Supreme Court extends house arrest of five activists for four more weeks

The Supreme Court, in a majority opinion on Friday, held that the crackdown and arrests of five activists from some parts of the country in the Bhima-Koregaon violence case on August 28 was not an attempt to silence dissent.

Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justice A.M. Khanwilkar shared the majority view on a three-judge Bench that material evidence does not show that the “different political ideology” of the activists triggered the police action against them.

The majority opinion dismissed the writ petition filed by historian Romila Thapar and four others seeking a Supreme Court–monitored special investigation team (SIT) probe into the allegations raised against the five arrested activists — poet Vara Vara Rao, lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and Gautam Navlakha.

The majority judgment extended the house arrests of the five to another four weeks and asked them to pursue relief in the lower courts. Any observations made by the apex court will not prejudice their case.

‘Derailment’ of investigation

In a strong dissent, the third member of the Bench, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud lashed out at the Maharashtra police for prejudicing the investigation and besmirching the reputations of the accused persons. Justice Chandrachud said the conduct of the police does not encourage the thought that they will conduct a fair and impartial probe.

Justice Chandrachud referred to the press meet held by Maharashtra ADGP during investigation. How did the police officer distribute letters, alleging that they reveal the accused’s links with the Communist Party of India (Maoist), a banned organisation, he asked. How were these letters telecast on TV, he added.

Holding the petition filed by Ms. Thapar as “genuine,” Justice Chandrachud observed that it is the constitutional obligation of the Supreme Court to intervene when there is a “derailment” of investigation.

The judge held that the court has a duty to protect individual right to dissent with dignity and liberty. If not, it is time for a requiem for the death of these rights. “The voices opposition cannot be muzzled,” he said.

Justice Chandrachud highlighted the case of former space scientist S. Nambi Narayanan, who was framed by the Kerala police in a fake espionage case. It took Mr. Narayanan over two decades to prove his innocence. It was only recently the Supreme Court cleared his name and awarded him ₹50 lakh as compensation for wrongful prosecution.

Justice Chandrachud pointed out that it was the Supreme Court itself which said that even ₹50 lakh cannot repair his lost reputation and career.

The dissenting judge said the investigation should not be delayed, but a SIT should take over the probe from the State police.

The Bench had required the entire case diary to examine how what began as an investigation into a riots case in Bhima-Koregaon village spiralled into a conspiracy to assassinate a “sovereign head,” wreak “mass destruction,” as claimed by the police. The court said it would look into whether the police action was based on material evidence.

It had said that the entire case against the activists may even be quashed if the evidence relied on by the Maharashtra government was found to be “cooked-up.”

Cases to continue in different courts

The Chief Justice had initially protected the liberty of the five activists — by placing them under house arrest.

At one point, the Chief Justice had suggested that they (accused) could continue their efforts in the competent lower courts. He even mooted transferring the pending cases against the activists to one court while continuing with their house arrests. But senior advocate A.M. Singhvi, for Ms. Thapar and four others, had persisted that the apex court should first hear them.

The hearing also saw the Centre step in and voice its apprehensions about the problem of “naxalism” that has gripped the country.

“I [Centre] have come here because the problem of naxalism is not confined to one State, Maharashtra, but affects the entire nation. I have come here considering the overall situation in the country,” Additional Solicitor General Maninder Singh submitted.

Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the Maharashtra government, had said the case and arrests was not about the “quelling of dissent.”

“This concerns serious offences. There is material recovered from their laptops, computers, hard disks, etc. We have video-taped all our raids from the moment we knocked on their doors to recovery and seizure. This was done to protect ourselves against future allegations of high-handedness which may be raised against our investigation done in compliance with CrPC,” Mr. Mehta had submitted.

On August 28, the Maharashtra police arrested five activists, claiming that they were active members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and preparing for large scale violence and an “armed rebellion.”

The following day, a petition was filed on behalf of the arrested activists in the Supreme Court seeking an independent probe into the matter.

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