The Calcutta High Court on Friday delivered yet another order with direct implications on the ongoing Lok Sabha election.

Justice Amrita Sinha restrained the West Bengal police from inquiring into complaints regarding firearms and large sums of cash allegedly found at the residence-cum-office of Suvendhu Adhikari, the Bharatiya Janata Party legislator who is the leader of opposition in the West Bengal assembly.

Adhikari seems to be in violation of the Election Commission of India’s Standard Operating Procedure for seizing and releasing cash and other items, according to which a sum of over Rs 50,000 in cash found with any party worker is to be taken into possession, lest it be used to induce voters. However, he is scot-free for now.

The High Court has stayed any investigation in this matter against Adhikari till June 17. Meanwhile, 17 of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats will go to polls on May 25 and June 1.

Scroll explains how the Calcutta High Court has played an unusually outsized role in the Lok Sabha election in Bengal. This led legal academic Anuj Bhuwania to remark that the “West Bengal elections seems to be a contest between the state government and [the] Calcutta High Court”.

No FIR without High Court approval

In December 2022, Justice Rajasekhar Mantha of the Calcutta High Court, in an unprecedented order, not only stayed 17 first information reports lodged against Adhikari but ordered that for any new first information reports to be filed against Adhikari, the police would first have to secure the high court’s permission.

The police are mandated to file first information reports when complaints are made for offences that the Code of Criminal Procedure classifies as “cognisable”. These are usually serious crimes, such as promoting enmity among social groups, participating in an unlawful assembly or attempt to murder – offences that were invoked against Adhikari in some of the first information reports that were stayed by the court.

Without filing a first information report, the police cannot investigate a complaint about an alleged offence.

Justice Mantha’s rationale was that all the complaints against Adhikari were politically motivated, intended to hinder his personal liberty and prevent him from discharging his public functions. Without citing any material evidence for this inference, Mantha concluded that the state police machinery was pursuing a “calculated design” against Adhikari.

Since then, before Friday’s order, the High Court has blocked the Bengal police from filing first information reports against Adhikari for making provocative public comments during panchayat elections in the state in August and for getting into an alleged altercation with the police in October.

A file photo of BJP leader and West Bengal Leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari. | Suvendu Adhikari via Facebook

Striking down of 25,000 school appointments

On April 22, a two-judge bench of the High Court comprising of Justices Debangsu Basak and Md Shabbar Rashidi cancelled about 25,000 appointments of teachers and non-teaching staff in West Bengal government-run schools. This was an unprecedented verdict: no court in India had previously effected the mass cancellation of thousands of recruitments.

In the judgment, the court blamed the state government for protecting those who benefitted from what the court found to be a fraudulent selection process.

This came just three days after the first phase of the Lok Sabha election.

The Supreme Court eventually stayed the judgment on May 7. However, by then, the High Court’s observations against the state government had already led to the state’s ruling party, the All India Trinamool Congress, being lambasted for corruption by the BJP as well as the Trinamool Congress’ partners in the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance.

Cancelling OBC certificates

On Wednesday, a two judge bench of the High Court comprising Justice Tapabrata Chakraborty and Mantha cancelled all Other Backward Classes certificates issued in West Bengal after 2010.

The court’s rationale was that the notification of new OBC classes was done by the government sans transparency and objectivity and did not adhere to legal and constitutional standards. The court flagged the non-involvement of the state’s Commission for Backward Classes in the OBC classification.

In an unusual turn, though, the judgment criticised the state government for notifying a large number of Muslim communities as OBC “for electoral gains” and treating Muslims as “a commodity for political ends”. Making political imputations about legislative or executive actions is beyond the court’s remit.

This occurred just three days before the sixth phase of the election.

Even as Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has promised to challenge this verdict before the Supreme Court, the BJP has not missed the opportunity to use the verdict to attack the Trinamool Congress and the INDIA Opposition bloc.

Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah have relied on the judgment to stoke fears that if vote to power, the INDIA bloc would take away reservation benefits from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, apart from members of the Other Backward Classes, and hand them over to Muslims.

In the last month, Modi has made the opposition party’s purported Muslim appeasement politics the central theme of his speeches on the campaign trail. Scroll had reported that most of Modi’s claims in this regard are false.

Politicisation of the court

Over the last few years, the Calcutta High Court has gained a notoriety for being the proxy ground on which the state’s Trinamool vs BJP politics are playing out. Lawyers as well as judges have accused each other of favouring one of the two parties.

This culminated earlier this year in one of the central figures in these controversies, Justice Abhijeet Gangopadhyay resigning from the High Court in March and immediately joining the BJP. He is contesting the Lok Sabha elections in Bengal as a BJP candidate.

Gangopadhyay had admitted at a press conference that he had been in touch with the BJP even when he was serving as a judge on the High Court.

Scroll has previously reported how Gangopadhyay’s conduct had raised questions about judicial independence.

Abhijeet Gangopadhyay, former Calcutta High Court judge and BJP's candidate from the Lok Sabha seat in Tamluk, West Bengal. | PTI