The court’s logic for favouring bail in religious hate crimes will help heighten the existing communal bias of state agencies.
Proceedings in Justice Mridula Bhatkar’s courtroom at Bombay High Court are conducted briskly, even brusquely. A speedy pace of case disposal leaves scant cause for complaint due to delay.
However, one of the cases disposed in January 2017 has been the subject of much comment and criticism by the legal fraternity and other sections of civil society. A group of lawyers from Pune has even petitioned the Chief Justice of the court to take suo-moto cognisance and quash the order, which they feel gives sufficient ground for doubting the court’s religious impartiality.
Bail is welcome, but crimes claiming religious provocation cannot be entitled for favoured treatment
The court had granted bail, an act normally worth commending in a country where courts often do not implement the principle of “bail not jail” laid down 40 years ago by the Supreme Court. It was not the fact of grant of bail but the reasoning given by the court that was at issue.
The accused were three persons of the Hindu Rashtra Sena, charged with the murder of a Muslim engineer, Mohsin Shaikh. It was in the nature of a hate crime, with the religion of the deceased being the only reason for his killing. However Justice Bhatkar’s reasoning was that the religious motivation for the crime was a factor in favour of the accused, which entitled them to bail.
To quote the order,
“The applicants/accused otherwise had no other motive such as any personal enmity against the innocent deceased Mohsin. The fault of the deceased was only that he belonged to another religion. I consider this factor in favour of the applicants/accused. Moreover, the applicants/accused do not have criminal record and it appears that in the name of the religion, they were provoked and have committed the murder. Under such circumstances, I allow the Bail Applications.”
The court thus quite clearly seems to lay down that those murder accused who have religious hate motives against the person/s they have killed deserve more favourable consideration than accused having personal enmity motives. It also suggests that being provoked to murder in the name of religion can be claimed as a mitigating factor.
Unconstitutional and perverse reasoning
The logic of this judgment has come in for all-round criticism, with former Supreme Court Justice PB Sawant even calling it unconstitutional, as it went “against the principles of secularism as well as equality”. He even argued that under such perverse reasoning one would also have to release jihadis accused of murdering people on the ground of religion.
There is however scant possibility of Justice Bhatkar applying her logic of religious provocation in the reverse direction – where the accused is Muslim. She in fact had, during her stint in the Bombay sessions court, faced protests of bias from the Muslim accused in the 2006 train blasts case.
They had even demanded that their case be transferred to another judge as they believed she was influenced by her husband Ramesh Bhatkar, who was purportedly linked to underworld don Chhota Rajan, known for several murders of lawyers and accused in terror cases.
Going by the trend in bail in cases concerning Muslim terror accused, the possibility of the Bhatkar judgment being of use to them to attain liberty is remote. The bias in the criminal justice system against Muslims framed as terrorists has been well documented in books such as Kafkaland and Framed as a Terrorist. The latter is the story of Amir Khan who had to spend 14 years in Tihar jail before being set free.
Jurisprudential opening for hate crime perpetrators to escape punishment
The real danger of this judgment lies in the jurisprudential opening it gives to those in the criminal justice system who are already using all present loopholes to ensure that Hindutva-inspired perpetrators of hate and terror crimes escape punishment.
Maya Kodnani, convicted of mass murder of over 90 Muslims during the Gujarat riots, is roaming free after serving less than two years of a 28-year sentence; her co-accused Babu Bajrangi has, in the space of just four years of his sentence, been released on temporary bail 14 times for periods extending from seven days to three months.
During the weeks after the Bhatkar judgment, the Bombay High Court was witness to repeated attempts by the NIA (National Investigation Agency) to facilitate bail for terror accused Sadhvi Pragya. The agency first gave a “no objection” to her bail plea and then dubiously claimed ignorance regarding crucial evidence against the accused.
They are only continuing along a path made clear when they moved to shunt out special public prosecutor Rohini Salian from this case, when she refused to play ball with their plan to go soft on the terror accused.
The NIA policy of softness towards such accused has already notched up its first “victory” on February 1, 2017, with the complete acquittal of Sadhvi Pragya and all her co-accused in a murder case in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh.
The NIA blatantly contradicted the earlier police evidence that implicated the Sadhvi and her group. “The contradictory evidences by the police and NIA in the case raised serious doubts in the whole case,” is what the additional sessions judge observed, leaving him no option but to acquit the accused.
Deeper malaise of religious bias of the Indian state
As has been pointed out earlier in these columns, these moves are emblematic of a deeper malaise of the religious bias of the Indian state. Thus far many judges, at both the lower and higher levels, have refused to cooperate with the designs of the investigative and prosecuting agencies. The Bhatkar judgment provides just the judicial opportunity that such agencies have been waiting for.
Faizan Mustafa, vice chancellor NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, has, while drawing attention to the shocking and dangerous way in which the order rewrites the jurisprudence of provocation, naively suggested that it be used to rewrite “our law on bail… to make bail a rule, jail an exception”.
But the harsh reality of long years of bail resistance of the courts, despite extreme overcrowding of jails with undertrials, does not indicate a possibility of liberal change anytime soon.
Rather, there is a distinct possibility of other courts selectively advancing along the jurisprudential direction indicated by Bhatkar, to provide succour to those involved in similarly inspired hate and terror attacks. The devilish consequences for our society and polity can well be imagined.
Justice Bhatkar is a published poet. Her collection of poems Kavita Manatlya- Kavita Courtatlya (poems from heart, poems from the court) was released last year. One of her “poems from the court” is Nirnay (ruling).
In it she asks, “Tula maahit aahe ka?/Nikaal zari tujha asla tari nirnay maajha asto/Krus zari tujha asla/tari khaanda maajha asto (Do you know? The decision may affect you, but it’s always “my” ruling/The cross may be yours to bear/ But the shoulder’s always mine.)
It will need more than strong shoulders to bear the cross of this ruling.
By Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves