Bhima Koregaon: prison officials didn’t allow Gautam Navlakha to access P.G. Wodehouse’s book, called it ‘security risk’

Asking the NIA’s advocate Sandesh Patil, ‘Is P.G. Wodehouse considered a security threat?’, the Bombay High Court observed that it is really comical.


EARLIER today, the Bombay High Court heard a plea filed by human rights activist and journalist Gautam Navlakha, one of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon (Elgar Parishad) conspiracy case, seeking his transfer from Navi Mumbai’s Taloja jail to judicial custody via house arrest, citing his advanced age and on the ground that he is suffering from various ailments.

The 70-year old’s lawyer, advocate Yug Mohit Chaudhry, argued before a division bench of Justices S.B. Shukre and G.A. Sanap that a prior judgement by the Supreme Court in Navlakha’s case allowed for house arrest to be granted even if the accused’s bail was rejected. Chaudhry submitted that his client had applied for statutory bail in 2021, which was rejected by the Supreme Court. However, the bench of Justices U.U. Lalit and K.M. Joseph had observed that it was high time that prisoners be allowed to be placed under house arrest under certain appropriate circumstances, as a form of detention under Section 167 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Navlakha’s counsel submitted before the bench that theirs was not an application for bail under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and hence the required conditions and threshold would not apply. Further, the court was informed of the accused’s age being over 70 years, having spent over two years in custody since April 2020. His lawyer also told the court that prior to being in prison, Navlakha had initially been under house arrest after the petition filed by Romila Thapar in this case.

“There has been no complaint against him regarding influencing any witness, no tampering, nothing. There was not a whisper of complaint against him when he was under house arrest”, Chaudhry submitted before the court, emphasising that his client being in house arrest did not pose a risk with regards to tampering of evidence. He added that the electronic nature of the evidence also meant very little came from witnesses. “So the threat of tampering just doesn’t exist”, he said, later adding that the National Investigation Agency [NIA] had still not filed all the electronic evidence.

Chaudhry reiterated before the court that everyone had seen what happened to Navlakaha’s co-accused Father Stan Swamy, who died while in judicial custody last year. He further said that if the high court had not granted bail to poet-activist Varavara Rao in this case, he too would have died.

Navlakha, in his plea, noted that he was suffering from multiple age-related ailments, and said, “I don’t want to die like Father Stan. I want to live so that I can clear my name, stand trial and prove my innocence.”

His lawyer also pointed out that prison authorities refused Navlakha’s request for even a stool. To this, the bench asked whether an application was made, and Chaudhry responded saying, “I will show that I applied and it was rejected.” He then added that the Taloja prison officials also refused to hand over to Navlakha a book authored by renowned English humorist P.G. Wodehouse, twice, on the grounds that it was a “security risk”.

To this, Justice Shukre asked the NIA’s advocate Sandesh Patil, “Is P.G. Wodehouse considered a security threat? That is really comical.” The judge also observed that Purshottam Deshpande, a famous Marathi humorist, was inspired by Wodehouse’s works.

The court was also informed that after Navlakha’s spectacles were stolen, the prison authorities refused to accept a new pair sent by his family. The jail officials only accepted the same after the high court’s intervention. Informing that the accused was “a senior journalist”, his counsel asked, “[I]s this how human beings are treated? This is not a concentration camp.”

The bench observed that “this shows the attitude of the jail authorities”, adding that it was the NIA’s duty as the prosecuting agency to ensure the basic needs of the arrested person be met. Justice Sanap noted that the Taloja authorities may have been following the jail manual strictly.

The judges also expressed their displeasure at the absence of the state government’s lawyers for the hearing. Referring to the accused’s petition, the court said that it made “specific allegations against the jail authorities” and the “poor conditions in jail”. The court said, “These conditions show complete neglect and justify (Navlakha’s) demand for house-arrest but still the state government is not bothered”, adding that the state government’s affidavit had not addressed any of the specific allegations made by the accused regarding the conditions of the jail’s quarantine ward.

The bench went on to observe that the state government’s reply affidavit gave a “prime facie impression” that the petitioner’s allegations could be true, and noted this was “further bolstered by the absence of a government lawyer” in the court at the time of the hearing. The court said it would have to pass strictures or ask the state to consider taking action against the erring law officer if the matter was not assigned, following which the state’s Additional Public Prosecutor Sangeeta Shinde then appeared in court. After expressing apologies for her absence, she requested the court to refrain from passing any order, and allow the Additional Solicitor General to make his submissions. The court said it would do so on the condition that Shinde submit a written apology.

The matter was posted for further hearing on Tuesday, April 5.

The Leaflet