MUMBAI: The Bombay High Court on Monday was amused after it was informed that the Taloja prison authorities in Maharashtra refused to hand over a book written by noted English author and humourist P G Wodehouse to human rights activist Gautam Navlakha, arrested in the Elgar Parishad-Maoist links case, citing 'security risk'.
A division bench of Justices S B Shukre and G A Sanap termed the refusal on ground of security threat as "comical".
The court was hearing a petition filed by Navlakha seeking that he be shifted from custody in the Taloja prison in Navi Mumbai to judicial custody in the form of house arrest owing to his advanced age and the host of ailments that he suffers from.
On Monday, Navlakha's advocate Yug Chaudhry lamented the poor condition in the Taloja prison where Navlakha is lodged and said even basic requirements are not being provided with to his client.
"He (Navlakha) was refused a chair to sit on despite suffering from excruciating pain. In the past, his spectacles were stolen and the jail refused to accept the fresh pair of spectacles sent to him by his family."
"Books are being refused. A book by P G Wodehouse, that is considered a humour book, was sent by his family and the jail authorities refused to hand it to him saying it was a 'security risk' twice," Chaudhry said.
The HC then sought to know if the jail's order refusing Wodehouse's book was available.
Chaudhry pointed out to the court the order.
The bench then asked NIA's advocate Sandesh Patil if this was true.
"Is this true? Wodehouse is considered as a security threat? This is really comical. Wodehouse was a source of inspiration for Marathi writer and humourist P L Deshpande," Justice Shukre said.
"This shows the attitude of the jail authorities. It is the job of the NIA, as prosecuting agency, to ensure that the arrested person's life is made comfortable in jail. At least basic needs should be met," Justice Shukre said.
Justice Sanap noted that the jail authorities might be strictly following the jail manual.
The court also expressed anger over absence of Maharashtra government lawyers for the hearing.
"The petition makes specific allegations against the jail authorities and the poor condition of jail. These conditions show complete neglect and justifies his (Navlakha) demand for house arrest but still the state government is not bothered," the court said.
The bench noted that the affidavit filed by the state government has not dealt with the specific allegations made by Navlakha regarding the poor condition of the quarantine ward in the Taloja jail.
"The reply affidavit of the state government prima facie gives us an impression that whatever is alleged by the petitioner might be true. This is further bolstered by the absence of a government lawyer in court when the petitioner's advocate is arguing," the court said.
The bench said it would pass strictures or ask the Advocate General to consider taking action against the erring law officer.
Additional public prosecutor Sangeeta Shinde then appeared in the court and apologized for not being present earlier and urged the bench to not pass any order.
The bench said it would refrain if Shinde would submit a written apology.
The court then posted the matter for further hearing on Tuesday (April 5).
Chaudhry, while concluding his arguments, told the court that Navlakha was 70 years old and no one would benefit if he is kept in jail.
"The charges are yet to be framed in the case. Even if the trial begins it would take years for it to conclude. Why should he (Navlakha) be kept in jail until then with no basic facilities?," Chaudhry asked.
He further told the court that a co-accused in the case - Father Stan Swamy, died while in jail custody.
"Another accused in the case Varavara Rao fortunately got medical bail from the HC or else he too would have met the same fate as Swamy. Navlakha does not want to suffer the same fate as Swamy. He wants to live till he clears his name from this case," Chaudhry said.
Navlakha was arrested in the case by the Pune police from Delhi on August 28, 2018.
The activist was initially kept under house arrest and subsequently sent to judicial custody.
The case was later handed over to the NIA.