishore Dutta before the bench that the grant to community Durga puja committees is aimed at promoting community policing under the ‘Safe Drive and Save Life’ campaign of the state government and not for any religious purpose. This argument thought a stretch of mythical proportions was accepted by the bench, however excessive the amount allocated for a campaign that has been underway for more than a year already.
The courtroom packed with community puja committee members (which some described as a mob) and lawyers had witnessed
day-long argument on the litigation before the division bench extended its stay on the puja largess till Thursday.
Advocate general Kishore Dutta said that in the state’s budget for 2018-’19 , a fund of Rs one crore was allocated for community policing.
“That fund have been increased to give grants to the puja committees community policing,” he told the court.
The advocate general said the courts do not have the right to adjudicate whether a government is spending money from exchequer properly .
“ The decision can only be debated on the floor of the state Legislative Assembly,” he argued before the bench.
Senior lawyer Saktinath Mukherjee , appearing for the state government, told the division bench that the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and Public Accounts Committee is free scrutinize the expenditure of a government and the court has no role at the state of expenditure. Many observers questioned these bodies as being truly independent or in substance acting under the state apparatus.
Appearing for petitioner, Sourav Dutta, editor of a Bengali news magazine, senior lawyer Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya questioned if the state government can spend a single penny for the “purpose of destroying the secular structure of the Constitution.”
“ It’s an assault on the secular Constitution” he said,” It’s a dole to puja committees and not for any public purpose.”
The recent controversy comes after a series of such complaints over the years that Durga Puja has become the worship of Mamon as Mamata in sucking much needed state funds from potentially worthy activities to the excess that pandals display, scant none of it going for the benefit of the people or public projects that might benefit the citizenry of the state.
While the courts refused to step in, as democracy in the state shows its duress to the point of breakage, increasingly, public interest groups are looking to the courts to restore the checks and balances on populist government propped up by thugs and seemingly run amok. This time, the battle was lost. It begs the question of whether the issue of protection of the secular nature of Indian society isn’t one for The Supreme Court?
Secular citizens await a response on all sides of the religious divide.