The Supreme Court on Thursday reserved its verdict on the petition filed by five eminent persons against the arrests of five activists in August in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence.
The court has told the Maharashtra government to hand over the entire case diary to it by September 24, according to Bar and Bench.
The activists were arrested as part of the Pune Police’s investigation into violence between Marathas and Dalits during the Bhima Koregaon event in January. While one petition was filed by five citizens a day after the arrests on August 28, an intervention application was also filed on behalf of five other activists arrested in June.
Activists Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj and Varavara Rao, who were held in August, are currently under house arrest. Separately, activists Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson and Sudhir Dhawale were arrested in June.
There were heated exchanges during the hearing on Thursday when Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for the petitioners, said letters placed before the court as evidence were made public by Maharashtra police officer Param Bir Singh at a press conference, creating prejudice against the activists.
He placed before the court the transcript of a show on NDTV, in which the officer participated and spoke about the letters, which revealed an alleged plot to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Senior lawyer Harish Salve, appearing for the complainant Tushar Damgude, wanted to know how the petitioners had obtained copies of the letters.
Justice DY Chandrachud then asked Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta if the police officer had indeed given away copies of the letter. Mehta said the officer had revealed the letter that alleged a plot to assassinate Modi at the press conference. However, he said the activists also had access to the letters since it was from them that the letters were recovered.
Singhvi said despite finding out about a grave conspiracy, the police have still not filed an FIR on the alleged assassination plot.
Earlier, Mehta submitted that the police have corroborated information mentioned in 13 different letters recovered from the arrested activists, allegedly written to and received from Maoist handlers.
“We have evidence to show they followed the instructions and went to places mentioned,” he said.
Mehta said evidence recovered goes back to 2012 and that it would be absurd to claim that the police have been planting evidence for six years continuously to make these arrests. He also questioned the rationale of the intervening petitions, stating that when arrests have been made and the lower judiciary has taken cognisance, the question of habeas corpus does not arise.
Mehta, while taking the court through the evidence collected so far, said the investigation is being conducted responsibly as per law.
Harish Salve said the line the court should draw is between dissent and unlawful activity.
“You can be of any ideology. But you cannot indulge in unlawful activity,” he said. If there was a trail of unlawful activity, the investigation should continue, he added.
Salve also said just because the party in power is associated with a particular ideology, cases against the activists perceived to be of another ideology cannot be dismissed as motivated. “This is akin to a vote of no confidence against a resilient system,” he asserted.
In a rejoinder to Mehta’s arguments, Singhvi said despite nine months having passed since the filing of the FIR in January, two former judges who had openly claimed to have organised the Elgar Parishad event have not been questioned. The event was held a day before the violence in Bhima Koregaon on January 1.
Singhvi said the transit remands for taking the five arrested in August to Pune were based on disclosure statements of the activists arrested in June. “They did not rely on the 13 letters,” he said.
Chief Justice Dipak Misra intervened to state that admissibility of evidence will not be decided by the Supreme Court as it was the job of the magistrate handling the case.
Lawyer Anand Grover said there were discrepancies in the letters written in Hindi as Marathi font and phrases have been used. At this point, Justice Chandrachud also pointed to such usage in one of the letters.
‘Letters were cooked up’
On Wednesday, Abhishek Manu Singhvi had claimed that the letters purportedly written by the activists to members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) were “cooked up”. He had said witnesses for the arrest of activists in June were brought from Pune. “They were stock witnesses. This is a grave violation of procedure.”
On Monday, the Supreme Court said it may consider ordering an inquiry by a special investigation team if it found anything gravely wrong with the material used as evidence against the 10 activists. “Every criminal investigation is based on allegations and we have to see whether there is some material,” Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud had said.
In previous hearings, the Maharashtra Police have defended the arrest on the grounds that the accused were planning large-scale violence as part of the agenda of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). They had earlier claimed the activists were involved in the Elgar Parishad in Pune that was followed by the caste-related violence in Bhima Koregaon on January 1.
The police have said the activists’ speeches at the event were meant to incite hatred and claimed to have seized thousands of letters exchanged among “underground” and “overground” Maoists. Two retired judges who organised the event have said that the arrested activists had nothing to do with the event.