Books Should Have Been Considered Essential Commodities for Prisoners During COVID: HC on Gautam Navlakha's Plea

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New Delhi: While dismissing rights activist Gautam Navlakha’s plea for house arrest on Tuesday, the Bombay high court observed that books should have been considered an essential commodity for prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic. Navlakha, an accused in the Elgar Parishad case, had sought to be placed under house custody instead of being lodged in prison.

A division bench of Justices S.B. Shukre and G.A. Sanap held that his grievances and apprehensions about lack of medical aid and basic facilities at the Taloja prison in Navi Mumbai, where he is currently lodged, are “ill-founded”.

The Supreme Court has laid down in past cases that undertrial prisoners can be placed under house arrest depending on the allegations against them, their age, health condition and several other factors, the judges said.

Navlakha’s case did not meet any of the criteria, the high court added.

“The petitioner has stated that Taloja prison is overcrowded. The conditions and environment of Taloja Central prison is not compatible to the health of the petitioner….The case of the petitioner does not fit in any of the criteria (provided by SC). The apprehension of the petitioner that he will not be provided medical aid and his life will be miserable in unhygienic conditions and atmosphere of the prison, seems to be ill-founded,” the high court said.

The court also said that Navlakha should have approached the special NIA court first. “It is seen that the petitioner without making a grievance before the learned Presiding Officer of the Special NIA Court, has come before this Court. If the petitioner had made a grievance or a request to the learned Presiding Officer of the Special NIA Court and if the same had not been considered, in that event, he would have been justified in making grievance and asserting his rights before this Court,” the bench said.

Navlakha (70) approached the high court earlier this year through his lawyer Yug Mohit Chaudhry, complaining about poor facilities at the Taloja prison. He was denied a chair, pair of slippers, spectacles and a P.G. Wodehouse book by the prison superintendent, he said.

The high court too noted that the denial of the book was unfair. “…we find that outright rejection of a parcel containing book by a humorist on such a ground was not proper. Covid pandemic was a period of distress, isolation and nervousness for most of the people, and more so for the jail inmates. During such terrible times, nothing more could have provided solace to a jail inmate than a book of his choice,” the judges said, according to Bar and Bench.

“If Covid protocol demanded rejection of outside parcel, the jail authorities were required to apply the rule not only generally but also with all it’s exceptions…exceptions to general rule permitted acceptance of essential items from out-side, like grocery, vegetables, toiletries, medicines etc. subject to procedure of sanitation. In Covid times the books also could have been looked upon as essential commodities, just like medicines and hence worthy of acceptance,” the order continued.

Prison toilets were dirty and his health deteriorated in jail, Navlakha claimed. His lawyer argued that Navlakha had no criminal antecedents, had cooperated with the police and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and there was no risk that he would abscond, so his was a fit case for house custody. But Taloja prison authorities disagreed with Navlakha’s claims about lack of facilities.

The Maharashtra government told the high court that Navlakha was lodged in a high-security cell where he was the only inmate. Inmates of high-security cells are responsible for cleaning the toilet themselves, it added.

The high court in its order on Tuesday said the activist has the right to seek basic facilities in prison, but he should have raised his grievances before the special NIA court which is hearing the Elgar Parishad case.

Earlier this month, while denying co-accused Varavara Rao permanent bail on medical grounds, the high court had issued several directions to the Inspector General of Prisons, asking the authority to deal with grievances regarding medical aid and basic facilities. Implementation of the orders in Rao’s case should take care of Navlakha’s problems too, the judges said.

On Navlakha’s argument that trial in the case was not likely to begin anytime soon, the high court said, “It is not that the NIA is dragging its feet. It has come on record that the conspiracy is deep-rooted and, therefore, despite filing of the charge-sheet the investigation is being conducted.”

The NIA had also opposed Navlakha’s plea, arguing that house custody would lead to difficulties such as the inability to prevent him from using social media. It was common knowledge that India is a crowded nation and Mumbai is overcrowded, hence the Taloja jail being overcrowded was not an adequate reason to grant house arrest, the central probe agency had said.

Navlakha, a human rights activist and former secretary of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, was initially placed under house arrest after being taken into custody in August 2018. He was moved to the Taloja jail in April 2020, after a Supreme Court order.

(With PTI inputs)