Gautam Navlakha gets bail from Bombay HC after 4 years, but still not free
The National Investigation Agency (NIA), which charged the human rights activist under the UAPA, gets 3 weeks to appeal to the Supreme Court as the high court has stayed the order until then
The Bombay High Court on Tuesday, 19 December, granted bail to human rights activist Gautam Navlakha, who had been arrested in the Elgar Parishad–Maoist links case, investigation of which began 6 years ago and has seen Navlakha imprisoned for the last 3 years and 8 months.
Yet, he is still not home—the high court also stayed its order for 3 weeks to give the National Investigation Agency (NIA) time to appeal against it in the Supreme Court!
A bench of justices A.S. Gadkari and S.G. Dige granted Navlakha bail against a surety of Rs 1 lakh. Navlakha is currently under house arrest in Navi Mumbai and awaiting trial.
The National Investigation Agency requested the court to suspend the order for 6 weeks, but the court finally allowed 3 weeks to the agency.
While granting bail, the high court noted that there was no material to initially infer that he had conspired to or committed any terrorist act per the UAPA charges levelled against him.
'The actual involvement of the appellant in any terrorist act cannot be even inferred from any of the communications and or statements of the witnesses. According to us, there is no material to infer conspiracy to commit an offence as contemplated under Chapter IV of the UAPA (punishment for terrorist activities),' said the bench in their detailed judgement.
The High Court underscored: 'From the material on record, it appears to us that no covert or overt terrorist act has been attributed to Navlakha. We are of the prima facie (at first sight) opinion that on the basis of the material placed before us by the NIA, it cannot be said that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the accusation against Navlakha is prima facie true.'
The bench added that at this stage, the provisions of sections 15 (terrorist act), 18 (conspiracy) or 20 (being a member of a terrorist organisation) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act cannot be applied to Navlakha.
Last year, the NIA had opposed Navlakha’s bail plea, claiming that he had been introduced to a general in the Pakistan ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) to facilitate his recruitment, which shows his nexus with the organisation.
The court also refused to accept the NIA’s claim that Navlakha had connections with the ISI based on his having written a letter to a US court judge seeking clemency for Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai—an American citizen of Kashmiri origin who has lobbied for separation of Kashmir and is believed to have ISI ties.
The High Court also said that the reasoning in the special NIA court order was cryptic and did not contain an analysis of the evidence which the prosecution relied on to come to this conclusion. A special court had re-heard the plea on the same pleadings and rejected the bail plea, however, prompting the present appeal. The High Court, however, held that all the allegedly incriminating documents which were recovered from others and mentioned Navlakha by name had 'weak probative value'.
Last week, the Delhi Police were granted permission by a court to question Navlakha in Mumbai in the NewsClick case. The news portal, of which Navlakha is a shareholder, has been accused of illegally obtaining funds from China to promote anti-India propaganda.
Navlakha was one of 16 intellectuals, academics, lawyers and activists who were arrested in connection with an investigation into alleged Maoist links to an Ambedkarite event called the Elgar Parishad on 31 December 2017, which was followed by caste clashes the next day at Koregaon village on the banks of the Bhima river, near Pune that claimed one life. It thus also came to be called the Bhima-Koregaon case.
Navlakka was arrested in 2018 for his alleged connection to the Elgar Parishad conference and the violence that ensued. He is now the seventh accused in the case to have finally been granted bail, after years. He will turn 71 on Friday, 22 December, and due to his failing health, he was allowed to remain under house arrest in Navi Mumbai rather than being incarcerated like many of the others accused in the case.
Scholar-activist Anand Teltumbde, lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira and Mahesh Raut are the others who are out on regular bail, while Telugu litterateur Varavara Rao is out on bail on health grounds. Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit activist from Jharkhand, died of post-Covid complications while in judicial custody in Mumbai in 2021.
In his appeal filed in the high court, Navlakha said the special court had erred in refusing him bail. This is Navlakha's second round of appeal in the high court seeking regular bail—he had also moved the high court earlier, after the special NIA court rejected his regular bail plea in September last year.