Gautam Navlakha surrenders before NIA in Bhima Koregaon case

New Delhi:  Civil rights activist Gautam Navlakha surrendered before the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on Tuesday here after the Supreme Court had rejected his plea seeking extension of time in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said.

Navlakha, who has been accused under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon riots in 2018, was asked to surrender by the Supreme Court, they said.

The court on March 16 had directed him to surrender within three weeks but he had moved a plea seeking extension of time on the ground that going to jail during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is “virtually a death sentence”.

A bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra said the accused should have honoured its decision of dismissal of the anticipatory bail and the direction to surrender themselves within three weeks.

“Though we expected that the accused would surrender, honouring the order of this court, they have not done so. We are told that in Bombay, the courts are functioning. It would have been appropriate for the accused to surrender as the courts are open and not totally closed.

“However, since the petitioners have enjoyed the protection for long, by way of last opportunity, we extend the time granted to surrender for one week,” the bench had ordered.

In a statement, Navlakha said the “draconian provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act are not accompanied by stricter procedures regarding evidence, especially electronic, considering the stringent punishment provided for under the Act; the procedures, which otherwise provide tighter rules regarding evidence, are instead made elastic”.

“Under this double whammy, jail becomes the norm and bail an exception. In this Kafkaesque domain, process itself becomes punishment,” he said.

Navlakha had been asked to surrender by the Supreme Court.

Activist and journalist with Mumbai-based Economic and Political Weekly journal for years, Navlakha was one of the five activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case but was granted protection from arrest by the Supreme Court and the Bombay High Court.

“As I prepare to leave to surrender before the NIA Headquarters in Delhi, I am glad that Justices Arun Mishra and Indira Banerjee gave me another week of freedom when they passed the order on April 8. A week of freedom means a lot in my condition, even in the age of lockdown,” he said.

Navlakha said their order resolved the predicament he encountered in complying with the March 16 order of the apex court, which obliged him to surrender by April 6 before the NIA, Mumbai.

“The lockdown that followed prevented me from travelling. Also, there was no direction from the NIA (Mumbai) regarding what I should do under the circumstances. I know now that I have to surrender myself to the NIA Headquarters in Delhi,” he said.

Navlakha said the prime minister has likened the challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to a state of “national emergency”.

“Meanwhile, the apex court recently intervened in the matter of jail conditions, and issued guidelines to authorities regarding overcrowding of jail inmates and the threat posed to prisoners and detenues, jail staff and other personnel assigned jail duties,” he said.

Navlakha said this concern remains although no case of COVID-19 has been reported in any jail so far.

“However, I am affected by the fear that my near and dear ones harbour about my captivity amidst COVID-19. I cannot help but feel disappointed that the terse order of the Supreme Court on April 8 had no reference to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has overtaken the world, including all of us in India,” he said.

He said he can now begin to face the actual legal process, which accompanies cases where provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act are invoked.

He said such Acts turn the normal jurisprudence upside down and added no longer is it the axiom that ‘a person is innocent unless proven guilty’.

Navlakha and several activists were booked by the Pune Police for their alleged Maoist links and other charges, following the violence at Koregaon Bhima village in Pune district on January 1, 2018.

The case was later taken over by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

All the accused have denied the allegations.

According to the Pune Police, “inflammatory” speeches and “provocative” statements made at the Elgar Parishad conclave held in Pune on December 31, 2017 had triggered caste violence at Koregaon Bhima the next day. The police alleged that the conclave was backed by Maoists.

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