The grant of bail to the 82-year-old Telugu poet and activist, Varavara Rao, on medical grounds is a welcome relief to at least one of those arraigned in the controversial Bhima-Koregaon case under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The Supreme Court has rightly ignored the arguments on behalf of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that age is not a factor in considering grant of bail for one involved in an attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government and that his medical condition is not serious enough. It cannot be forgotten that tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy, another octogenarian who was arrested in the same case, died of poor health even while his petition for bail on health grounds was being heard. In Mr. Rao’s case, he was taken into custody in August 2018 and granted interim bail for six months on health grounds in February 2021. The Bombay High Court had set a date for him to return to custody after treatment, but it has been extended from time to time. Having regard to his age, the Supreme Court has now removed the time limit and given him regular bail, albeit with the conditions that he stay in Mumbai and not to get in touch with witnesses. The Court has also taken note of the fact that the charge sheet has been filed in the case, but the trial court is yet to frame charges. Further, there is no claim that he misused the interim bail in any way.
The options of an accused to get bail under UAPA are largely limited to health grounds, because bail on merits is nearly impossible to get. Under this law, the accused have to demonstrate that the allegations made against them in the police version is, prima facie, not true. This onerous condition is not easy to fulfil, especially after the Supreme Court in NIA vs Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali ruled that while considering bail, the court should not go deep into the material against a person and must decide whether the prosecution case was true “based on the broad probabilities” of the case. However, the Supreme Court has indeed got around this limitation by treating any long delay in holding the trial and violation of fundamental rights as grounds to grant bail even in UAPA cases. The Bhima Koregaon case is an off-shoot of disturbances that took place during a commemorative event on December 31, 2017, in Pune. It was used to rope in lawyers and activists and build a case of an alleged Maoist plot to overthrow the government. There are credible reports that electronic evidence in the case could have been planted using spyware to implicate the accused. It is time the courts examined the core question whether the case itself is tenable or one fabricated to corner some activists. The judiciary should not countenance the prolonged incarceration of anyone in a case of doubtful validity.