Television journalists are seen outside the premises of the Supreme Court in New Delhi, India, January 22, 2020.
Television journalists are seen outside the premises of the Supreme Court in New Delhi, India, January 22, 2020.

SC denies stay on TMC leaders’ house arrest in Narada case

The bench of justices Vineet Saran and BR Gavai found no rationale in a CBI petition against Calcutta high court’s May 21 order of sending the accused to house-arrest and to treat it as judicial custody.
UPDATED ON MAY 26, 2021 04:39 AM IST

The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to interfere with a high court order putting two Trinamool Congress (TMC) ministers and a prominent MLA under house arrest in connection with the 2016 Narada sting tapes, stating that their personal liberty and protests by chief minister Mamata Banerjee against their arrests by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) could not be conflated.

The bench of justices Vineet Saran and BR Gavai found no rationale in a CBI petition against Calcutta high court’s May 21 order of sending the accused to house-arrest and to treat it as judicial custody. It pointed out that if the agency was aggrieved by West Bengal CM Banerjee and the state law minister Moloy Ghatak’s protests, it should rather proceed against them under suitable provisions of the law, instead of citing their demonstrations as grounds to cancel the relief granted to the TMC leaders.

“We don’t appreciate such dharnas etc. But if a CM or a law minister is taking law into their own hands, should the accused be made to suffer? You can proceed against the persons who tried to take the law into their own hands... But we wouldn’t like to mix the liberty of a citizen with some acts of politicians. You can take actions available in law against the politicians but we won’t comprise the liberty of the citizens,” the bench told solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who appeared for CBI.

Mehta sought to emphasise that the rule of law was a casualty in the state as the CM sat on a protest inside the CBI office on May 17 after the TMC leaders were arrested, while the law minister camped at the CBI court with thousands of supporters. This prevented the CBI prosecutor to go to the court to oppose their bail, said the SG, adding the issue involved was not just of bail or house arrest but of a state administration interfering with the course of justice.

But the bench was categorical that the CBI required to make up its mind whether it was challenging the house arrest order or not, because the issue about the CM’s protest must be pursued by in appropriate proceedings under the available provisions of law.

“In a bail matter, how far can we go? Liberty of a person’s has to be seen as the first thing. Conduct of others has to be seen in appropriate proceedings as and when they are initiated...We don’t support the action of the CM or the law minister but the issues are different here. Nobody is above the law. You should take action against them if you think they have taken the law into their own hands,” the bench told the SG.

Mehta, on his part, said that the May 17 order of granting bail TMC leaders Madan Mitra, Subrata Mukherjee and Firhad Hakim was vitiated since there was pressure mounted on the court by protests, and therefore, the CBI wanted the matter to be taken out of the state.

The bench, however, replied: “We don’t feel that out judiciary, including the district judiciary, is affected by mob. We can’t demoralise our judiciary by transferring the matter like this...if we transfer the matter outside the high court, we will be demoralising the high court. Why should the high court be deprived of hearing the matter. Five judges are now hearing it. They are also constitutional courts and we will put them in the same pedestal as this court.”

While the SG questioned how and why the high court chose to send the TMC leaders to house arrest three days after staying their release on bail, the bench said it was in turn amused by how the high court stayed their bail on May 17 after a late evening hearing without even granting audience to the accused.

“In fact, the high court acted in an extraordinary manner at your instance when the matter was already pending before the CBI court. And the bail was stayed without even hearing the accused. This court has seen it many times when special benches are set up for ensuring the liberty of the accused. We are seeing it for the first time when a special bench was constituted to take away the liberty of someone,” the bench exclaimed.

Noting that the arrests were made in the case after a charge sheet had already been filed, the bench asked the SG: “Who are in a position to influence the witnesses more? Those against whom the charge sheet has been filed, or those against whom the charge sheet hasn’t been filed? There are two sets of accused here. Among them, who are in a better position to influence the witnesses.”

Mehta said he would not want to respond since it was not a legal question.

Charge sheets have not been filed in the case against Mamata’s former close aides Mukul Roy and Suvendhu Adhikari, both of whom later joined the BJP. Mamata had a cliffhanger in Nandigram to the BJP’s Adhikari in the recent assembly polls.

The court then gave two choices to Mehta; either withdraw the petition and go back to the Calcutta high court, where a five-judge bench has been constituted to all the issues relating to this case, or get an order on his petition from the top court which will have to hear the lawyers for the accused and the state.

Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who was appearing for Hakim, the urban development minister in the state government, and Mukherjee, who holds the panchayati raj and rural affairs portfolios. Senior lawyer Sidharth Luthra appeared for Mitra, who is an MLA while senior counsel Vikas Singh was appearing for the state.

With the writing on the wall, the SG opted to withdraw the petition with liberty to raise all contentions before the five-judge bench of the high court, which is expected to take up the matter on Wednesday.

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