The judicial intervention

Published : Nov 11, 2000 00:00 IST

THE Supreme Court concluded its hearings in the "Veerappan associates" release case, on October 31, a month after it began, and reserved its order, leaving unanswered the question of how to secure the safe release of Rajkumar and Nagesh from Veerappan's custody without appearing to succumb to his demands. The Bench, comprising Justice S.P. Bharucha, Justice D.P. Mohapatra and Justice Y.K. Sabharwal, said that their prima facie conclusion that the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu had acted in panic without thinking about the repercussions stood reinforced. They again castigated the two State governments for their inability to apprehend the bandit for more than a decade.

The Bench was hearing the appeals challenging the August 19 order of the Designated Court, Mysore, giving consent to the special public prosecutor (PP) to withdraw the TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act) charges against 51 persons suspected of having links with Veerappan. The Mysore Judge's August 28 order directing their release on bail is under challenge in the appeals filed by a retired Deputy Superintendent of Police, Abdul Karim, father of a Sub-Inspector, Shakeel Ahmed, who was killed in August 1992, allegedly by Veerappan.

Related public interest petitions from B.L. Wadhera, advocate, and one Adarsh Ganesh were also before the court.

In its interim order on August 29, the Supreme Court disallowed the release of the Veerappan associates on bail or otherwise pending further orders from the court. The order also restrained the Tamil Nadu government from releasing from jail five detenus, held under TADA and the National Security Act (NSA). Veerappan had demanded their release. Even though the State governments can, under Section 321 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), withdraw prosecution in the public interest, they should explai n the rationale of such a step in accordance with the guidelines framed in the Supreme Court's judgments earlier.

It is this aspect which is now before the court. The court said it was principally concerned with the way the PP made the application (under Section 321 of the CrPC) and how the designated court had allowed the dropping of the TADA charges without applyi ng its mind to find out whether the PP was satisfied with primary documents and material shown to him by the government. Prima facie, the Bench felt that the applications made by the PPs (both in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) gave "no primary material to produce a valid order" (by the courts concerned).

Can the court go into the legality of the State governments' decision to negotiate with Veerappan to secure the release the hostages? Responding to the submission of Kirit N. Rawal, the Additional Solicitor-General appearing for the Centre, that the cour t might not do so, the Bench pointed out that while it was not concerned with those aspects, it could look into the manner in which the applications under Section 321 of the CrPC were made. "We would be dishonest if we didn't say briefly what we have see n," the Bench said.

Solicitor-General Harish Salve, in response to a query, clarified to the Bench that the Karnataka government had decided to drop the TADA charges against the accused in custody and also those who were absconding, including Veerappan. This is a significan t revelation, as it begs the question whether Veerappan's conditions included dropping of charges against absconding accused. Has the Karnataka government decided to pardon Veerappan for all purposes? The Bench, therefore, observed that prima facie the order of the Designated Court in Mysore allowing dropping of charges against Veerappan and his 160 associates was not sustainable under law.

The Centre's role in the entire drama came in for closer scrutiny by the Bench. Raval contended that the Centre could not interfere in matters concerning law and order unless the States asked for it. This was seen as evading a direct reply to the questio n on the steps taken by the Centre for the last 10 years to help the two State governments to nab Veerappan. When Raval explained that it was not as if the Centre was enthusiastic about what had happened, he seemed to hint that the only option available to the Centre was imposition of President's Rule, which he clearly said could not be contemplated. The Bench observed that it was not suggesting anything, but said there were certainly steps which the Centre could take.

"It is very law abiding to say that law and order is a State subject and the Centre cannot interfere. However, in the present case, we have a nucleus of a small pocket of territory which the governments have failed to penetrate. If that is so, it goes be yond the law and order problem as you may see the birth of an independent state within the two States," the Bench observed.

While it seemed the Bench indeed wanted the Centre to play a role, it was not clear how precisely it wanted it to intervene. The Bench also expressed its anguish over reports of Veerappan establishing links with secessionists.

Raval pointed out that if anything happened to Rajkumar, the two States would have to deal with more than a law and order breakdown. The Bench disagreed with his suggestion that the two States could be asked to apply their mind afresh to the situation an d come back to the court.

The court's concern over the soft state syndrome has seriously weakened the case of the 51 TADA detenus, whose release Veerappan is demanding and the Designated Court has approved. These detenus have been in jails for long. They have reportedly decided to stand trial, rather than be swapped for Rajkumar's freedom. The Supreme Court is not against their release per se, but has only pointed out certain procedural irregularities in this process, which have become glaring in the context of Veerappan's dema nds. Therefore, it makes sense for the detenus to keep a distance from Veerappan, and express their disapproval of his pleading their case. The Karnataka government has welcomed the detenus' stand, but can it convince the Supreme Court that the detenus' case for release should be judged independently of Veerappan's demands?

Even if these detenus, who have no terrorist links, are ultimately convicted, they have already completed the prison terms that could be imposed on them as punishment for their alleged offences. Hence, their plea for release can be considered from a hum an angle.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has decided not to intervene in the proceedings of the Supreme Court. The full commission, headed by Chairman J.S. Verma, recently reiterated its stand. Tamil Nationalist Movement leader P. Nedumaran and the t wo human rights activists involved in negotiating with Veerappan had appealed to the NHRC to intervene. In a memorandum to the commission, they had said, "It (NHRC) would be able to highlight the human rights violations that the present case involved and the need to uphold the common order of the TADA court (dropping TADA charges) to enable the detenus' release on bail." If the NHRC impleaded itself in the case, it would give an opportunity to the apex court to allow resumption of the stalled NHRC panel inquiry into human rights violations by the Special Task Force of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, constituted to nab Veerappan. However, the NHRC said "there is no occasion for the commission to seek intervention. Moreover, it is reasonable to assume that the viewpoint of the NHRC is sufficiently well-known and also known to the State governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu."

The commission was approached earlier also, but had declined to intervene, saying the case was pending in the Supreme Court and was also before the Karnataka High Court.

The NHRC added a caveat: "There is no material available to us to indicate, nor the media reports give any such indication that either or both of the State governments have relied on the viewpoint of the NHRC for the purpose of deciding to withdraw the p rosecution against the 51 detenues."

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