Bhima-Koregaon case: SC grants bail to Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira; imposes conditions

A bench of Justices Aniruddha Bose and Sudhanshu Dhulia granted the bail after the Bombay High Court rejected their bail application in December 2021

The Supreme Court of India (photo: NH File Photo)
The Supreme Court of India (photo: NH File Photo)

Ashlin Mathew

The Supreme Court granted bail on Friday to two of the accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira, who have been in Mumbai’s Taloja jail since August 2018 for alleged offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

A bench of Justices Aniruddha Bose and Sudhanshu Dhulia granted the bail after the Bombay High Court rejected their bail application in December 2021. The bench had reserved the verdict on March 3. While granting the bail, the judges noted that they have been in custody for five years.

“While forming our opinion, we juxtaposed the appellants’ case based on Articles 14 and 21 with allegations [against them], and considering fact that almost five years have elapsed, we are satisfied they have made out case for bail,” said Justice Bose.

The case pertains to the Elgar Parishad conclave held held at Pune’s Shaniwar Wada on 31 December 2017, to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon-Bhima, where violence broke out resulting in the death of one person and injuring several others.

Months after the violence, it was alleged that several activists were involved in the violence and as a part of the arrests 14 persons were arrested including Gonsalves and Ferreira. The Pune police claimed that the conclave was funded by Maoists.

The SC judges noted stated that both Gonsalves and Ferreira would have to surrender their passports and live in Maharashtra as the allegations against them are serious. The conditions for bail include the appellants shall not leave Maharashtra without obtaining trial court's permission; surrender their passports to the NIA (National Investigation Agency) investigating officer; appellants should inform NIA their addresses; use only one mobile phone, which will be accessible to the NIA officer; mobile phone should remain active 24 hours of the day; and both should report to the Station House Officer of police station within whose jurisdiction they are going to reside while on bail once a week.

The Supreme Court added that the Special Court could independently add other conditions too. Justice Bose cautioned that in case there would be a breach of any of the additional conditions imposed by the trial court then the prosecution could seek cancellation of bail without any reference to the Supreme Court. He also observed that appeals on the conditions would be permitted.

Senior advocates Rebecca John and R Basant, who appeared for Gonsalves and Ferreira respectively, argued that the NIA did not have enough material to implicate them and was grossly insufficient. It was argued that the NIA had not obtained any evidence either from the appellants either from them or their electronic devices to charge them under the anti-terror law.

What is the Bhima Koregaon case?

Six months after violence had erupted at the Elgar Parishad Conclave on 31 December 2017, the Maharashtra Police, in a nation-wide crackdown, had arrested 16 activists, academics and lawyers. The police claimed that those arrested had links to outlawed Naxals and many critics of the Left-wing activism dubbed them as "urban Naxals" on social media. It was alleged that provocative speeches at this event led to large-scale violence the next day, 1 January 2018.

On 2 January 2 2018, a First Information Report (FIR) was filed against Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide for the violence. However, later 22 FIRs were registered and one of them named Dhawale and members of the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), Sagar Gorkhe and Jyoti Jagtap. It was a group of musicians and poets who had come together after the 2002 Gujarat riots.

In June 2018, the police arrested Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen and Rona Wilson in connection with the case. In August 2018, writer-poet P Varavara Rao, lawyers Sudha Bhardwaj, Arun Farreira and Vernon Gonzalves were arrested. Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde surrendered before the NIA on 14 April 2020, while Hany Babu was arrested on July 28. Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe and Jyoti Jagtap were arrested in September. The late Father Stan Swamy was arrested on 8 October 2020, and died on 5 July 2021, while in judicial custody, after pleading for bail on several instances. Rao, Bhardwaj, Navlakha and Teltumbde are out on bail currently.

Four years after the arrest, on 18 August 2022, the then Chief Justice of India UU Lalit had told the trial court to frame charges against the accused within three months. However, special NIA judge RJ Kataria said it would take another year to decide if charges had to be framed in the case.

In 2021, a US-based digital forensic company firm, Arsenal Consultancy, had revealed in its report that the evidence collected by NIA was planted by an attacker in the computers of Wilson, Gadling and later in that of Father Stan Swamy. The report had noted, “On 10 February 2021, the consultancy found that a hacker-controlled Wilson’s computer for a period of 22 months to plant documents.” Another report released in 2022 stated that Fr Swamy’s computer was compromised from October 19, 2014, till his computer was seized by Pune Police on June 12, 2019.

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