“Hope rests on speedy and fair trial”: Gautam Navlakha’s letter before surrender

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As the Supreme Court’s week-long notice comes to an end today, human rights activist and journalist Gautam Navlakha is set to surrender to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), with hope for “a speedy and fair trial for himself and other co-accused in the case.”

Navlakha and another social activist Anand Teltumbde have been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for their alleged involvement in Bhima-Koregaon riots in January 2018. The case was earlier handled by Pune Police but was transferred to the NIA last year.

Before surrendering, in a statement, Navlakha has said that only a speedy and fair-trial will enable him to clear his name from the case and walk free. “Draconian provisions of UAPA 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,” said Navlakha. “Under this double whammy, jail becomes the norm, and bail an exception. In this Kafkaesque domain, process itself becomes punishment.”

Navlakha has been associated with the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, a Delhi-based civil rights’ group, and the Mumbai-based Economic and Political Weekly for several decades. He is also known for his support for human rights issues in Kashmir.

He also said that he felt disappointed when the apex court didn’t mention COVID-19 pandemic in its last order on 8 April. He added that the court had itself recently intervened in the matter of jail conditions, and issued guidelines to the authorities regarding the threat to jail inmates due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

Many social activists and intellectuals, including historian Romila Thapar, economists Prabhat Patnaik and Devaki Jain, sociologist Satish Deshpande and legal expert Maja Daruwala, also wrote to Chief Justice of India, S.A. Bobde, seeking his urgent intervention into the arrests of Navlakha and Teltumbde.

In their recent letter, they have appealed to the CJI to “restore public confidence in our constitution and the civil liberties that it guarantees to all citizens.”

Here is the full text of Navlakha’s statement:

As I prepare to Ieave to surrender before the NIA headquarters in Delhi I am glad that Justice Arun Mishra and Justice Indira Banerjee gave me another week of freedom when they passed the order on April 8, 2020. A week of freedom means a lot in my condition, even in the age of lockdown. Their order resolved the predicament I encountered in complying with the March 16th order of the apex court, which obliged me to surrender by April 6th before the NIA, Mumbai. The lockdown that followed prevented me from travelling. Also there was no direction from NIA (Mumbai) regarding what I should do under the circumstances. I know now that I have to surrender myself to the NIA Head quarters in Delhi.

The Indian Prime Minister has likened the challenge posed by Covid19 pandemic to a state of “national emergency”. Meanwhile the apex court itself recently intervened in the matter of jail conditions, and issued guidelines to the authorities regarding the overcrowding of jail inmates and the threat posed to the prisoners and detenues, jail staff and other personnel assigned jail duties. This concern remains although no case of Covid19 infection has come from any jail so far, somewhat reassuring for me. However, I am affected by the fear that my near and dear ones harbour about my captivity amidst Covid19.

I cannot help but feel disappointed that the terse order of the Supreme Court on 8th April had no reference to the Covid19 pandemic, which has overtaken the world, including all of us in India.

However, I can now begin to face the actual legal process, which accompanies cases where provisions of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act are invoked. Such Acts turn the normal jurisprudence upside down. No longer is it the axiom that ‘a person is innocent unless proven guilty’. In fact, under such Acts, ‘an accused is guilty unless proven innocent’.

Draconian provisions of UAPA 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.

My hope rests on a speedy and fair trial for myself and all my fellow co-accused. This alone will enable me to clear my name, and walk free, having also used the time in jail to rid myself of acquired habits.

Until then,

“Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom

‘Cause all I ever have

Redemption songs

Redemption songs.

These songs of Freedom……” (Bob Marley

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