Bombay HC paves way for former Reliance workers to get bail

Exactly 11 months after workers of Reliance industries were arrested on charges of UAPA and for their alleged connection to BhimaKoregaon case, the Bombay High Court, has, on December 17, has set aside a Sessions Court order granting extension of time beyond 90 days period for filing charge sheet. This will now make it a little bit easier to approach the courts for bail.

Reliance Workers

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The grounds for the High Court to do so were that accused workmen were not produced in court and that their lawyers were not notified about the extension, nor was their say considered by the Sessions Court.The High Court held that this was in clear violation of the provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) while setting aside the order dated April 9, 2018. Application for stay on the order by Government was also rejected.The workers have moved applications for bail before the Sessions Court.

This video produced by Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) recounts the entire ordeal. It may be viewed here.

In what has become known as the BhimaKoregaon case in which Dalits visiting BhimaKoregaon memorial near Pune, Maharashtra, were attacked by Hindutva goons and subsequent protests had followed. Thereafter, the State began an unprecedented witch hunt of workers, activists and human rights defenders. The first arrests to take place were those of workers of Reliance Industries, a contractor in the same company and another social worker from Dombivli.Originally hailingfrom the Andhra Pradesh/ Telangana regions, they have been permanent residents of Mumbai since the last 2 to 4 decades.

Continued ordeals of workers and their families
Cha­­rged under various sections of UAPA, five of eight accused are workers of RelianceEnergy/Infrastructure Ltd. – Satyanarayan Rajayya Karrela, Babu Shankar BuchayyaVanguri, ShankarayyaLingayyaGunde, Ravi RajannaMaarampalli and SaidulNarsimhaSingapanga – who had been working with the company for nearly two decades, have been languishing in Arthur Road jail under the mostharshconditions for the last 11 months.
These arrested workers are the founders and committee members of the Mumbai Electric Employees Union. For many years, the union has been in the forefront of the workersstruggle and has fought for higher wages, better working conditions and several workers’ issues.

Subsequently, the police filed a 5900 page charge sheet in the Sessions Court against all the accused including the five Reliance workers.

For their families of the workers life has become full of peril and utmost hardship, with the sole bread earning members of families behind bars, the order of the High Court has brought hope of their release on bail.

Lower court passes order in absence of Accused or Lawyers
Earlier this year, the bail applications filed for 4 workers, 1 union activists and naka union activist was rejected in lower court. The bail was filed on technical grounds of securing default bail due to delay in filing of chargesheet. On April 9, the lower court passed an order allowing for the extension of date for filing of chargesheet to May 10 in the absence of the accused persons.

The lawyers arguing then on the behalf of the workers had argued that the order granting extension of time for chargesheet is to be set aside as they (the advocates of the accused were not heard while setting aside the order). The court lower rejected this application, as well as an application for bail on April 24.

The lawyers argued in the Bombay court that the notices were not refused by the applicants /accused on April 5, 2018 as no attempt was made to serve (the notice) applicants/ accused.

“Service of Notice not an empty formality”
The judge MridulaBhatkar highlighted the contradictions in state’s version that the workers were represented when order was passed on the basis of the court records of April 9, 2018 which shows that advocates of the accused were not present.

The Judgement observes,
“In the case of extension of time for filing charge sheet beyond 90 days, it is the duty of the Court to give hearing to the accused or his lawyers because his indefeasible right which is mentioned under section 167(2) is going to be affected. On perusal of the order dated 24th April, 2018, nowhere the Judge has mentioned about the presence of the advocates of the applicants/accused on 9th April, 2018 at the time of deciding the Application Exhibit 16. It appears that no advocate of the applicants/accused was present and without giving any opportunity to the applicants/accused, the order of extension oftime to file the charge sheet was passed.”
Referring tothe observations of the Supreme Courtin the cases of Hitendra Vishnu Thakurand Sanjay Dutt, the judgment highlights,
“Similarly, when a report is submitted by the public prosecutor to the Designated Court for grant of extension under clause (bb), its notice should be issued to the accused before granting such an extension so that an accused may have an opportunity to oppose the extension on all legitimate and legal grounds available to him. It is true that neither clause (b) nor clause (bb) of sub-section (4) of Section 20 TADA specifically provide for the issuance of such a notice but in our opinion the issuance of such a notice must be read into these provisions both in the interest of the accused and the prosecution as well as for doing complete justice between the parties. This is a requirement of the principles of natural justice and the issuance of notice to the accused or the public prosecutor, as the case may be, would accord with fair play in action, which the courts have always encouraged and even insisted upon.”
Taking a clear approach, Justice MridulaBhatkar added “In the present case, whether the notice was served, whether it is refused or it was not served at all are disputed facts and it is a word against word. All the accused are in the prison, hence it is the duty of the State to ensure their production on the date of remand either by their physical production or through video conferencing. It was not done. Therefore, the learned Judge, on 9th April, 2018 when the accused were not produced on remand date, should have directed the production of the accused either on the same day or on the next day, i.e., 10th April, 2018 and then by serving the notice in the Court ought to have given audience to the accused on the point of extension of time for filing charge sheet”
She added, “The service of notice or opportunity to give audience to the applicants/accused when the issue of extension of time for filing charge sheet is involved, is not considered an empty formality but all the steps are required to be taken meaningfully and effective service of notice on the accused is necessary”
On December 18, the state moved HC asking stay on the order which got rejected. Advocates Sudeep Pasbola, Arif Siddqui and Susan Abraham represented the workers before the High Court. 



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