By K Raveendran
The Supreme Court of India has added very little to its credibility by holding a special sitting on a most uncommon Saturday morning and setting aside the Bombay High Court order for the release of human rights activist G N Saibaba, the wheel-chair bound former Delhi University professor, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017 for alleged Maoist connections.
Special sittings are held only in exceptional cases when any delay will result is miscarriage of justice, such as infringement of personal liberty, or situations involving constitutional dilemmas such as the holding of trust vote in a state assembly, which could not have waited for the next regular sitting of the court. But in the case of Prof Saibaba’s release, the special sitting was held to facilitate the infringement of his personal liberty rather than the opposite.
The circumstances under which the special sitting was called for an off-day of the court in the instant case does raise doubts. Within hours of the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court issuing the order on Friday for the acquittal of Prof Saibaba and five others, the Maharashtra government approached the Supreme Court for a stay, which was refused by a bench comprising Justice D Y Chandrachud, who has since been appointed the Chief Justice, and Justice Hima Kohli. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared on behalf of the Maharashtra government, had sought an early listing for Monday morning. While rejecting the plea for stay, the bench, however, agreed for the Monday listing.
But curiously, later in the day the Supreme Court registry listed the appeal to be taken up for hearing on Saturday, otherwise a holiday for the court, by a bench comprising Justices M R Shah and Bela M Trivedi, as if the delay till Monday would have led to serious consequences for national security or miscarriage of justice. The new bench promptly set aside the Bombay High Court order for acquittal.
Prof Saibaba and his five co-accused had been charged with involvement with the activities of the banned organisations CPI (Maoist) and Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), a known Maoist front. They were arrested between 2013 and 2014. According to police, many documents, a hard disk and pen drives were seized from Saibaba’s residence. The professor was granted bail by the Bombay High Court on health grounds in May 2015. He was jailed again before being granted bail by the Supreme Court in September 2016.In 2017, however, he along with the five others were convicted.
Prof Saibaba’s family has been repeatedly demanding his release on his serious health condition with about 90 percent disability. He was apparently suffering from ‘blood stools’ suggesting that there was bleeding in his digestive tract. His family as well as human rights organisations complained that he was not being given proper treatment.
The Bombay High Court, which acquitted the professor and his co-accused, declared the proceedings of the trial court, which convicted them, as ‘null and void’ and observed that every safeguard, however minuscule, legislatively provided to the accused, must be ‘zealously protected’. The court found that the Maharashtra government had given sanction for action against the human rights activists only after their trial commenced.
It was by stressing on this technicality that the Maharashtra government approached the Supreme Court for the stay, insisting that the decision was not based on the merits of the case and mere technicality. It is not clear how the Supreme Court came to the conclusion that this was a question that could not have waited till the next regular meeting of the court and a special sitting was required to be called on a court holiday.
Supreme Court holding special sittings outside the regular office hours is a rarity. In 2014, the court had held a post-midnight hearing on September 9 and stayed the execution of Nithari serial killer Surinder Koli, who had confessed to killing and eating the flesh of several children at a house in Noida’s Nithari village, after he moved an urgent plea for his review petition to be heard in open court.
On the other hand, in a mid-night hearing in July 2015, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court rejected 1993 Mumbai blasts convict Yakub Memon’s appeal against death sentence just two hours before he was to be hanged. Similarly, the hanging of four Nirbhaya convicts in March 2020 was preceded by an early morning sitting of the Supreme Court, which rejected a plea on behalf of one of the convicts having been a juvenile at the time of committing the crime and threw out an appeal against that decision, all between 2.30 am and 3.15 am when the court upheld the rejection of a second mercy petition by the President.
The Supreme Court had held a rare midnight hearing to consider a plea by Congress to prevent BJP leader B S Yeddyurappa from being sworn in as chief minister on the basis of an invitation from the governor although he did not seem to have the required majority in the house. A three-member bench refused to grant a stay, but the chief minister had to bow out as he failed to muster enough support. Similar cases have now become almost routine for the apex court.
But the grounds on which the court held a special sitting on a Saturday to consider the Maharashtra government appeal against the appeal of Prof Saibaba and others and the favourable decision remain largely unexplained. (IPA Service)