Bhima-Koregaon: Bail for 2 activists after 5 yrs
The Supreme Court has granted bail to Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira, who were arrested in connection with the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence case.
The Supreme Court on Friday granted bail to Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira, ending their nearly five-year-long incarceration on charges of alleged Maoist links in connection with the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence case.
A bench of justices Aniruddha Bose and Sudhanshu Dhulia noted that despite the serious charges, the material produced by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) was not strong enough to justify the continued detention of the two men.
“Considering the fact that almost five years have elapsed, we are satisfied they have made out a case for bail. The allegations are serious, no doubt, but for that reason alone, bail cannot be denied to them,” the bench said, setting aside a 2019 Bombay high court denying them bail.
The top court asked Gonsalves and Ferreira to not leave Maharashtra, surrender their passports, use only one mobile phone and keep it charged through the day, share location and pair their devices with the investigating officer, give their addresses to NIA, and be present in the local police station once a week. Violation of any of these conditions, or those imposed by a special NIA court, would entitle the federal agency to seek cancellation of bail, the court said.
“There is nothing against the appellants to prima facie establish that they had indulged in the activities which would constitute overawing any public functionary by means of criminal force or the show of criminal force or attempts by the appellants to do so. Neither were they found to have caused death of any public functionary,” the order added.
Gonsalves and Ferreira were among 16 activists, lawyers and researchers who were arrested in 2018 in connection with the violence that broke out during the bicentennial commemoration of a British-era war in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon village. One person died during the violence that also sparked sweeping protests by Dalit groups who gather in the hundreds of thousands at the war memorial every year. The Pune police, and then NIA, have argued that an event in Pune on December 31, 2017 – called the Elgar Parishad, where allegedly inflammatory speeches were made – stoked the violence.
Gonsalves and Perreira – who are currently lodged in Mumbai’s Taloja jail – are the fourth and fifth people accused in the case to get bail. In August last year, the top court granted bail Telugu poet P Varavara Rao on medical grounds. Another accused, Sudha Bharadwaj, was released on default bail by the Bombay high court in September last year. Academic Anand Teltumbde was released on bail in November 2022. Another accused, activist Gautam Navlakha, remains under house arrest. Father Stan Swamy, yet another accused in the case, died in 2021.
The two men were charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), necessitating the top court to examine the evidence submitted by NIA for the charges of unlawful activity (section 13), terrorist act (section 15), raising funds for terrorist act (section 17), membership of a terrorist organisation (section 38), raising funds for terrorist organisation (section 40).
But the court was not satisfied. “We have referred to the materials available against them at this stage. These materials cannot justify continued detention of the appellants, pending final outcome of the case under the others provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the 1967 act,” the court said in its 54-page order.
NIA opposed bail by presenting evidence against the two men under three heads – letters and witness statements allegedly linking them to the banned CPI (Maoist), literature allegedly propagating violence and promoting the overthrow of government through armed struggle, and records that allegedly suggested Ferreira handled finances for alleged terrorist acts.
But the court didn’t agree. “What we must be conscious of, while dealing with prima facie worth of these statements and documents, is that none of them had been seized or recovered from the appellants but these recoveries are alleged to have been made from the co-accused,” it said.
On the allegedly provocative literature seized, the bench said that the material presented was not banned. “It is not NIA’s case that either of the two appellants is the author of the materials found from their residences, as alleged. None of these literatures has been specifically proscribed so as to constitute an offence, just by keeping them,” the court added.
On the financial charge specifically against Ferreira, the bench was not satisfied. “Some materials point to the handling of finances. But such finance... show that the transaction was mainly for the purpose of litigation on behalf of, it appears to us, detained party persons,” the order said.
“Mere holding of certain literatures through which violent acts may be propagated would not ipso facto attract the provisions of section 15(1)(b) of the said act,” the bench added.
The court noted that their alleged association with the activities of a terrorist organisation was sought to be established by “third-party communications”.
“Actual involvement of the appellants in any terrorist act has not surfaced from any of these communications... no material has been demonstrated by the NIA before us that the appellants are members of the terrorist organisation,” the court said.
The association with CPI (Maoist) was also seen between 2002 and 2007, before it was banned. “Even to prove that a person is a member of a banned organisation... there must be intention to further the activities of such organisation on the part of the person implicated under such provision. At this stage there is no such evidence before us on which we can rely,” the judges said.