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Saraswati Puja: HC says no to rescheduling of Dhaka city polls, move sparks protests

  • Published at 04:18 pm January 14th, 2020

Petitioner to challenge order in top court today as DU students give EC until noon to change the election date

The High Court has rejected a petition seeking a rescheduling of the January 30 election date of Dhaka’s two city corporations as the day coincides with Saraswati Puja, one of the biggest religious festivals of the country’s Hindu community.

The bench of Justice JBM Hassan and Justice Md Khairul Alam on Tuesday issued the order after hearing the petitioner, the state, and the Election Commission’s lawyer.

The order left the petitioner aggrieved. It sparked protests several hours later at Shahbagh, leaving thousands of citizens trapped in massive gridlocks on the connecting roads.

Hundreds of Dhaka University  students kept the busy intersection blocked for one and a half hours from 5pm on Tuesday. They gave the Election Commission until noon today to change the date of the elections.

Utpal Biswas, spokesperson of the protesters and vice president of the university’s Jagannath Hall Student Union, told reporters: “If the Election Commission does not meet our demand by 12pm Wednesday, we will lay siege to the commission.”

In his immediate reaction, Supreme Court lawyer Ashoke Kumar Ghosh, the petitioner, told reporters: “We are aggrieved and we will go to the Appellate Division challenging this order.”

After the commission announced on December 22 last year that polls to Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) and Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) would be held on January 30, the Hindu community voiced its opposition to the decision immediately as it was set to celebrate Saraswati Puja on January 29-30.

Matters became more complicated with the school holiday calendar sanctioned by the government marking January 29 for the Hindu religious festival.

Many Hindu religious groups, including the Puja Udjapon Parishad and Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC), had urged the Election Commission to move the election day to facilitate the community in celebrating the festival.

File photo of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) building | Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka TribuneMany educational institutions under both city corporations organize Saraswati Puja and are also used as polling centres during local and general elections.

As the Election Commission refused to move the election day, Advocate Ashoke filed the petition at the High Court on January 5, seeking its directive on the matter.

DU students on Sunday and Monday had also demonstrated on the campus, urging the court to defer the election day.

The Jagannath Hall of DU, which falls under DSCC and houses the institution’s Hindu students, also wrote to the returning officer concerned making the same demand.

This dormitory hosts one of the biggest celebratory programs in the city on Saraswati Puja every year.

Why the court said no

The High Court on Tuesday observed that the Education Ministry had declared January 29 a holiday for all educational institutions for Saraswati Puja, and even the Supreme Court had the day marked as a holiday in its calendar.

It said the Election Commission announced the January 30 polls schedule for DNCC and DSCC after also considering the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examinations beginning on February 2.

In the circumstances, the court said before rejecting the petition that there was no scope of shifting the election day.

Advocate Ashoke was accompanied by Advocates Rana Dasgupta and Subrata Chowdhury, secretary and vice president of BHBCUC, respectively, during on Tuesday's hearing. On the other side, Advocate Towhidul Islam stood for the Election Commission and Deputy Attorney General Noor-us Sadik for the state.

Echoing Ashoke’s grievance, Rana said that they would work with the petitioner to file the appeal against the order by Wednesday.

Law abiding EC

After the High Court order on Tuesday, Election Commission Secretariat’s Senior Secretary Md Alamgir said the EC would follow the court’s directive.

“We had fixed the election day in line with the government calendar; and with the court’s decision announced, there is no legal bar [for now] in holding the DNCC and DSCC elections on January 30,” he said.

He also told reporters: “The Puja and the elections can be organized at the same time amid festivities. There will be no conflict.”

Urging the Hindu community leaders to respect the judgment, Alamgir said: “Everyone will have to follow the court’s order.”