Lawyer-activist Sudha Bharadwaj was on Wednesday granted default bail by the Bombay High Court in the Bhima Koregaon violence case, Live Law reported.

The Bombay High Court ordered her to approach the special National Investigation Agency court by December 8 about her release and bail conditions.

Bharadwaj is among the 14 activists, lawyers and academicians still in jail for allegedly conspiring to set off caste violence in a village near Pune in 2018. Tribal rights activist Stan Swamy, one of the accused in the case, died in custody in July this year after being repeatedly denied bail despite his frail health.

Varavara Rao, an 81-year-old Telugu poet, had been granted bail on medical grounds in February. His bail has been extended till December 6.

Bharadwaj and eight other accused persons in the case – Sudhir Dhawale, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling and Rao – had filed two separate petitions before the Bombay High Court for default bail.

Bharadwaj said in her petition that Pune additional sessions judge KD Vadane, who had granted an extension to the city police to file the chargesheet in the Bhima Koregaon case and taken cognisance of it, was not a designated special judge.

Vadane had remanded Bharadwaj and the eight other activists in the case to the Pune Police’s custody in 2018.

Bharadwaj’s counsel told the High Court that even though there were special judges, the Pune police preferred to go to Vadane, who the activist’s plea claimed had “pretended to be a special judge”.

“If the petition is allowed, then the orders of extension of time, the acceptance of the chargesheet, and the chargesheet in its entirety is null and void,” the counsel said. “And that would imply that they have been in illegal detention.”

Bharadwaj’s counsel also cited Right to Information replies received from the High Court, which showed that Vadane had never been designated as a special judge.

The activist’s lawyer Yug Chaudhry told the High Court that his client and her co-accused had been charged for offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and their case should have gone to a special court instead of the additional sessions judge, Live Law reported.

The eight other accused persons challenged the rejection of their default bail petitions by Vadane in 2019 before the High Court, The Hindu reported. They sought bail on the grounds that the chargesheet in the case had not been filed before a magistrate court, the newspaper reported.

The Bombay High Court, however, denied them bail.

The Bhima Koregaon case

The case pertains to the allegedly inflammatory speeches made at the Elgar Parishad conclave held at Shaniwar Wada in Pune on December 31, 2017, which the authorities claim triggered the violence at Bhima-Koregaon war memorial on the next day.

The first chargesheet in the case was filed by the Pune Police in November 2018, which ran to over 5,000 pages. It named activists Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling and Shoma Sen, all of whom were arrested in June 2018. The police claimed that they had “active links” with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), and accused the activists of plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A supplementary chargesheet was filed later in February 2019, against Bharadwaj, Rao, activists Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves and banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) leader Ganapathy. The accused were charged with “waging war against the nation” and spreading the ideology of the CPI (Maoist), besides creating caste conflicts and hatred in the society.

The Centre transferred the case to the National Investigation Agency in January 2020 after the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Maharashtra, led by Devendra Fadnavis, was defeated.