Kolkata: The Calcutta High Court’s five-member bench, led by acting chief justice Rajesh Bindal, Thursday directed the CBI to investigate the serious cases of murders, sexual assault on women and allegations of rapes in connection with the violence that broke out immediately after the West Bengal assembly election was declared in May.
To investigate the other cases and allegations related to the violence, the court ordered the setting up of a special investigation team (SIT), to be headed by Suman Bala Sahoo, a Director General ranked officer of the West Bengal cadre. Commissioner of Kolkata Police Soumen Mitra, an additional director general of police by rank, will also be a member.
The investigations, both by the CBI and the SIT, will be monitored by the court, and a status report is to be filed six weeks from the date of the order, the court said.
“For other cases, as have been referred to in the report of the Committee (NHRC fact-finding team), Special Investigation Team is constituted for monitoring the investigation. The team shall be headed by Suman Bala Sahoo, and Soumen Mitra and Ranveer Kumar, all IPS officers of the West Bengal cadre, shall be its members. The working of the SIT shall be overviewed by a retired Hon’ble Judge of Hon’ble the Supreme Court,” the order read.
“The State shall spare their services for the purpose, as and when required and shall not take any adverse action against them without specific permission of the Court. The working of the SIT shall be overviewed by a retired Hon’ble Judge of Hon’ble the Supreme Court, for which separate order shall be passed after taking his/her consent,” it also noted.
Further, the court directed the state to compensate victims through direct bank transfers and asked state machineries to cooperate with the CBI and the SIT as and when needed.
The order is a setback to the ruling Trinamool Congress government as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee looks to expand her party’s footprint beyond Bengal. The state has maintained that the violence broke out before their administration took over.
A top official of the state’s law department told ThePrint that government will likely move the Supreme Court against the high court’s order.
The Print reached Trinamool Congress MPs Kalyan Banerjee and Sukhendu Sekhar Roy for a comment via phone calls. However, both MPs said the party will respond only after the government has first reacted.
A committee of the National Human Rights Commission, which was ordered by the Calcutta High Court to investigate the allegations, had recommended a court-monitored investigation by the CBI or the SIT and compensation to the victims in its report.
Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her ministers had alleged that the NHRC committee was “politically motivated”.
While the bench had differences in opinions on some issues, they unanimously agreed on the primary judgment.
The 124-page court order quotes the observations made by three members of the bench, each of whom raised questions about the state’s handling of the matter.
Justice I.P. Mukerji observed that while “it is not established that the state has shown apathy to action on the information regarding crimes involving post-poll violence… what is very serious is that the state has not responded to the alleged offences of murder and rape tabulated as referred to in the judgment of the Hon’ble the Chief Justice (Acting)”.
“The offences are grievous, serious and heinous. It may be as a result of post-poll violence. It may well be in the usual course of affairs. The fact remains that each of these offences needs serious investigation,” he said.
Justice Harish Tandon said the “court cannot be a mute spectator nor should be apathetic to the voices of the persons who felt aggrieved but must rise to an occasion to protect such rights”.
“There may be cases that are not relatable to post-poll violence but the persons have been deprived of their rights being not addressed through a well-recognised system in place and therefore there is no fetter on the part of the court to entrust investigation to impartial, independent agency constituted for the purpose of rendering justice to deprived persons,” he added.
Justice Soumen Sen said the “state was given ample opportunities and scope to register complaints and take appropriate measures in accordance with law”. “The state was in denial mode,” he added.
Justice Sen, however, said the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) fact-finding team’s “scathing remarks and… recommendations against politicians and police officers… were uncalled for and to that extent the committee has transgressed its limits”.
The high court order could be a major political setback for the Mamata Banerjee government and her Trinamool Congress. The BJP has been demanding a central probe in the issue for the past three months.
Banerjee has trained her sights on national politics and the 2024 Lok Sabha election by talking with opposition parties to build consensus and an anti-BJP front. Her government has repeatedly claimed that the allegations against them in the post-poll violence case were “false”.
“There were no incidents of post-poll violence under my watch. The incidents happened pre-poll when the Election Commission of India was in control of the administration,” she has said in public meetings.
Bengal’s Law Minister Maloy Ghatak told The Print that earlier, “we are waiting for the final order. We can move the apex court if needed”.
This report has been updated with additional information
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)