While the Delhi High Court had earlier quashed the transit remand order that the Pune Police had got for activist-journalist Gautam Navalaka, some respite has also arrived for advocate Surendra Gadling, writer-activist Sudhir Dhawale, professor Shoma Sen, for Rona Wilson, a Delhi-based social activist, and for Mahesh Raut, an activist addressing issues of displacement in heavily mined areas like Gadchiroli in Maharashtra.
The petitioners included Surendra Gandling, Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson, and Mahesh Raut — who belong to the first group of activists arrested on June 6, 2018 under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), following the Bhima-Koregaon violence. The incident presents a classic study of State might channelised through draconian laws like the UAPA.
The petitioners’ writ petition against the order of the Sessions Court in Pune was to challenge their extended custody, calling the same illegal. The Additional Sessions Judge had granted an extra 90 days to the Pune Police to further investigate. While the extension of time is available under the UAPA, it needs to be preceded by a proper procedure that involves a detailed report by the Public Prosecutor.
It was the petitioners’ submission that this procedure was not duly followed and which the Bombay High Court upheld on October 24, 2018. Justice Mridula Bhatkar who presided the hearing has pointed out the illegalities as to why the State of Maharashtra can no longer detain the arrestees while seeking extension of a further 90 days to file the charge sheet.
Stressing the provision available to the arrestees under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc), Justice Mridula Bhatkar says that the provision as contemplated by Section 167 of the Code is a “laudable provision” vindicating the right of the accused to be released after the stipulated period and an incomplete investigation beyond 90 days cannot be a ground to deny the accused bail.
The UAPA being a special act in the interest of “national security” has a provision by way of Section 43-D that allows for the extension of time. But in the present instance, the requirements of the proviso have not been complied with. Justice Mridula Bhatkar goes on to say that the Public Prosecutor has to guide the court with conscience and cannot be a mouthpiece of the State.
The State of Maharashtra requested Justice Mridula Bhatkar to allow them two weeks to appeal against the order in the Supreme Court but she has granted only one week and the stay will remain in force till November 1, 2018. If the appeal is dismissed by the Supreme Court, the petitioners can get bail. Their bail applications have already been filed.
Meanwhile, the other several arrests following the Bhima Koregaon episode in January this year are at various stages. The arrestees have a long road ahead but the higher judiciary has been providing succour. Justice D Y Chandrachud’s minority judgment in the Supreme Court favoured an independent investigation by a SIT, when the second group of high-profile arrests was made on August 28, 2018. The judgment is scathing in its remarks about the shoddy investigation undertaken by the Pune Police and lambasts the State of Maharashtra. The dissenting judgment stands tall even if it cannot be implemented.
The backgrounds of the arrestees — lawyers, teachers, writers, poets, theatre-makers, academics, journalists, and their altogether important work in their respective areas — have been conveniently effaced by branding them as “Urban Naxals”, among such other hare-brained and malicious titles.
Needless to say, these arrests are not ordinary, and they include among them and others, contract workers of Reliance Infrastructure Ltd, who were arrested, also under UAPA, as early as January 12, 2018 for their alleged Maoist links. The workers too fought for the rights of all workers that included demands for safety equipment. The plight of their families as narrated by the wife of one of the workers in a recent protest meeting in Mumbai is heart-rending. We are speaking of some very poor families here, originally from Andhra/Telengana, with no alternative source of income. Some of these families have small children.
There is a hard-working, dedicated group of lawyers representing these men, among them Advocate Susan Abraham, who has also been appearing for the other petitioners. Incidentally, Arun Ferreira, a lawyer, and no stranger to State repression and excesses, used to assist Susan Abraham with the very first round of arrests in connection with the Bhima Koregaon incident, before he himself was targeted. The particulars of his background as well as that of the other arrestees need to be closely understood in the context of their arrests. The picture is both revealing and disturbing. These arrestees, we realise, raised inconvenient questions for our government while working in some of the most desperate parts of our country.
The Supreme Court on October 24 declined the urgent hearing of the review petition filed by Romila Thapar that reiterated the need for a SIT. Clearly, much is at stake for the Government of Maharashtra and the one at the Centre, especially with an election year round the corner.
Ultimately, we may do well to stand in solidarity against laws like the UAPA, no matter the government of the day. Such laws have no place in our society, emotionally hijacking as the arguments for “national security” may be. Laws like the UAPA go against some very fundamental assurances of our Constitution that uphold liberty and the equality of law. These are not to be taken lightly or compromised with.