During the West Bengal Assembly elections in 2021, one of Mamata Banerjee’s strategies to counter the BJP was to project it as a party of “outsiders”, with the CM alleging at a rally that the BJP was bringing “goons from UP on trains and buses … who have entered Bengal to destroy its culture”. Two years on, the Trinamool Congress (TMC)-led government has pushed through amendments that have drawn comparisons with controversial legislation the Uttar Pradesh government led by Yogi Adityanath passed in the last three years to recover damages from anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protesters.
The TMC government on February 21 got the West Bengal Maintenance of Public Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023, passed in the Assembly. It will enable the state government to attach the properties of people accused of damaging properties, government or private, looting, and arson so that victims can be paid compensation.
The amendments to the West Bengal Maintenance of Public Order Act, 1972, provide for the “realisation of fund by selling in public auction the attached property under the said Act for the purposes of payment of compensation to the victim by framing a scheme under the said Act”.
The amended law says that “within 60 days” from the date of the publication of the notification under the law the government shall “make an application, supported by an affidavit stating the ground on which the State Government has issued the said notification before the Jurisdictional Court or Magistrate, as the case may be, seeking the ad-interim order of attachment of absolute or any such further order” that the court may “deem fit and proper” to attach “in the interest of justice”.
Explaining why the amendments had been brought in, the government said in the Bill that these changes were considered necessary due to incidents of “burning, looting, damage of properties … by a few anti-social elements”. Last month, Indian Secular Front (ISF) MLA Naushad Siddiqui was arrested following a clash with the police in the heart of Kolkata. Siddiqui has been in prison for more than a month now. Last year, parts of the capital and its adjoining areas turned into a battlefield after the BJP, protesting against alleged corruption in the state government, was stopped from marching to the secretariat, Nabanna, in Howrah.
After tabling the bill in the House last week, Finance Minister Chandrima Bhattacharya said, “There are many anti-social activities in the name of agitations. Destructive acts such as vandalism and looting also occur. Until now, compensation was paid only in the case of government property. This time, it has to be paid in case of destruction of private property too.”
Bhattacharya said there were crucial differences between the UP legislation and the one the West Bengal Assembly had passed. However, she did not explain these differences.
The UP example
After the protests against the CAA turned violent in 2019, CM Yogi Adityanath warned the protesters of revenge. “The property of each element involved in this violence will be confiscated and used to recover compensation for public property which was damaged. All their faces have been identified. They are visible in the videography and CCTV footage. We will take revenge by confiscating their properties, I have ordered strict action.”
Months later, the Uttar Pradesh government started putting up name-and-shame posters with the photographs and names of those who allegedly damaged property during the protests. After the Allahabad High Court on March 9, 2020, directed the government to remove the posters and the Supreme Court refused to stay the High Court order, the state government on March 16 promulgated the Uttar Pradesh Recovery of Damage to Public and Private Property Ordinance to replace the legal basis of the process.
The following year, the UP government passed the Uttar Pradesh Recovery of Damages to Public and Private Property Act, 2021, under which protesters found guilty of damaging government and private property will face imprisonment or a fine up to Rs 1 lakh. An investigation by The Indian Express last year revealed how the state administration rushed through the ordinance to play not only prosecutor but judge and jury as well. It gave itself sweeping powers to assess damage, estimate cost, bring charges, and fix liability with many of the accused not even getting a hearing.
Asked about the amended law, Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim of the TMC said, “We have the example of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi taught us non-violence. Why should we fight destructively? Vandalism, hooliganism and the ransacking of public and private property is not the way to conduct movements. So, this is a crucial law.”
BJP’s chief whip in the West Bengal Assembly, Manoj Tigga, criticised the government and said, “The amendment Act was brought to stop the democratic movement of the opposition. The government is trying to suppress the voice of the Opposition. Soon, the Opposition won’t be able to fight elections democratically.”
CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty said, “There is nothing new in this amended law. The only new portion is that the properties of the accused will be auctioned. But, the question is which party is bringing this law? They (TMC) have always believed in destructive movements. Their leader Mamata Banerjee ransacked the state Assembly. We don’t want to learn non-violence from them.”