Student activists and Pinjra Tod members Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, along with 25-year-old Jamia student Asif Tanha are to be finally released from the confines of Tihar, two days late, after much back and forth. The three Delhi violence conspiracy case accused were granted bail by the Delhi High Court on June 15, but were not released by the Police on flimsy grounds of “address verification”.
On June 16, the trial court Judge Ravinder Bedi deferred their release by citing “heavy board of bail applications listed before the undersigned”, despite a higher court’s order to release them. The Delhi Police went a step ahead in their unnecessary demands and sought time till June 21 for verification of their addresses and sureties.
In the application filed before the trial court, the centrally governed Delhi Police reportedly stated that their outstation permanent address is pending and could not be completed due to paucity of time. Asif, Natasha and Devangana are permanent residents of Jharkhand, Rohtak and Assam respectively. Using this to their advantage, the Police contended that additional time would be required by the investigating agency in filing the verification report as their personnel would have to travel to these states. These were clearly outright delaying tactics.
Further, the Delhi Police had also sought directions to the UIDAI to verify the Aadhaar card details of their sureties, and that a proper physical verification of their mobile numbers was required. “Further subscriber detail of the above mobile number is being obtained from the concerned service provider to corroborate the same with the version of applicant,” read their plea as per LiveLaw.
Events transpired post bail
As soon as the Delhi High Court granted bail to the three activists, the Delhi Police moved the Supreme Court through a special leave petition appealing against their bail order. Since the trial court deferred the hearing on their release, the activists moved the High Court under section 482 (inherent powers of High Court) of the Code of Criminal Procedure against the Trial Court’s action, arguing that it was violative of their fundamental rights.
On June 17, the same Delhi High Court Bench that had granted bail to the activists heard the urgent matter concerning their release and ordered the Trial Court to consider their release “with alacrity”. The Bench was quoted as saying, “We expect the trial court to proceed with promptitude and expedition and pronounce on the issues pending determination before it forthwith.”
While hearing the arguments, the High Court also seemed confused about the Police’s contention of sending officers to different states for verification when their local Delhi addresses have been used throughout the chargesheet and that these addresses weren’t verified in the long period of one year when they were in custody.
The media reported Justice Bhambhani questioning, “Maybe I’m missing something here. But what is this Assam, Jharkhand thing about. These are local sureties, you’ve had the accused in custody for a year. Chargesheet has been filed.” He also seemed to be surprised about Aadhaar verification and wondered if the Police followed similar protocol in all other cases.
As the matter reached back to the trial court, the lawyers of both parties were informed by the Additional Sessions Judge that he had already issued their release warrant. Judge Bedi observed that keeping them imprisoned till the police verified all necessary information was not a plausible reason and shot their argument down.
What is the law on this?
Having kept the three in continued custody for over 48 hours despite a release order in public domain is direct contempt of court. Section 2(b) of The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, clearly states that wilful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court shall amount to civil contempt.
The Police ought to have released them on bail but failed to respect the order of the High Court, interfering with the administration of justice. This unusual delay tactic by the State is often abused in extraordinary circumstances only when they’re up against certain dissenting elements. Case in point is Dr. Kafeel Khan, who was granted bail by the Aligarh Chief Judicial Magistrate on 10 February, 2020 but continued to languish in jail for the next three days, despite three release orders from the Magistrate.
He was charged under Indian Penal Code sections for promoting enmity between different religious groups after his speech at AMU on December 12, 2019, in opposition to the citizenship laws. On February 13, he was told that he was booked under the National Security Act, 1980, that led to his further detention until the Allahabad High Court stepped in and set aside the detention order ruling that his speech did not promote violence. Contrary to the allegations of the State, the court accepted after 6 long months, that his speech was a call for unity and integrity!
As a strong and binding precedent, the Supreme Court in Arnab Manoranjan Goswami vs State of Maharashtra and Ors (2020) recorded, “The doors of this Court cannot be closed to a citizen who is able to establish prima facie that the instrumentality of the State is being weaponized for using the force of criminal law. Our courts must ensure that they continue to remain the first line of defense against the deprivation of the liberty of citizens. Deprivation of liberty even for a single day is one day too many. We must always be mindful of the deeper systemic implications of our decisions.”
In complete disrespect to the Supreme Court’s precedent and the High Court’s order, the Delhi trial court opined that it was already 6 P.M (on June 16) and that an order could not be passed due to a heavy caseload. Even in normal circumstances, the activists should not have had to approach the High Court again for the implementation of its order!
The Delhi Police has disobeyed not just any order but a significant high court order that has actively crushed its entire narrative on the alleged conspiracy, reading down the UAPA charges. In Natasha Narwal’s bail order (Crl Appeal No. 82 of 2021), the court clearly stated that “the State cannot thwart grant of bail merely by confusing issues.” Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened over the past few hours, with the additional burden of the lower court’s non-cooperation.
In Arnab Goswami’s bail order, the top court had remarked that courts must be alive to the situation as it prevails on the ground, in the jails and police stations where human dignity has no protector. The courts must constantly be looking to expand this footprint of liberty as a necessity in any democracy but the three activists have been harshly deprived of this.
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