New Delhi: The Supreme Court Wednesday granted bail to Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami in a 2018 case of abetting suicide.
A vacation bench of justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Indira Banerjee gave the order on Goswami’s petition challenging the 9 November Bombay High Court order declining interim bail in the Anvay Naik-Kumud Naik suicide.
The top court also granted bail to two others, Feroze Shaikh and Neetish Sarda, who had challenged their arrest in the case and sought interim bail.
The Supreme Court directed the accused not to make any attempt to tamper with evidence or influence witnesses, and told each of them to execute a personal bond of Rs 50,000 for release on interim bail. It also directed the Mumbai Police to ensure compliance of the order to release the accused forthwith.
A detailed judgement recording the reasons for the order will be released later, it added.
Bombay HC’s error
During the four hour-long hearing, the bench of Justice Chandrachud and Justice Banerjee expressed concern over state governments targeting individuals on the basis of ideology and differences of opinion, and made strong observations over the failure of the high courts to protect personal liberty of individuals, forcing citizens to approach the top court for relief.
The court also raised doubts over commercial disputes attracting a suicide abetment charge, as in the case of the Naiks’ double suicide, which took place in Alibaug in 2018.
The court held that the Bombay HC had made an error in rejecting the application for grant of interim bail. The high court, in its 9 November order, had held that no case was made out to invoke its extraordinary writ jurisdiction to release the three accused, including Arnab Goswami.
The court had said the accused had an alternate remedy under law to approach the sessions court and seek bail, and also rejected the argument that the police could not have undertaken the probe because it had already filed a closure report in the case.
Before the top court, Goswami’s lawyer, senior advocate Harish Salve, pressed for relief on the grounds that the rule is to grant bail to accused persons, not jail.
Justice Chandrachud, who was more vocal during the hearing, lamented high courts not giving bail, leaving people languishing in jail for months. This, he said, had burdened the top court with bail cases.
“If constitutional courts don’t protect liberty, who will?” asked Justice Chandrachud.
However, he orally observed that he disagreed with Goswami’s position that police cannot investigate the case further if a closure report has been filed in a case where there is an offence but evidence has not been traced.
‘Don’t watch his channel if you don’t like it’
Justice Chandrachud shared his “deep concern” at the growing trend of states “targeting” those who follow a different ideology than that of the government.
He recalled a case from West Bengal where a girl, who tweeted that the coronavirus was not being dealt with, was issued a police notice. “They did this, saying we will show you reality,” he remarked.
According to the judge, Arnab Goswami cannot be punished or treated inhumanly merely because his style of presenting news does not suit the state government.
“Forget the way he screams and yells. I do not watch this news channel, but what concerns me is the value ascribed to human liberty. We are deeply concerned about it. Our democracy is extraordinary resilient and governments must ignore all this. This is not the basis on which elections are fought,” said the judge.
“If constitutional courts do not interfere today, then we are travelling the path of destruction, undeniably. We must send a message to the high courts today that please exercise your jurisdiction to uphold personal liberty,” Justice Chandrachud said.
He spoke of the criticism judges face over Twitter for their judgments, which he said the courts overlook.
“You do not watch a channel if you do not like it. I myself prefer to cuddle with a good book,” he told Kapil Sibal, the senior advocate appearing for Maharashtra government and the state’s police.
‘Why is Arnab’s matter being fast-tracked?’
Goswami, who is currently lodged in Navi Mumbai’s Taloja jail, has called his arrest and “illegal” detention a violation of his right to life and personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, 1950.
His legal team filed the appeal before the top court Tuesday morning, even as his bail plea at the Alibaug sessions court was pending. The same trial court Tuesday also reserved orders in the revision application filed by Maharashtra Police against the magistrate’s order, denying the investigating team Goswami’s police custody.
Sibal urged the court not to intervene at this stage, particularly when the Alibaug sessions court was set to hear Goswami’s bail plea Thursday. He requested the bench to wait for the outcome.
“Why do you presume that the sessions court will not pass an order which is fair and just? Final decision is coming tomorrow,” he told the Supreme Court bench.
Sibal drew a parallel with the Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan, who was arrested while he was on his way to Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, to report on the alleged gang-rape and murder of a woman. Kappan’s petition before the top court was not heard, and the bench before which the matter was listed asked him to approach the trial court, Sibal pointed out.
Senior advocate Amit Desai, appearing for the state police, discouraged the court from quashing the FIR at this stage and staying Goswami’s arrest, as it would disrupt the powers of investigation, which, he added, can be disastrous.
He argued against the process that was followed by Goswami and others to seek bail.
“Why meddle with the hierarchy? Why not hear what the state has to say?” Desai argued, pointing out that Goswami had never challenged the magistrate order remanding him to judicial custody.
He even questioned Goswami for not moving the court in 2018 to quash the FIR.
Desai also had reservations about Goswami’s case being fast-tracked in courts, while matters where people are languishing in jail are still in queue.
However, Justice Chandrachud, who agreed with Desai’s submission that the case deserved fair investigation, asserted it was not a case for custodial questioning.
“Normally, when a commercial enterprise is handed out, the labour contractor is responsible for execution and you can’t catch the man at the top — because the contract was not executed basis abetment to suicide,” he said.
The judge reminded the counsel that the court was dealing with the personal liberty of a person. “It will be travesty of justice if bail is not granted, while FIR is pending,” Justice Chandrachud said.
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