Analysis: Navlakha case (Bhima – Koregaon)

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It has been more than a year since the Bhima–Koregaon case, also popularly known as the Navlakha case took place. The case caught the public’s attention when recently five judges of the Supreme Court recused themselves from hearing the case, and since then, it started hitting the news headlines.

This case is related to the outbreak of violence that had taken place at the Bhima Koregaon village on January 1, 2018. The Maharashtra Police then arrested five human rights activists, including Gautam Navlakha, who were suspected of having links with Maoists.

Background of the case

Bhima Koregaon, a village in Pune District in Maharashtra, is well known for a battle that took place between a British army unit, mainly comprising of Dalits and the army consisting of upper castes of Peshwa.

Thus, the place symbolises the victory of Dalits during the battle. In the year 2018, the battle marked its 200 years, and a celebration was organised for the same.

On 29th December 2018, the memorial of Govind Gopal Mahar, who was also a local hero, was found completely destroyed. This led to a conflict between the Dalits and the upper castes in the village and the neighbouring areas.

This entire matter was mentioned on 31st December in the Elgar Parishad Conclave held at Shanivarwada in Pune which also saw many people gather to listen to various activists, including Gujarat MLA, Jignesh Mevani, JNU student leader Umar Khalid, Dalit icon Rohit Vemula’s mother Radhika Vemula, tribal rights activist Soni Sori.

According to the Police, the speeches made on the following day were inflammatory, and it triggered violence the very next day during the commemorative celebration of the Bhima Koregaon battle. During the incident, one 28-year- old was killed, and many other people were injured.

Thus, 2 FIRs related to the violence and the speeches made during the conclave were lodged by the police. Also, police arrested five other prominent activists including Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, and claimed that certain documents had been recovered by them, which included an Email about a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This Email was found during a raid at Rona Wilson’s place.

A 5000-pages- long charge sheet against Rona Wilson, General Secretary of the Committee for the release of political prisoners, and the other four activists has been filed by the police.

The supplementary charge sheet which was filed earlier this year accused the remaining ones, who were involved in the crime with the specification of Maoist leader Ganapathy’s name as the mastermind behind Elgar Parishad.

So far, nine lawyers and some activists, including few prominent activists, have been taken into custody in this case. The Bombay High Court last month refused to quash this case. After the court pronounced its judgment, an appeal was made in the Supreme Court.

Key arguments by both parties:

According to the Police, Navlakha and the other accused have Maoist links and were planning towards overthrowing the Government. These were the ones who organised the Elgar Parishad, and thus, in November last year, a charge sheet was filed against them.

They were also booked under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Indian Penal Code. Also, the police believed that the case is not limited to just the Bhima- Koregaon violence, but it has several facets to it. Thus, the police required proper investigation to be done for it.

On the other side, the respondents claimed that Navlakha was a peace activist, and previously he was also appointed as a mediator by the Government of India in the case of Naxals kidnapping six policemen. He was in contact with the Naxals but only for his fact-finding research work and thus, the case cannot attract the provisions of UAPA.

Further, the Government has wrongly charged him with sedition and waging war against the nation because he is a human rights activist and raises voice against human rights violation issues taking place in India under Prime Minister Modi’s rule. The defence lawyers also argued that the police and the State are also trying to delay the court proceedings.

Legal principles and Customs involved in the case:

The most important legal principle involved in this case is the serial recusal by the Judges of the Supreme Court. Recently, Justice Ravindra Bhat became the fifth judge of the Supreme Court to recuse himself from hearing the appeal by Gautam Navlakha. Before the recusal by him, four judges, including Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, recused themselves without stating any reason.

Recusal means the removal of oneself from the position of a judge for a particular matter or case. The most important fact is that in India, there is no law on judicial recusal and this practice is more often than not arbitrary.

The recusal of the five judges of the Supreme Court is surprising, and many jurists argued that recusal ought to have reasons so that the parties can know about that reason. Additionally, it builds confidence and trust of the people in the administration of judiciary and their process of delivering justice.

Implications and public reaction to the case:

The case got a mixed reaction from the public. On one side, people believe that as these activists were critics of the present ruling Government, they have been targeted and as a result, falsely accused under UAPA. The UAPA is also a highly criticised Act and is said to be a tool for the Government to arrest the critics.

Thus, the arrest of Gautam Navlakha was baseless. On the other hand, it is also believed that national security cannot be compromised at any cost. If, after so many investigations, enough evidence has been found against the accused and their links with Naxalites have been established, then an arrest is the only action that can be taken.

Also, the email which contained the plot of the assassination of our Prime Minister is a threat to the nation, and the recovery of it by the police will ultimately result in taking a strict action by them against the accused.

However, the biggest question that now arises among the public is the reason for the recusal of judges, which is still confusing. According to Professor Upendra Baxi, who in one of his blogs, stated that recusal has become a debatable question as to whether it is an individual affair of the judges or of institutional interest.

Way forward

The Supreme Court on October 4, 2019 extended interim protection from arrest of Gautam Navlakha till October 15, when the court has its next hearing on this matter. The Apex Court also directed the Maharashtra police to place before it all the evidence collected during the investigation of the case.

A bench comprising of Justice Deepak Gupta and Arun Mishra will hear the arguments on 15th October 2019. There is no doubt that matter which is now sub judice and under the learned justices will reach an appropriate decision soon.

-This article is brought to you in collaboration with Anshika Gubrele from Bharti Vidyapeeth New Law College, Pune.

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