ON Tuesday, the Bombay High Court’ division bench of Justices S.B. Shukre and G.A. Sanap decided to reserve its verdict on journalist and activist Gautam Navlakha’s plea seeking house arrest in place of his incarceration at Navi Mumbai’s Taloja jail, citing his failing health conditions, and lack of proper medical care and basic facilities in prison.
The court heard his lawyer Yug Mohit Chaudhry on Monday, and the counsels for the National Investigation Agency [NIA] on Tuesday. Additional Solicitor General [ASG] Anil Singh, on behalf of the NIA, opposed the his application and submitted that there were “thousands” of jail inmates above the age of 70 years who suffered from various ailments, and allowing Navlakha’s application could lead to a flood of such requests. The NIA and the state prisons authority argued that this was not possible for every prisoner, and posed a risk to safety and security.
Further, the NIA’s lawyer submitted that the accused activist’s earlier plea for house arrest was only granted temporarily by the Supreme Court, and that his present plea was not made before the appropriate forum, arguing that he should have approached the special NIA court instead. ASG Anil Singh told the bench that since Navlakha’s applications for bail on merits and on medical grounds were pending before the special sessions court, the present application should not have been before the high court.
The NIA also said that the accused was “indirectly seeking bail under the garb of house arrest”, and by granting his request, “floodgates” would be opened to thousands of other prisoners above the age of 70 years. Highlighting that the strict bail conditions under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act could not be bypassed using such means, Singh also noted that there were multiple practical difficulties in implementing the same, including aspects of house logistics, security guards, the persons accompanying the accused, and so on.
A day earlier, Navlakha’s counsel informed the court that his request for a copy of British humorist P.G. Wodehouse’s book was dubbed a “security risk” by the prison officials who twice denied to hand over the book to him. A pair of new spectacles and a stool were also initially rejected by prison authorities, requiring the court’s intervention. Meanwhile, the counsel for the state, Additional Public Prosecutor Sangeeta Shinde informed the bench that owing to conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the prison authorities had not been accepting any parcels from outside to prevent the spread of the virus.
To this, the bench referred to the order of the prison authorities which cited “security” risk, and asked the state where the mention of COVID-19 in the same was. Noting that the state’s counsel was “pointing out its own contradictions”, the court said that the prosecution was “trying to justify something that is not even there in the additional reply.”
The bench then asked, “Why wasn’t he given the (P.G. Wodehouse) book? Is humour banished from jail?” To this, the state’s counsel said that Navlakha was provided the option of accessing the books present in the prison library, adding that there were 2,800 books available. Observing the paucity of available books, Justice Shukre noted that, “Even a secondary school would have more books”. The court then urged that the Bar or court authorities work on improving access to books, which it said was an “important step” towards reformation of prison inmates.
The bench reserved its judgement in Navlakha’s plea.