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Swift Bail and the Stiff Bias

Republic TV anchor Arnab Goswami on his release from jail on November 11. | PTI

Judiciary is considered as the last institution of hope and it is believed that Judiciary or Courts are the protectors of fairness and providers of Justice. But now it's an indisputable fact that the people of the ‘world's biggest democracy’ are losing their trust and confidence in the Judiciary. Many recent events and some verdicts accelerated the growing distrust over courts and gave more volume to the belief that “courts are not independent anymore”.

The very recent event that poured oil to the flames of distrust with the swift bail granted to Arnab Goswami, the Director and Editor-in-chief of Republic Media Network. On 11th October, after 8 days of his arrest, the Supreme Court held a special session between the Diwali break and granted Arnab Goswami interim bail. The Supreme Court took up the case and ruled out orders with a remarkable speed which has to be appreciated, but then why is this controversial? It is mainly because the same urgency has not been shown to any other similar matters. Where is the so-called ‘equality before the law’ here? Why was the swiftness and preciseness by the apex court absent in other cases? Questions are being raised and fingers are being pointed towards the protectors of constitutional values and justice.

The Meteoric Delivery Of Justice

Arnab Goswami was busted by the Mumbai Police on 4th November 2020 for a 2018 case of abatement of the suicide of an interior designer Anvay Naik and his mother due to non-payment of due. The magistrate in Alibag remanded him to judicial custody the next day, a departure from the normal practice of police custody for the first 14 days. The Bombay High Court on 9th November refused to grant interim bail to Goswami and two others and asked them to move to the local court. On 11 November, the Supreme Court heard his bail plea and granted him bail and he was set free by evening. Arnab Goswami’s swift release demonstrated how well the justice system can work for those with power and influence. It’s no secret that Arnab is a Modi sympathiser and this arrest could be the conspiracy by the Maharashtra government led by a coalition of parties opposing BJP. Nobody can justify his uncivil arrest for a case closed in 2019. But what is contentious here is that such police excesses are not new in our country and no one elsewhere got such preferential treatment as Arnab did.

We can't shut our eyes on solidarity and support showered for Arnab from the government. Home Minister Amitji called the incident a “misuse of state power”. In a tweet, he said, “Congress and its allies have shamed democracy once again. Blatant misuse of state power against Republic TV and Arnab Goswami is an attack on individual freedom and the fourth pillar of democracy. It reminds us of the Emergency. This attack on the free press must be and WILL BE OPPOSE". Not just him, but the entire Modi Cabinet and the top BJP leaders raised in rage against the arrest condemning it as the 'black day for democracy'. Unfortunately they were not so aware of the misuse of state power or personal liberty when many others were put behind the bar by their government. Several top Kashmiri political leaders were under detention for months on the wake of abrogation of Article 370 and since then there is a communication blockade in the valley and also activists from all walks of life ranging from poets to professors and to student leaders are incarcerated under draconian national security laws.They can forward fast condemnation to their supporters when all their dissenters are in jail.

When the Supreme Court urgently listed Arnab’s appeal against the Bombay High Court order for hearing, Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) president Dushyant Dave wrote a letter to the top court expressing concern over the “selective listing of matters”. In this letter, Dave says “While thousands of citizens remain in jails, languishing for long periods while their matters filed before…Supreme Court are not getting listed for weeks and months, it is, to say the least, deeply disturbing as to how and why every time Mr. Goswami approaches the Supreme Court, his matter gets listed instantly.” He pointed out how Arnab’s case was filed yesterday, got an instant diary number and is listed for tomorrow”. Dave also cited the example of how even former Union Minister P Chidambaram failed to get a “speed listing” of his case and, therefore, spent months in jail. But then why Arnab Goswami? What placed him above lakhs of ordinary Indians waiting for judicial mercy?

Supporters of Republic TV Editor-In-Chief Arnab Goswami celebrate after the Supreme Court granted him interim bail in the 2018 abetment to suicide case. (Photo | PTI)

The Plight of non-Arnab Captives

This whole debate would be more meaningful only if we know what comprises India's huge prison population. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2019 reveals that 69 per cent of India’s prison population comprises undertrial prisoners, suspects who are awaiting trial or whose trials are ongoing but there has been no conviction yet. As of 31 December 2019, 3.3 lakh undertrial prisoners were languishing in Indian prisons, which have an average overcrowding rate of 118.5 per cent. Approximately 26 per cent of these undertrials were in prison for more than one year.

The arrest and subsequent bail of Goswami follows a long string of cases involving journalists, students and activists, many of whom have been charged under draconian laws such as sedition, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the National Security Act (NSA).

Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal, who was representing the State of Maharashtra, mentioned Siddique Kappan's arrest before the bench at the end of the hearing in Goswami's case. As the vacation bench comprising Justices D Y Chandrachud and Indira Banerjee was about to wind up the arguments before the pronouncement of orders, Sibal submitted: 'A Kerala journalist was arrested by UP police when he was going to Hathras to report. We came to this Court under Article 32. The Court said to go to the lower court. The petition was posted after four weeks. Such things are also happening". But the bench did not pass any comments on these submissions.

The plight of Prashant Kanojia, a Delhi-based freelance journalist, was also not so different. He was granted bail by the Allahabad High Court two months after he was arrested by the UP police for retweeting a tweet related to the Ram temple in Ayodhya. This was the second time Kanojia had been imprisoned by the UP state police since 2019 for commenting against the state government of Uttar Pradesh. But he was luckier than many other activists and journalists from northeast and Kashmir. A total of 23 petitions challenging the abrogation of Article 370 are pending in the Supreme Court. Most of the habeas corpus petitions of citizens from Jammu and Kashmir are also still pending with several activists and journalists languishing in jail.

But which cases get listed on a priority basis is completely under the jurisdiction of the court. This opaque selection criterion has been criticised in recent times, especially regarding bail pleas involving academics like Professor Anand Teltumbde, lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, and activists and social workers such as 84-year old Jesuit Priest Stan Swamy, all of whom are in prison under the UAPA. Is supporting the government and praising Modi three times a day is the criteria for getting justice served faster? Or criticising the government or being not in the good book of authorities will delay your justice? The question is not about whether these people are guilty or not, but why this double stand