The Supreme Court of India today delivered the detailed judgement giving the reasons behind granting bail to Republic TV editor in chief Arnab Goswami. The apex court had granted Goswami interim bail on 11th November, after his bail plea was rejected by the Bombay High court. In the detailed judgement [PDF] in the case issued to today, the Supreme Court bench of Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice Indira Banerjee has made several critical comments against the High Court for ‘abdicating its duties’ in protecting the liberty of a citizen. Here are a few major observations made by the bench in the 55-page judgement.
Fit case for protection under Article 226 and Section 482 CrPC
While rejecting the bail plea of Arnab Goswami, the Bombay High Court had said that High Courts should use Article 226 of the constitution and the section 482 of the CrPC to grant interim bails only in very rare and extreme circumstances, and Arnab Goswami’s case does not fall under this category. But the Supreme Court rejected this argument by the High Court, saying that the plea was appropriate to be considered under section 482 of CrPC.
High Court didn’t evaluate the FIR
The apex court was highly critical of the Bombay High Court for delivering a 56-page verdict without even evaluating the charges mentioned in the FIR. The HC had itself said that it is not considering the contents of the FIR, as that would be taken up when it hears the main petition seeking to quash the FIR. But the Supreme Court objected to it, saying that High Court has misdirected itself in declining to enquire prima facie on a petition for quashing the FIR. The High Court must evaluate whether the charges mentioned in the FIR justifies the sections of law applied against the accused, which was not done in this case. The court said that even if FIRs are taken at their face value and accepted in their entirety, they do not prima facie constitute any offence or make out a case against the accused.
Noting that the High Court order didn’t evaluate the most basic issue, the verdict states that the High Court failed to apply its mind to a fundamental issue which needed to be considered while dealing with a petition for quashing under Article 226 of the Constitution or Section 482 of the CrPC.
The Supreme Court said that as the High Court failed to evaluate whether the allegations mentioned in the FIR justifies the application of Section 306 of the IPC, the task was having to be done by the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court went in to detail in explaining how it is necessary to evaluate the FIR, and how the courts have the jurisdiction under section 482. The verdict cites several past judgements in the matter.
Active role of accused needed in abetment of suicide case
The apex court verdict explains in details the circumstances under which section 306 on abetment of suicide case be slapped on a person. Explaining the section 306 of the IPC along with section 107, the court says that the accused must play an active role in a suicide, which may be harassment leading a person to commit suicide, aiding in committing suicide etc, and the accused must have indulged in a conspiracy to instigate a person to commit suicide. The court cites several judgements where the section 306 was dropped, as no direct link between a suicide and the accused were found in those cases.
The verdict also states that even if someone is mentioned in a suicide note, it will not attract section 306, unless the accused provokes, incites, urges or persuades someone to commit suicide. It says that examples like mere non-payment of salary, assigning more or less work to employees, etc can’t be ground for abetment for suicide case, but when there are specific charges of harassment against the accused which leads to suicide, the charge can be justified.
Offence prima facie not established
This is the most important segment of the verdict, which rules that the offences mentioned in the FIR does not establish the abetment of suicide charge. While the court’s other observations are mainly regarding grant of bail, this observation actually virtually sets the fate of the case. After going through the details of the case, the Supreme Court verdict says that “it cannot be said that the appellant was guilty of having abetted the suicide within the meaning of Section 306 of the IPC.”
The three accused named in the FIR are accused of not paying due amounts to Anvay Naik, and it can’t the ground for applying the abetment of suicide charge, the court said. It noted that there is a disconnect between the FIR and the provisions of Section 306 of the IPC.
Once again noting that the High Court did not consider whether prima facie the ingredients of the offence have been made out in the FIR, it said, “If the High Court were to have carried out this exercise, it would (as we have held in this judgment) have been apparent that the ingredients of the offence have not prima facie been established.”
As the HC failed to evaluate the FIR under section 482, it disabled itself from considering the bail application under article 226, the court said. If the High Court were to carry out a prima facie evaluation, it would have been impossible for it not to notice the disconnect between the FIR and the provisions of Section 306 of the IPC, the verdict said.
Human liberty and the role of Courts
The Supreme Court verdict contains a separate section titled “Human liberty and the role of Courts”, and it elaborates the role of the judiciary in protecting the liberty of citizens. It said that courts must ensure that the criminal law does not become a weapon for the selective harassment of citizens. “Courts should be alive to both ends of the spectrum – the need to ensure the proper enforcement of criminal law on the one hand and the need, on the other, of ensuring that the law does not become a ruse for targeted harassment,” the verdict said.
The court referred to Arnab Goswami’s allegation that he has been targeted by the Maharashtra govt due to his opinions on his TV channel, and said that High Court failed to prima facie evaluate the FIR under this circumstance. “The High Court abdicated its constitutional duty and function as a protector of liberty,” the verdict says.
Courts can bypass hierarchy
The court also responded to the arguments of lawyers of Maharashtra govt and Naik’s family that High Court was right in not granting bail as bail plea should have been filed in lower court. Saying that while it is correct that the procedural hierarchy of courts in matters concerning the grant of bail needs to be respected, there was two failures by the high court in this matter. They are, declining to evaluate the FIR, and declining to grant interim bail. The verdict notes that as the offences in the FIR does not support the charge of abetment of suicide, the High Court could have used its authority to grant relief.
The court said, “the doors of this Court cannot be closed to a citizen who is able to establish prima facie that the instrumentality of the State is being weaponized for using the force of criminal law. Our courts must ensure that they continue to remain the first line of defense against the deprivation of the liberty of citizens. Deprivation of liberty even for a single day is one day too many. We must always be mindful of the deeper systemic implications of our decisions”.
One accused had no direct dealings with Anvay Naik
A significant matter came to light in the verdict, where one of the accused has said that he had no direct dealings with Anvay Naik, who had named three persons in his suicide note. It is notable that the suicide note names three individuals, Arnab Goswami, Feroz Sheikh, and Nitesh Sarda. While Arnab Goswami and Nitesh Sarda have said that their companies had given job orders to Anvay Naik’s company, and some payment had been withheld due to disputed over work done, Feroz Sheikh has denied any direct link.
Gopal Sankaranarayanan, appearing for Sheikh, told the court that his client’s company iCastX Technologies had hired the services of Atos India Private Limited for the work of construction, renovation and refurbishing of their office premises. This Atos India in turn had sub-contracted the work to CDPL, the company owned by Naik. Hence, there was no contract between the two companies.
If this contention is true, it would mean that for any due to Naik’s company, Atos India would be responsible, not iCastX Technologies.
Mumbai police and Maharashtra govt not named
Although the Supreme Court verdict is very critical of the Bombay High Court, the verdict does not mention Mumbai Police, which arrested Arnab Goswami, and Maharashtra govt, which had ordered reopening of the closed case. But even though directly not named, the judgement is very critical for them. The order says that the offences does not establish the abetment of suicide case, which means that both the state government and the state police are wrong in pursuing the case, after the same was closed by a court.
The Bombay High Court will start hearing the petition seeking to quash the FIR on 10 December. But with the apex court of the country already rolling that the charges under section 306 is not made out, it will be interesting to see how the High Court goes ahead with the case.