SC disposes off petition by Romila Thapar and others, turns down plea for a SIT in Bhima Koregaon case

Written by CJP | Published on: September 28, 2018

Justice Chandrachud berates police in his dissenting judgment


Activist arrest
 
The Supreme Court has rejected a plea for a Special Investigation Team (SIT) investigation into the recent activists’ arrests in connection to the Bhima Koregaon case. A Bench comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra, and Justices A. M. Khanwilkar and D. Y. Chandrachud issued the judgement, with Justice Chandrachud offering the dissenting opinion. With this, the petition by prominent historian Romila Thapar and others has been disposed off. The interim relief has been extended by four weeks and the majority of the panel has asked the activists to seek relief from lower courts.
 
The judgement was written by Justice Khanwilkar for himself and Chief Justice Misra; while reading the judgement, Justice Khanwilkar said that the accused persons could not choose which investigating agencies should look into the matter. "He asserted that not a case of arrest because of difference in political organisation," The Quint reported, adding that he "observed that the investigation officers were permitted to continue with the investigation." 
 
The Bench noted that the five arrested activists–Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, and Varavara Rao–would remain under house arrest for the next four weeks, and could seek relief from the trial court. Meanwhile, Justice Chandrachud, in his dissent noted, "Technicalities should not be allowed to override substantive justice. The present petition not motivated by political aspects and extraordinary circumstances are present in the case." He also targeted the Pune Police, criticising them for holding a press meet right after the arrests. "The media meet of the police regarding the investigation cast a doubt on the impartiality of the investigation, Justice Chandrachud maintained. He added that police briefing to media had become a source of manipulating public opinion and an enquiry was required against Maharashtra police officers for utilising the media for the same," The Quint reported. Moreover, he said the Maharashtra police’s actions prompted the question of whether it could be trusted to conduct the investigation; he said that the case was fit and proper for a court-monitored SIT investigation.  
 
The Supreme Court’s verdict comes one month after the five activists were arrested in what seemed to be coordinated raids across the country. A petition was filed by Professor Romila Thapar and others, protesting the "arbitrary" arrests and seeking a court-monitored SIT investigation. The petition sought "appropriate direction calling for an explanation from the state of Maharashtra for this sweeping round of arrests," and said that "The use of draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against these activists who have no history of indulging or instigating any violence is clearly malafide and an attempt to brow beat and intimidate the dissenting voices".  A Supreme Court Bench had previously held that the activists should be held under house arrest until the petition was disposed off.  
 
The petitioners’ counsel, Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi had argued that the arrests blatantly violated procedure, noting that witnesses and search memos were brought in by the Maharashtra police from Pune, and were not local residents. Moreover, the police had publicly alleged that the activists were involved in a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister, but this charge was not mentioned on the FIR and remand applications. "He therefore contended that the attempt was to create a general impression that the activists were terrorists, even though there was no material on record to support such charges," Live Law reported. Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government said it had gathered sufficient evidence to back the activists’ alleged connections to Maoist groups.