The Bombay High Court on Thursday granted bail to a tribal rights activist Mahesh Raut who is an accused in the 2018 Elgar Parishad - Bhima Koregaon riots case observing that the “incriminating material” shown by the NIA does not in any manner “prima-facie” show that he has committed or indulge in a “terrorist act” as contemplated under Section 15 of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
A division bench of Justices AS Gadkari and Sharmila Deshmukh said that after taking into consideration the totality of entire material and evidence on record against Raut, “at the most” it can be said that he is a member of Communist Party of India (Maoist) [CPI (M)] and therefore it would attract provisions of Sections 13 (Punishment for unlawful activities) and 38 (Offence relating to membership of a terrorist organisation) of UAPA.
NIA to challenge the order
The high court, however, stayed the order for a week on a request by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to challenge the same before the Supreme Court.
Sixteen activists have been arrested in the case of which five are currently out on bail.
Raut is the sixth person to get bail in the Bhima Koregaon case after Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Anand Teltumbde, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira. Rao is out on medical bail. Another accused Gautam Navlakha is placed under house arrest as per Supreme Court orders.
Raut approached the High Court after a special NIA court rejected his bail plea in November 2021.
Raut, who was arrested on June 6, 2018, is a former fellow of the prestigious Prime Minister’s Rural Development Programme and worked with the Gadchiroli Collector. He graduated from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 2011 after which he did a fellowship on conflict zones.
Senior Advocate Mihir Desai and Advocate Vijay Hiremath, appearing for Raut, sought bail on the grounds of parity with co-accused Anand Teltumbde, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves. They argued that Raut had spent over 5 years in custody and the trial was yet to begin.
The court noted that the three main allegations against Raut are being a member of the banned organisation, recruiting persons in the said organisation and handling/ transferring funds of organisation to co-accused.
Additional Solicitor General Devang Vyas with Advocate Sandesh Patil, appearing for the NIA, opposed Raut’s bail on the ground that acts allegedly committed by Raut were against the society. They also submitted evidence which allegedly showed that the CPI (M) had given Raut Rs Five lakh along with co-accused Surendra Gadling and Sudhir Dhawale.
The court remarked, that taking the allegation at the face value, there is no corroboration to it. It does not make Raut “recipient of it (money), for want of basic corroboration for it”, it added.
The NIA submitted a list of central committee members of CPI (M) Group which mentioned one Katkam Sudarshan @ Anand @ Mahesh @ Bhaskar appears as Central Committee and Polit Bureau Member of CPI (M).
“Prima-facie therefore it can be said that the name ‘Mahesh’ in the said letter is a disputed identity of the said person (Mahesh Raut),” the court underlined.
Court dismisses NIA's argument
The court also dismissed the NIA argument that he recruited persons for the CPI (M). It said: “No evidence of any of the persons who are alleged to have been recruited or have joined the organisation through the Appellant has been produced on record and brought before us and therefore we are unable to prima-facie accept the contention of Respondent-NIA,” the judges said.
“From the material on record it appears to us that no covert or overt terrorist act has been attributed to the Appellant,” the court said adding that the communications seized from the computers of co-accused are in the nature of “hearsay”, as far as Raut is concerned.
Section 13 of UAPA provides for a maximum of 7 years in prison and Section 38 provides for a term not exceeding 10 years.
Raut has been behind bars for more than five years and three months and there are no criminal antecedents.
Hence the court directed his release on bail.