Delhi HC Irked by NIA's 'Unseemly Haste' in Sending Gautam Navlakha Away to Mumbai

The noted activist's interim bail plea was pending with the Delhi HC when the NIA shifted him out of the city.

New Delhi: In a strong order, the Delhi high court has asked the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to explain why it showed such “unseemly haste” in removing civil liberties activist Gautam Navlakha from the “very jurisdiction of this court” when it was hearing his interim bail plea. The NIA whisked away Navlakha, an accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, to Mumbai by train on Sunday without informing his family or lawyer – even as his application for interim bail was being heard by the high court.

The high court has asked for all the relevant documentation used to transfer Navlakha away from Delhi to jail in Mumbai.

Continuing his hearing of the interim bail application of Navlakha, Justice Anup Bhambhani of the Delhi high court on Wednesday expressed his reservation about the “inexplicable, frantic hurry” the NIA displayed in shifting Navlakha to Mumbai from Delhi while the proceedings in the court were still pending.

Navlakha, one of the several civil liberties activists in the Bhima Koregaon case, has been booked under stringent provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for an alleged conspiracy to topple the government. He had been lodged at Delhi’s Tihar Jail since last month.

Last week, he moved in the high court seeking interim bail on medical grounds in view of the public health emergency due to COVID-19. Justice Bhambhani had heard initial arguments and listed the matter for May 27.

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging, there are fears of the prison population – particularly in Delhi and Mumbai – getting exposed to the coronavirus.

According to his lawyers, Navalakha, aged 68, suffers from several chronic ailments and is therefore more vulnerable to the virus if lodged in jail.

Tushar Mehta, the solicitor general, appearing on behalf of the government at the high court at the first hearing, had said Navlakha’s medical needs would be looked into while in custody. He also said that NIA was planning to shift him to Mumbai once air travel restarted, “after obtaining necessary orders from the competent court”.

The other accused in the case have been lodged in Mumbai jails and the NIA regional office in Maharashtra has been looking into the case. So shifting Navlakha to Mumbai was on the cards, but what  Justice Bhambani took note of at the May 27 hearing of the case was the “unseemly haste” the central agency showed in doing so while the matter was pending before the high court.

“Prima facie it appears that while on the last date (of hearing), this court had granted adequate time to the NIA to file its status report in response to the interim bail plea; and while the NIA has filed an affidavit opposing that pleas, the NIA has acted in unseemly haste to instead remove the applicant out of the very jurisdiction of this court; and if the applicant is right, without even informing the special judge (NIA), Mumbai, or the special judge (NIA), Delhi, of the pendency of the present proceedings,” the justice said in his order.

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On May 24, Navlakha was given five minutes in Tihar jail to pack his belongings and rushed to the railway station. A patient of colonic polyposis, chronic gastritis and high blood pressure, Navlakha was taken by train to Mumbai where his BP, when checked, had crossed 200/100, Navlakha told his partner, Sehba Hussain.

On arrival, he was produced before a special NIA court and remanded to judicial custody till June 22.

Since the agency, through the SG, claimed on May 27 that all necessary legal procedures were followed while shifting him to Mumbai, the high court said it wanted to hear NIA investigating officer in Mumbai, Vikram Khalate, at noon through video conferencing about the urgency which which the shift was effected.

“While ordinarily this court would not see too much cause for hurry in this case,” the judge said, “in view of the inexplicable, frantic hurry shown by the NIA in moving the applicant from Delhi to Mumbai while this matter was pending and the NIA had itself sought time to file status report, this court does get a sense that all proceedings in this jurisdiction would be rendered utterly infructuous if an element of of urgency is not brought to bear on the present proceedings.”

While Mehta asked that the time be fixed for 1 pm as he had some prior commitment, he finally did not appear when the hearing reconvened. In his place, additional solicitor general Aman Lekhi was present in the court on behalf of the government, aside from Khalate through video conferencing from Mumbai.

Khalate “confirm[ed] that there is no date fixed before the trial court for further proceedings in the main matter,” but as an explanation for the hurry in shifting Navlakha to Mumbai, said he “had moved an application before the principal district judge for issuance of production warrants on May 23 (Saturday) which came to be listed before the special judge (NIA), Mumbai, on May 24 (Sunday) on which date the court issued [the] production warrant for the applicant for 11 am on May 26.”

The court has asked Khalate to file an affidavit on June 3, the next date of hearing, on what his responses were to the court’s queries. It has also directed him to file “a complete copy of the proceedings” related to Navlakha’s production in the NIA court in Mumbai including his medical reports on reaching Mumbai and before embarking on the train journey at Tihar.