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Brief but action packed hearing in the court as additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta and senior advocate Anand Grover, appearing for activists, trade barbs

The five rights activists arrested by the Maharashtra police on August 28 during pan-India raids in connection with their alleged role in the Bhima Koregaon communal clashes and later accused of being in cahoots with Maoists will continue to remain under house arrest till September 17, the Supreme Court ordered on Wednesday (September 12).

The order of the apex court’s bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud came following a very brief, albeit fiery, exchange of words between Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Maharashtra government, and senior advocate Anand Grover.

It may be recalled that the apex court had, on August 29, stayed the transit remand for the activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferriera and Gautam Navlakha – granted to the Maharashtra police by different lower courts. The top court had ordered that the activists be placed under house arrest till September 12, during which period the top court was to examine the case against them and an affidavit submitted by the Maharashtra police accusing the activists of being involved with the Maoist in a “big conspiracy” against the State.

The court’s interim order placing the activists under house arrest had come on a petition filed by five eminent citizens – Romila Thapar, Maja Daruwala, Devaki Jain, Prabhat Pattnaik and Satish Deshpande – who had challenged the arrests. Families of some of the arrested activists had later filed affidavits in the case.

On Wednesday, as the petition came up for hearing, senior advocate Anand Grover wished to make a submission on behalf of his client, rights activist and lawyer Surendra Gadling. Gadling had been arrested in June this year on similar charges of planning the Elgar Parishad programme at Bhima Koregaon on January 1 and inciting the communal clashes that broke out between the scheduled castes and upper class Marathas subsequently. Other activists and advocates of civil liberties – Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Sudhir Dhawale and Mahesh Raut – had also been arrested in the same case.

Presenting a document before the court, Grover said: “It is the Hon’ble Chief Minister’s speech…we have put it on affidavit that the advocate (Gadling) was threatened… ‘You will be next’, it was said… the lawyer is in hospital and wants to argue his case but is not being allowed.” Grover then suggested that Gadling was being framed under false charges and harassed because he had appeared as a defence counsel for Delhi University Professor and alleged Maoist GN Saibaba.

However, Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta objected against Grover’s submissions, stating petitions by intervenors (like Gadling) in the case were already pending adjudication in high courts. “Their cases are being examined in respective jurisdictional courts. When a lawyer is arrested, we know how to treat him”, Mehta told the bench.

The submission by the ASG triggered a verbal duel with Grover who shot back saying: “No you don’t know; you have treated him like a third-rate criminal only because he appeared for Saibaba.”

ASG Mehta, however, continued with his objections stating that the activists – those arrested in June and also taken in custody last month – had resorted to seeking legal remedy simultaneously from respective high courts and the Supreme Court. He then told the court that while one of the activists (Sudha Bharadwaj) had moved the Punjab & Haryana High Court against her arrest, Navlakha had filed a petition in the Delhi High Court.

Justice Chandrachud, who had on August 29 famously said during the hearing in the petition filed by Romila Thapar and others that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy”, then pointed out to ASG Mehta that “Navlakha is not the party appearing before the apex court” in the extant case.

The bench then adjourned the hearing in the case till September 17 as counsel for the petitioners, senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, was not present in court.

— India Legal Bureau, with inputs from Agencies

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