When the Pune Police, through additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta, tried to establish links between the arrested activists — Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha — and Maoists by taking the bench through a fat volume of documents allegedly recovered from seized pen drives, laptops and hard discs, Justice Chandrachud said: “We cannot sacrifice liberty at the altar of conjectures.”
When Mehta cautioned against jumping to conclusions after perusing only a few pages of the docket containing evidence against activists, Justice Chandrachud said: “Of course we will take a holistic view after going through the entire set of documents that would be shown to us. We will look at the evidence, but with the hawk eye.”
Justice Chandrachud also said: “We must differentiate between armed struggle against the government and expression of dissent by a section of people because of generations of suppression. Please keep this distinction in mind while presenting evidence. The shoulders of all, be it the government or the Supreme Court, should be broad enough to take criticism and dissent.” Buoyed by these sympathetic observations, advocate Prashant Bhushan interjected Mehta and said the letters and documents being cited were “fabricated” evidence.
At this point, CJI Misra curtly told him that “we cannot deal with your allegation that many of these letters are forged. We are at the preliminary stage of finding whether the evidence makes up a prima facie case for police to arrest the petitioners”. The activists, through counsel A M Singhvi, Anand Grover, Ashwani Kumar, Rajeev Dhavan and Prashant Bhushan, made a combative presentation to show they are being targeted for dissent against the ideology and practices of BJP-led governments and were arrested to muzzle criticism.
“Systematically unverified reports were leaked to the press by the Pune Police to tarnish our reputation and hold trial through media,” they alleged. Mehta contested their claim, saying: “It is too serious a matter to be ridiculed like this. What I am showing, as a nation we should be concerned about it. The arrests are not remotely connected to their dissent against the government. But if some persons are energising a machinery for planned activities to cause widespread law and order problem in the country, we must look at these with a little more seriousness.”
Mehta accused activists of receiving money from CPI (Maoist) to raise issues in international fora to generate traction about law and order situation after being instrumental in its deterioration. According to a document, which he read out, the mandate was to fund law and order problems. “Frequent protests and chaos will gradually lead to breakdown of law and order and this will have significant political ramifications in the coming months…,” he read out.
Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for the complainant who lodged the FIR against the activists, requested the court that sensitive portions of the investigation report and documents be kept under wraps as it is neither being fair to activists or the police. He argued that dissent has to be expressed in a manner that has to be in sync with constitutional means.