Bhima-Koregaon: SC declines SIT, Extends House Arrest of 5 Activists
New Delhi: The Supreme Court on September 28 rejected the plea for a probe by a special investigation team (SIT) in the arrests of five eminent activists in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon violence case, with Justice DY Chandrachud dissenting with majority Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justice AM Khanwilkar.
The petition was filed by five persons led by historian Romila Thapar against the “arbitrary arrests” of advocate Sudha Bharadwaj and Left-leaning activists – Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, and Varavara Rao – on August 28 in a country-wide raids by the Pune Police citing “Maoist links” in the Bhima -Koregaon case.
The judgment written by Justice Khanwilkar, for himself, and CJI Misra said that the accused persons cannot choose which investigating agency should probe, turning down the plea for an independent investigation, as the Pune Police is accused of trying to “frame” the activists on “concocted evidence”.
“It is not a case of arrest merely because of political dissent. No case is made to say the arrest of activists was made merely on grounds of dissent with the government. There are no particular facts to show mala fide on the part of the police was established,” said Justice Khanwilkar and CJI Misra.
The majority bench permitted the investigating officers to continue with their probe, while extending the house arrests by four weeks to approach the trial court for bail. “Investigating officer can proceed against accused, and accused can seek remedy from appropriate forum. However, interim order of house arrest will continue for another four weeks so that they can seek remedy from appropriate forum,” said CJI Misra and Justice Khanwilkar.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Chandrachud said, “Technicality should not be allowed to override substantive justice. Initiation of Article 32 petition by petitioners is not motivated by political reasons. Extraordinary circumstances are there in the present case.”
Calling the arrests and trial by the media “unfortunate”, he said, “Media briefing by the police casts doubt on impartiality of the investigation. The police briefing to the media has become a source of manipulating public opinion. The conduct of the Pune Police fortifies an impression that investigation is not fair. An inquiry is required against Maharashtra police officers for utilising the media.”
The Maharashtra Police, during the pendency of the case before the SC, had gone to the press, alleging that the activists were involved in a plot to assassinate the PM, even though such an allegation was conspicuous by absence in the FIR and the remand applications.
“Court has to be vigilant to ensure the liberty of those who take up unpopular causes. If the court does not stand by liberty, dignity and dissent, it may as well compose a requiem for these rights,” he said, noting that the arrests had infringed the dignity of individuals.
“The arrests have infringed the dignity of individuals, and it is fit case for court-monitored SIT probe as the voice of opposition cannot be muzzled,” he concluded.
The petitioners had prayed the court that the arrests were made without a shred of evidence and alleged that an emergency-like situation existed in the country. And therefore, they had demanded a Court-monitored SIT probe in the matter.
Following the petition, the bench headed by CJI Misra had held that five rights activists should be kept at their respective homes till the disposal of the petition.
The petitioners had prayed to the top court to issue direction, directing an independent investigation into arrest of these human rights activists in June and August 2018 in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon violence.
They had also sought an explanation from the Maharashtra government over the issue of arrests.
The petitioners, in their petition, had said, “The use of draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against these activists who have no history of indulging or instigating any violence is clearly mala fide and an attempt to browbeat and intimidate the dissenting voices.”
Appearing for the petitioners, senior counsel Abhishek Manu Singhvi had contended that the arrests and the search were carried out in blatant violation of procedure. The witnesses who attested the arrest and search memos were government servants brought by Maharashtra police from Pune and were not locals.
Defending the arrests, the Maharashtra government stated that they had collected “substantial evidence” to establish links of arrested activists with Maoist organization. The maintainability of the PIL at the behest of third parties was also questioned by the Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who was representing the State of Maharashtra.
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