Supreme Court dismisses Gautam Navlakha’s bail plea

Updated on May 12, 2021 04:08 PM IST

Navlakha, who is among 15 prominent activists, academics, and lawyers arrested in the case, had sought default bail claiming that the NIA probing the case against him had failed to file the charge sheet within the stipulated 90-day period

Gautam Navlakha. (File photo)
Gautam Navlakha. (File photo)
ByAbraham Thomas

The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected the bail plea of activist Gautam Navlakha in the case related to the violence that erupted in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon village in January 2018 during the bicentennial celebrations of a British-era war commemorated by Dalits.

Navlakha, who is among 15 prominent activists, academics, and lawyers arrested in the case, had sought default bail claiming that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) probing the case against him had failed to file the charge sheet within the stipulated 90-day period.

In his plea, Navlakha urged the court to include the 34 days he spent under house arrest in 2018 to the 90-day period. He moved the top court after the Bombay high court rejected his bail on February 8.

A Supreme Court bench of Justices UU Lalit and KM Joseph read out the operative portion of their judgment dismissing Navlakha’s appeal. It found no ground to entertain his request of including the duration of house arrest to the 90-day period for his default bail under Section 167(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

The Section provides that no magistrate “shall authorise the detention of an accused person in custody for a period exceeding 90 days where investigation relates to an offence punishable with death, imprisonment for life or imprisonment for a term of not less than 10 years.” If the investigation is not completed within this period, the accused is entitled to default bail under this provision.

Navlakha has been booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for his alleged links with Maoist insurgents. He faces life imprisonment if convicted.

Additional Solicitor General SV Raju, who appeared for the NIA in the case, submitted no order of a magistrate was obtained in the case of Navlakha’s house arrest and hence it cannot be treated as legal custody.

Navlakha was first arrested in connection with this case in August 2018 when the Maharashtra police were probing the case. Navlakha surrendered to the NIA in April last year when the federal agency took over the probe into the case in 2020.

The Delhi high court set aside the order placing him under house arrest and subsequently he was released on bail. He enjoyed protection from arrest under orders passed by the Bombay high court and Supreme Court till the NIA took over the case. The Supreme Court directed Navlakha to surrender in April 2020.

Navlakha’s lawyer, Kapil Sibal, argued the 34-day period was crucial for the determination of default bail as any kind of detention of an accused must be reckoned with the offence. He added here the offence for which the accused was under house arrest and later in judicial custody was the same. Sibal said Navlakha was under 11-day police custody from April 14, 2020, to April 25, 2020, and 46-day judicial custody (April 25, 2020, to June 10, 2020).

The Bombay high court in February granted bail to Telugu poet and activist P Varavara Rao, 80, who was among those arrested in the case, for six months on health grounds, nearly two-and-a-half years after he was arrested.

The activists attended a meeting (Elgar Parishad) on December 31, 2017, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle, where a Dalit regiment of the British army is believed to have defeated the Marathas. The Bhima-Koregaon battle is celebrated as a symbol of Dalit empowerment. The Elgar Parishad preceded widespread violence on January 1, 2018. Rao, Navlakha, and other activists are accused of inciting violence at the meeting by creating communal disharmony.

Activist Rona Wilson moved the Bombay high court in February seeking the quashing of criminal proceedings against him for allegedly the fomenting violence in Bhima Korega after an American digital forensics consulting company concluded that fabricated evidence was planted including in a laptop and thumb drive seized from his residence.

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