The Supreme Court on Wednesday granted interim bail to Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami and two others who were arrested in a 2018 abetment to suicide case. A top court vacation bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud and Indira Banerjee observed that the Bombay High court on November 9 "was in error of rejecting application for granting interim bail" and directed the release "forthwith" of the three accused on execution of a personal bond amounting to Rs. 50,000 each.
On November 3, the Maharashtra police had arrested Goswami from his Mumbai residence for allegedly abetting the suicide of an interior designer and his mother. A sessions court had remanded Goswami to judicial custody till November 18. Anvay Naik, the interior designer, and his mother Kumud died by suicide over non-payment of dues.
The apex court's verdict comes a day before the Alibaug (Maharashtra) sessions court will hear Goswami's regular bail application. An order in a revision appeal filed by the Maharashtra police against the court's decision denying police custody is also pending.
If we do not intervene, will go down path of destruction: SC
While hearing day-long arguments on this issue, the supreme court raised concerned over how offences under the provisions of criminal jurisprudence were attracted in what appeared to be a matter of commercial dispute. Expressing concern over the deprivation of one's personal liberty, Justice Chandrachud observed that if the court did not "intervene in this case today", then it would be "travelling down a path of destruction".
"One may differ in ideology, I don't even watch his channel, but constitutional courts have to protect freedom, or they will be walking on a path of destruction."
"You may not like (his) ideology. Left to me, I would not watch that channel," Justice Chandrachud said. "…District courts are not granting bail, high courts are not granting bail where it should be. The Supreme Court is then burdened with this (bail matters). Apart from the burden of litigation, "If we as a constitutional court do not lay down law and protect liberty, then who will?" he added.
Justice Chandrachud added: "Our democracy is extraordinarily resilient. Governments must ignore all this. This is not the basis on which elections are fought".
"We need to send a message to the high courts as well, to exercise their jurisdiction to uphold personal liberty," Justice Chandrachud said. "In case after case, high courts are denying personal liberty," he added pulling up the Bombay high court for its decision.
"If money is owed to them and someone commits suicide, is it a case of abetment? Is it a case for custodial questioning? Would it not be a travesty of justice if bail is not granted while the FIR is still pending?" Justice Chandrachud asked Maharashtra Police.
"Will the heavens fall if the man is released?": Arnab to SC
Representing Goswami, senior advocate Harish Salve repeated arguments he had made before the Bombay High Court. "There is an abuse of state power here because I am a journalist and I am saying unpalatable things," Salve said terming the arrest as illegal.
"The overlay of the malice in fact and the abuse of state power is not something that happens on a day in and day out basis. This court has to look at the totality of circumstances," Salve argued. Referring to the case at hand, Salve said: "The person was in financial difficulty and thereafter committed suicide, but how can it be abetment to suicide?"
Salve added that there was malice on Maharashtra's part by pointing out that the state Home Minister had ordered the police to reinvestigate the case, bypassing directions from a judicial forum. Taking the court through the timeline of events, Salve said the case was reopened after Goswami's critical reportage of the state's handling of the Palghar lynching case, the Bandra Migrants incident and the breach of privilege motion issued by the Maharashtra Assembly.
"The overlay of the malice in fact and the abuse of state power is not something that happens on a day in and day out basis. This court has to look at the totality of circumstances," he urged.
"Will heavens fall if the man is released?" Salve said pointing out that even the Chief Judicial Magistrate at Alibaug had observed that Goswami's arrest was illegal, and prima facie there appeared to be no link between Goswami and Naik's suicide.
State's duty to balance rights of victim and the accused: Maha to SC
Senior Advocates Amit Desai, Kapil Sibal and CU Singh also argued for the case's Investigating Officer, Maharashtra and Naik's wife Akshita respectively against Goswami's release.
Goswami had filed for bail before the Magistrate but withdrew the same opting for a more suitable forum, Desai said. To which, Justice Chandrachud said, "Technicality cannot be a ground to deny someone personal liberty. This is not a case of terrorism."
"I am only on the (judicial) process, not on the context of personal liberty. According to the state, there is material collected which is ex facie. Let the sessions court consider Goswami's bail. If Salves arguments are great, why would it be denied tomorrow? Why meddle with the hierarchy?" Desai argued.
"I am not here today representing either the state or the accused. I am here to state how the Criminal Justice System works...Whether judicial custody order was valid or not by a magistrate wherein he applied his mind was never challenged in the HC," he added. Articles 14 (right to equality) & 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) are for both—the victim and the accused. And if a victim comes knocking on the doors saying injustice has been caused, it is the State's duty to balance the rights," Desai said.
Towards the end of the arguments, Sibal said: "This is an extraordinary case. This is not done unless you're saying his (Goswami) arrest is extraordinary. There is no basis of law, there is a judicial remand order (for Goswami's detention).
"If you lay down these principles (of bypassing judicial hierarchy), you will be setting a precedent, in extraordinary cases, extraordinary orders are passed…" Sibal said. Agreeing with Sibal, Singh urged the top court to allow the matter to be decided by a lower court. "This will send an incorrect signal to the lower court, if SC steps in at this stage when bail application is set for tomorrow, it will set a bad precedent," Singh argued.
"It is one thing to say the court will have supervisory jurisdiction of the Court on a probe but it cannot be said that the IO cannot even probe the case without an express order from the court," Desai added arguing against the point that the police could not further probe the case without a judicial nod.
Concluding arguments, Sibal pointed out that even the Kerala journalist Siddiqui Kappan—he was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh government under provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) as he was on his way to cover the Hathras incident, "is languishing in jail". "We come here (to SC), you say go to High Court. These are the things that are happening here," Sibal said concluding his submissions.
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