The arrest of Urban Naxals
The locus standi of the petitioners:
Five illustrious persons in their own field have filed this petition on 29th August, 2018 complaining about the high- handed action of the Maharashtra Police in raiding the homes and arresting five well known human rights activists, journalists, advocates and political worker, with a view to kill independent voices differing in ideology from the party in power and to stifle the honest voice of dissent. They complain that the five activists, namely, Gautam Navalakha, Sudha Signature Not Verified Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves were arrested on 28th August, 2018 from their homes at New Delhi, Faridabad, Mumbai, Thane and Hyderabad, respectively, without any credible material and evidence against them justifying their arrest, purportedly in connection with FIR No.0004/2018 dated 8th January, 2018 registered with Police Station Vishram Bagh, Pune City. This action was to silence the dissent, stop people from helping the poor and downtrodden and to instill fear in the minds of people and was a motivated action to deflect people‟s attention from real issues. The petitioners have made it clear in their petition that they were seriously concerned about the erosion of democratic values and were approaching this Court “not to stop investigation into allegations” “but” to ensure independent and credible “investigation into the arrest of stated five human rights activists.”
Reasons for arrest:
The sum and substance of the reply affidavit is that sufficient material has become available during the investigation, which is still in progress, to indicate the complicity of the concerned accused who have been arrested including the five named persons in respect of whom the present writ petition has been filed by third parties. They are arrested not because of their political activities but for their involvement in the planning and execution of offences to destabilize the society and their association with the banned organization. Their involvement is noticed in selecting and encouraging cadres in the banned organizations to go underground in „struggle area‟, mobilizing and distributing money, facilitating selection and purchase of arms, deciding the rates of such arms and suggesting the routes and ways of smuggling such arms into India for its onward distribution amongst the cadres. Some of them have suggested training and laying booby traps and directional mines. Their involvement is also for providing strategic inputs in furtherance of the objective of armed rebellion, on lines of strategic documents of the banned terrorist organization. It is stated that all the material collected during the investigation will be eventually placed on record of the jurisdictional Court along with the police report to be filed in due course. Further, the question of showing that material to anyone much less accused, would defeat the investigation in progress and that is not the requirement of law. The affidavit also emphasizes that house arrest of the concerned accused merely restricts physical movement but there is no way of ensuring that these persons would not indulge in destruction of evidence and alert other potential accused while sitting at home. As a matter of fact, their custodial interrogation may become necessary during further investigation and for which reason the Investigating Agency be granted liberty to take them in police custody in accordance with law.
Conclusion of Supreme Court:
In the present case, except pointing out some circumstances to question the manner of arrest of the five named accused sans any legal evidence to link them with the crime under investigation, no specific material facts and particulars are found in the petition about mala fide exercise of power by the investigating officer. A vague and unsubstantiated assertion in that regard is not enough. Rather, averment in the petition as filed was to buttress the reliefs initially prayed (mentioned in para 7 above) – regarding the manner in which arrest was made. Further, the plea of the petitioners of lack of evidence against the named accused (A16 to A20) has been seriously disputed by the Investigating Agency and have commended us to the material already gathered during the ongoing investigation which according to them indicates complicity of the said accused in the commission of crime. Upon perusal of the said material, we are of the considered opinion that it is not a case of arrest because of mere dissenting views expressed or difference in the political ideology of the named accused, but concerning their link with the members of the banned organisation and its activities. This is not the stage where the efficacy of the material or sufficiency thereof can be evaluated nor it is possible to enquire into whether the same is genuine or fabricated. We do not wish to dilate on this matter any further lest it would cause prejudice to the named accused and including the co-accused who are not before the Court. Admittedly, the named accused have already resorted to legal remedies before the jurisdictional Court and the same are pending. If so, they can avail of such remedies as may be permissible in law before the jurisdictional courts at different stages during the investigation as well as the trial of the offence under investigation. During the investigation, when they would be produced before the Court for obtaining remand by the Police or by way of application for grant of bail, and if they are so advised, they can also opt for remedy of discharge at the appropriate stage or quashing of criminal case if there is no legal evidence, whatsoever, to indicate their complicity in the subject crime.
We find force in the argument of the State that the prayer for changing the Investigating Agency cannot be dealt with lightly and the Court must exercise that power with circumspection. As a result, we have no hesitation in taking a view that the writ petition at the instance of the next friend of the accused for transfer of investigation to independent Investigating Agency or for Court monitored investigation cannot be countenanced, much less as public interest litigation.
The fourth modified relief is to direct release of the arrested activists from custody as per law. The accused persons must pursue this relief before the appropriate court, which can be considered by the concerned court on its own merits in accordance with law. As noted earlier, the concerned accused persons have already taken recourse to remedy before the jurisdictional High Courts. Hence, they are free to pursue all legal remedies available to them as per law. We are not expressing any opinion either on the issue of maintainability thereof or on merits of the reliefs that may be claimed therein. All questions will have to be considered by the concerned Court in accordance with law.
Accordingly, this writ petition is disposed of with liberty to the concerned accused to take recourse to appropriate remedy as may be permissible in law. The interim order passed by this Court on 29th August, 2018 shall continue for a period of four weeks to enable the accused to move the concerned court. The said proceedings shall be decided on its own merits uninfluenced by any observation made in this judgment, which is limited to the reliefs claimed in the writ petition to transfer the investigation to an independent Investigating Agency and/or Court monitored investigation. The Investigating Officer is free to proceed against the concerned accused as per law. All the accompanying applications are also disposed of in terms of this judgment.
[Source: Romilla Thaper vs. Union of India decided by SC on September 28, 2018]
Note: The minority, dissenting judgement was delivered by Dr Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, J.