Union Of India vs K.A. Najeeb on 1 February, 2021


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Supreme Court of India

Union Of India vs K.A. Najeeb on 1 February, 2021

Author: Surya Kant

Bench: N.V. Ramana, Surya Kant

                                                                            REPORTABLE


                                   IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA
                                 CRIMINAL APPELLATE JURISDICTION


                                   CRIMINAL APPEAL NO. 98 of 2021
                      [Arising out of Special Leave Petition (Crl.) No. 11616 of 2019]


       Union of India                                                 ..... Appellant (s)
                                               VERSUS
       K.A. Najeeb                                                 ..... Respondent (s)

                                                 ORDER

Surya Kant, J:

Leave Granted.

2. The present appeal has been preferred by the Union of India

through the National Investigation Agency (in short, “NIA”) against an

order dated 23.07.2019 of the High Court of Kerala at Ernakulam,

whereby bail was granted to the respondent for an offence under

Sections 143, 147, 148, 120­B, 341, 427, 323, 324, 326, 506(H), 201,

202, 153A, 212, 307, 149 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (“IPC”),

Section 3 of the Explosive Substances Act, 1908 and Sections 16, 18,

18­B, 19 and 20 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967

(“UAPA”).

Signature Not Verified

Digitally signed by
Vishal Anand
Date: 2021.02.01
18:21:30 IST
Reason:

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FACTS

3. The prosecution case in brief is that one Professor TJ Joseph

while framing the Malayalam question paper for the second semester

B.Com. examination at the Newman College, Thodupuzha, had

included a question which was considered objectionable against a

particular religion by certain sections of society. The respondent in

association with other members of the Popular Front of India (PFI),

decided to avenge this purported act of blasphemy. On 04.07.2010 at

about 8AM, a group of people with a common object, attacked the

victim­professor while he was returning home with his mother and

sister after attending Sunday mass at a local Church. Over the course

of the attack, members of the PFI forcefully intercepted the victim’s

car, restrained him and chopped­off his right palm with choppers,

knives, and a small axe. Country­made bombs were also hurled at

bystanders to create panic and terror in their minds and to prevent

them from coming to the aid of the victim. An FIR was consequently

lodged against the attackers by the victim­professor’s wife under

Sections 143, 147, 148, 120­B, 341, 427, 323, 324, 326, 506(H), 307,

149 of IPC; and Section 3 of Explosive Substances Act.

4. It emerged over the course of investigation that the attack was

part of a larger conspiracy involving meticulous pre­planning,

numerous failed attempts and use of dangerous weapons. Accordingly,

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several dozen persons including the present respondent were

arraigned by the police. It was alleged that the respondent was one of

the main conspirators and the provisions contained in Sections 153A,

201, 202, 212 of IPC, along with Section 16, 18, 18­B, 19 and 20 of

the UAPA were also thus invoked against him. However, owing to him

being untraceable, the respondent was declared an absconder and his

trial was split up from the rest of his co­conspirators. The co­accused

of the respondent were tried and most of them were found guilty by

the Special Court, NIA vide order dated 30.04.2015 and were awarded

cumulative sentence ranging between two and eight­years’ rigorous

imprisonment.

5. The respondent could be arrested on 10.04.2015 only and a

chargesheet was re­filed by the National Investigation Agency against

him, pursuant to which the respondent is now facing trial. The

respondent approached the Special Court and the High Court for bail

as many as six times between 2015 and 2019, seeking leniency on

grounds of his limited role in the offence and claiming parity with

other co­accused who had been enlarged on bail or acquitted. Save for

the impugned order, bail was declined to the respondent, observing

that prima facie he had prior knowledge of the offence, had assisted

and facilitated the attack, arranged vehicle and SIM cards, himself

waited near the place of occurrence, transported the perpetrators,

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sheltered, and medically assisted them afterwards. The Courts were,

therefore, of the view that the bar against grant of bail under Section

43­D (5) of the UAPA was attracted.

6. The respondent again approached the High Court in May, 2019

for the third time, questioning the Special Court’s order denying bail.

The High Court through the impugned order, released the respondent

on bail noting that the trial was yet to begin though the respondent

had been in custody for four years. Placing emphasis on the mandate

for an expeditious trial under the National Investigation Agency Act,

2008, the High Court held that the undertrial­respondent could not be

kept in custody for too long when the trial was not likely to commence

in the near future, for not doing so would cause serious prejudice and

suffering to him. The operation of the aforementioned bail order was,

however, stayed by this Court. Resultantly, the respondent has spent

nearly five years and five months in judicial custody.

CONTENTIONS

7. Learned Additional Solicitor General, for the appellant, argued

that the High Court erred in granting bail without adverting to the

statutory rigours of Section 43­D(5) of UAPA. Relying upon judgment

in National Investigation Agency v. Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali 1,

it was highlighted that bail proceedings under the special enactment

were distinct and the Courts are duty­bound to refuse bail where the
1
(2019) 5 SCC 1.

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suspect is prima facie believed to be guilty. It was further contended

that in numerous prior rounds before the Special Court and the High

Court, there emerged enough reasons to believe that the respondent

was, prima facie, guilty of the accusations made against him. The fact

that the respondent had absconded for years was pressed into aid as

legitimate apprehension of his not returning if set free. As regard to

the early conclusion of trial, NIA has filed an additional affidavit

suggesting to examine 276 witnesses and at the same time expecting

to conduct the trial on a day­to­day basis and complete it within

around a year.

8. Learned Senior Counsel appearing for the respondent, on the

other hand, highlighted that many of the co­accused had been

acquitted, and although a few had been convicted as well, but those

convicts had also been awarded a sentence of not more than eight

years. Given how the respondent has already suffered incarceration of

almost five­and­a­half years without the trial having even started, it

would violate his Constitutional liberty and rights to have him serve

most of his sentence without any adjudication of guilt by a judicial

authority. He urged that once the High Court had exercised discretion

to grant bail, the same ought not to be interfered with except in rare

circumstances. Relying upon Shaheen Welfare Association v. Union

Page | 5
of India2 and Hussain v. Union of India,3 it was argued that such

protracted incarceration violates the respondent’s right to speedy trial

and access to justice; in which case, Constitutional Courts could

exercise their powers to grant bail, regardless of limitations specified

under special enactments.

ANALYSIS

9. It must be emphasised at the outset that there is a vivid

distinction between the parameters to be applied while considering a

bail application, vis­à­vis those applicable while deciding a petition for

its cancellation. In Puran v. Rambilas4, it was re­iterated that at the

time of deciding an application for bail, it would be necessary to record

reasons, albeit without evaluating the evidence on merits. In turn,

Puran (supra) cited Gurcharan Singh v. State (Delhi Admn.)5;

wherein this Court observed that bail once granted by the trial Court,

could be cancelled by the same Court only in case of new

circumstances/evidence, failing which, it would be necessary to

approach the Higher Court exercising appellate jurisdiction.

10. In State of Bihar v. Rajballav Prasad6, this Court ruled that

deference must be given to the discretion exercised by Superior Courts

2
(1996) 2 SCC 616.

3

(2017) 5 SCC 702.

4

(2001) 6 SCC 338.

5

(1978) 1 SCC 118.

6

(2017) 2 SCC 178.

Page | 6
in matters of bail, save for exceptional circumstances. The afore­cited

decision holds as follows:

“14. We may observe at the outset that we are conscious of the
limitations which bind us while entertaining a plea against
grant of bail by the lower court, that too, which is a superior
court like High Court. It is expected that once the discretion
is exercised by the High Court on relevant considerations
and bail is granted, this Court would normally not
interfere with such a discretion, unless it is found that
the discretion itself is exercised on extraneous
considerations and/or the relevant factors which need to
be taken into account while exercising such a discretion
are ignored or bypassed. … There have to be very cogent
and overwhelming circumstances that are necessary to
interfere with the discretion in granting the bail. These
material considerations are also spelled out in the
aforesaid judgments viz. whether the accused would be
readily available for his trial and whether he is likely to
abuse the discretion granted in his favour by tampering
with the evidence. …”
(emphasis supplied)

11. It is a fact that the High Court in the instant case has not

determined the likelihood of the respondent being guilty or not, or

whether rigours of Section 43­D(5) of UAPA are alien to him. The High

Court instead appears to have exercised its power to grant bail owing

to the long period of incarceration and the unlikelihood of the trial

being completed anytime in the near future. The reasons assigned by

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the High Court are apparently traceable back to Article 21 of our

Constitution, of course without addressing the statutory embargo

created by Section 43­D (5) of UAPA.

12. The High Court’s view draws support from a batch of decisions of

this Court, including in Shaheen Welfare Association (supra),

laying down that gross delay in disposal of such cases would justify

the invocation of Article 21 of the Constitution and consequential

necessity to release the undertrial on bail. It would be useful to quote

the following observations from the cited case:

“10. Bearing in mind the nature of the crime and the need to
protect the society and the nation, TADA has prescribed in
Section 20(8) stringent provisions for granting bail. Such
stringent provisions can be justified looking to the
nature of the crime, as was held in Kartar Singh
case [(1994) 3 SCC 569 : 1994 SCC (Cri) 899] , on the
presumption that the trial of the accused will take place
without undue delay. No one can justify gross delay in
disposal of cases when undertrials perforce remain in
jail, giving rise to possible situations that may justify
invocation of Article 21.”
(emphasis supplied)

13. Even in the case of special legislations like the Terrorist and

Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987 or the Narcotic Drugs and

Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 (“NDPS”) which too have somewhat

rigorous conditions for grant of bail, this Court in Paramjit Singh v.

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State (NCT of Delhi)7, Babba alias Shankar Raghuman Rohida v.

State of Maharashtra8 and Umarmia alias Mamumia v. State of

Gujarat9 enlarged the accused on bail when they had been in jail for

an extended period of time with little possibility of early completion of

trial. The constitutionality of harsh conditions for bail in such special

enactments, has thus been primarily justified on the touchstone of

speedy trials to ensure the protection of innocent civilians.

14. We may also refer to the orders enlarging similarly­situated

accused under the UAPA passed by this Court in Angela Harish

Sontakke v. State of Maharashtra10. That was also a case under

Sections 10, 13, 17, 18, 18A, 18B, 20, 21, 38, 39 and 40(2) of the

UAPA. This Court in its earnest effort to draw balance between the

seriousness of the charges with the period of custody suffered and the

likely period within which the trial could be expected to be completed

took note of the five years’ incarceration and over 200 witnesses left to

be examined, and thus granted bail to the accused notwithstanding

Section 43­D(5) of UAPA. Similarly, in Sagar Tatyaram Gorkhe v.

State of Maharashtra11, an accused under the UAPA was enlarged

for he had been in jail for four years and there were over 147
7
(1999) 9 SCC 252.

8

(2005) 11 SCC 569.

9

(2017) 2 SCC 731.

10

SLP (Crl.) No. 6888 of 2015, Order dated 04.05.2016.
11
SLP (Crl.) No. 7947 of 2015, Order dated 03.01.2017.

Page | 9
witnesses still unexamined.

15. The facts of the instant case are more egregious than these two

above­cited instances. Not only has the respondent been in jail for

much more than five years, but there are 276 witnesses left to be

examined. Charges have been framed only on 27.11.2020. Still

further, two opportunities were given to the appellant­NIA who has

shown no inclination to screen its endless list of witnesses. It also

deserves mention that of the thirteen co­accused who have been

convicted, none have been given a sentence of more than eight years’

rigorous imprisonment. It can therefore be legitimately expected that if

found guilty, the respondent too would receive a sentence within the

same ballpark. Given that two­third of such incarceration is already

complete, it appears that the respondent has already paid heavily for

his acts of fleeing from justice.

16. This Court has clarified in numerous judgments that the liberty

guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution would cover within its

protective ambit not only due procedure and fairness but also access

to justice and a speedy trial. In Supreme Court Legal Aid

Committee Representing Undertrial Prisoners v. Union of India12,

it was held that undertrials cannot indefinitely be detained pending

trial. Ideally, no person ought to suffer adverse consequences of his

acts unless the same is established before a neutral arbiter. However,
12
(1994) 6 SCC 731, ¶ 15.

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owing to the practicalities of real life where to secure an effective trial

and to ameliorate the risk to society in case a potential criminal is left

at large pending trial, Courts are tasked with deciding whether an

individual ought to be released pending trial or not. Once it is obvious

that a timely trial would not be possible and the accused has suffered

incarceration for a significant period of time, Courts would ordinarily

be obligated to enlarge them on bail.

17. As regard to the judgment in NIA v. Zahoor Ahmad Shah

Watali (supra), cited by learned ASG, we find that it dealt with an

entirely different factual matrix. In that case, the High Court had re­

appreciated the entire evidence on record to overturn the Special

Court’s conclusion of their being a prima facie case of conviction and

concomitant rejection of bail. The High Court had practically

conducted a mini­trial and determined admissibility of certain

evidences, which exceeded the limited scope of a bail petition. This not

only was beyond the statutory mandate of a prima facie assessment

under Section 43­D(5), but it was premature and possibly would have

prejudiced the trial itself. It was in these circumstances that this

Court intervened and cancelled the bail.

18. It is thus clear to us that the presence of statutory restrictions

like Section 43­D (5) of UAPA per­se does not oust the ability of

Constitutional Courts to grant bail on grounds of violation of Part III of

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the Constitution. Indeed, both the restrictions under a Statue as well

as the powers exercisable under Constitutional Jurisdiction can be

well harmonised. Whereas at commencement of proceedings, Courts

are expected to appreciate the legislative policy against grant of bail

but the rigours of such provisions will melt down where there is no

likelihood of trial being completed within a reasonable time and the

period of incarceration already undergone has exceeded a substantial

part of the prescribed sentence. Such an approach would safeguard

against the possibility of provisions like Section 43­D (5) of UAPA

being used as the sole metric for denial of bail or for wholesale breach

of constitutional right to speedy trial.

19. Adverting to the case at hand, we are conscious of the fact that

the charges levelled against the respondent are grave and a serious

threat to societal harmony. Had it been a case at the threshold, we

would have outrightly turned down the respondent’s prayer. However,

keeping in mind the length of the period spent by him in custody and

the unlikelihood of the trial being completed anytime soon, the High

Court appears to have been left with no other option except to grant

bail. An attempt has been made to strike a balance between the

appellant’s right to lead evidence of its choice and establish the

charges beyond any doubt and simultaneously the respondent’s rights

guaranteed under Part III of our Constitution have been well

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protected.

20. Yet another reason which persuades us to enlarge the

Respondent on bail is that Section 43­D(5) of the UAPA is

comparatively less stringent than Section 37 of the NDPS. Unlike the

NDPS where the competent Court needs to be satisfied that prima

facie the accused is not guilty and that he is unlikely to commit

another offence while on bail; there is no such pre­condition under the

UAPA. Instead, Section 43­D (5) of UAPA merely provides another

possible ground for the competent Court to refuse bail, in addition to

the well­settled considerations like gravity of the offence, possibility of

tampering with evidence, influencing the witnesses or chance of the

accused evading the trial by absconsion etc.

CONCLUSION

21. In light of the above discussion, we are not inclined to interfere

with the impugned order. However, we feel that besides the conditions

to be imposed by the trial Court while releasing the respondent, it

would serve the best interest of justice and the society­at­large to

impose some additional conditions that the respondent shall mark his

presence every week on Monday at 10AM at the local police station

and inform in writing that he is not involved in any other new crime.

The respondent shall also refrain from participating in any activity

which might enrage communal sentiments. In case the respondent is

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found to have violated any of his bail conditions or attempted to have

tampered the evidence, influence witnesses, or hamper the trial in any

other way, then the Special Court shall be at liberty to cancel his bail

forthwith. The appeal is accordingly dismissed subject to above­ stated

directions.

…………………………….. J.

(N.V. RAMANA)
…………………………… J.

(SURYA KANT)
……………………………J.

(ANIRUDDHA BOSE)
NEW DELHI
DATED : 01.02.2021

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