That said, safeguarding of individual liberties and judicial protection against political vendetta through state action can’t be selective.
Indeed, Kapil Sibal, who represented Maharashtra in the Goswami case, told SC that when he brought Kappan’s case to SC to ask for bail, it told him to go to the lower court; SC did not respond to Sibal’s statement.
The interim bail granted to Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami in an ‘abetment to suicide’ case is a step in the right direction. Republic TV’s and Goswami’s ‘journalism’ is undoubtedly corrosive, given how people are proclaimed guilty even before the due probe/judicial processes have been completed, but his arrest smacked of political vendetta. More important, bail for Goswami is a reinforcement of ‘bail, not jail’ being the guiding principle for the judicial system.
Indeed, while the bench comprising Justices Indira Banerjee and DY Chandrachud wrote in the bail order that the Bombay High Court “was in error in rejecting the application for grant of interim bail”, Chandrachud had observed that the SC “is unhappy that HCs, which are constitutional courts, are not doing enough in matters where personal liberty is denied … if this court were not to interfere today, we are travelling on a path of destruction of personal liberty undeniably … If state govt’s target individuals in this manner, let’s send out a message that SC is there”.
That said, safeguarding of individual liberties and judicial protection against political vendetta through state action can’t be selective. So, bail for Goswami should also mean bail for other journalists jailed under flimsy pretexts. Indeed, the Editors Guild of India, against the backdrop of Goswami’s arrest, had written to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath calling for the state to uphold press freedom—Adityanath had been one of the many BJP leaders who had come out vocally in support of Goswami after his arrest. The UP police had arrested Siddique Kappan, a Delhi-based journalist working for a Malayalam news portal, when he was on his way to Hathras to report on the alleged rape-murder of a Dalit girl. He is facing charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act that provides for some of the most draconian incarceration powers available to the government. He has been in jail since early October. Indeed, Kapil Sibal, who represented Maharashtra in the Goswami case, told SC that when he brought Kappan’s case to SC to ask for bail, it told him to go to the lower court; SC did not respond to Sibal’s statement.
The SC/ST Atrocities Act has been invoked by the UP government against Supriya Sharma, executive editor of Scroll.in, for reporting on the poor state of affairs in Varanasi, the PM’s parliamentary constituency. Others have been booked for reporting on mismanagement at a Covid-19 isolation centre and even the failure of the mid-day meal scheme in certain areas in the state. Odisha booked defence commentator Abhijit Iyer Mitra for ‘offending sentiments of the people’ over something that was clearly in a lighter vein. Close to 70% of prisoners in India’s overcrowded jails are under-trials, as per data from the National Crime Records Bureau. This and serious under-staffing in jails (just about 70% of the sanctioned posts are occupied in Indian prisons) make for a deadly cocktail for prison administration in India. The government—states and the Centre—will simply be exacerbating this problem, if bail is not made the norm.