“The protests at Sabarimala are not acceptable as it is against the verdict of the Supreme Court,” the Kerala High Court said, while rejecting the bail plea of one lawyer Govindh Madhusoodhanan on Thursday. “If the bail application is considered, it will send wrong signals and similar incidents will recur again,” the court said, thus laying down a much-needed low threshold for deterrence.
What is of significance is how the court appreciated the evidence proffered against the petitioner, because this sets a precedent for other similar cases also, many of which are likely to come on the court docket in the coming days.
On 17 October, when the doors of the widely revered Sabarimala temple devoted to the deity Ayyappa was thrown open to women of all ages on the orders of the Supreme Court, an unprecedented wave of violence and protests erupted. There were widespread attacks on media personnel, women devotees, police force and their vehicles. These attacks were led by throngs of “devotees” who were enraged that even women who menstruate were being allowed to enter the temple and “desecrate” it because it belonged to a “celibate” god.
The protests, often violent, continued for days, and left a trail of great destruction and damage in its wake. The police registered an omnibus FIR against around 150 people for rioting and vandalism and great damage to public and private property. Over 3,500 people were detained and close to 540 cases were registered, and around 100 people are taken into judicial custody.
Petitioner’s Arguments, Prosecution’s Counter
Advocate Govindh Madhusoodhanan had been charged under Sections 143 (unlawful assembly), 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon),188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from duty) 333 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt to deter public servant from his duty),353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of duty),283 (danger or obstruction in public way or line of navigation), 427 (mischief causing damage to the amount of fifty rupees) read with 149 (every member of unlawful assembly guilty of offence committed in prosecution of common object) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 3(2)(e) of the Prevention of Destruction of Public Properties Act.
He claimed at the very outset that he was an ardent devotee of Ayyappa and had gone to Nilakkal on 17 October, and thereafter proceeded to Pampa in the afternoon to offer prayers, and returned home in the evening. He claimed that he was subjected to police lathicharge while on his way, and that the police have registered crimes on omnibus allegations of various incidents that happened at different places and clubbed them together as a single offence. He also denied that there was no tangible evidence against him. Moreover, he, as a practising lawyer in the High Court, was a law-abiding citizen and did not have any criminal antecedents on the basis of which he could even be suspected of having committed an offence. He pleaded false implication and mistaken identity as his defence.
The Public Prosecutor submitted that the Government of India had supplied confidential report regarding possibility of violence by miscreants in and around Nilakkal and Pampa and that security arrangements were accordingly strengthened and reinforcements were brought in.
The Public Prosecutor also submitted photos and videos taken at the spot which show Madhusoodhanan provoking and leading a mob, pelting stones and attacking vehicles and other people with sticks. Other eyewitnesses, including KSTRC staff, police personnel at the scene, a departmental photographer and some media persons corroborated this evidence in their testimonies and attributed overt and specific acts to him.
Moreover, the call detail records showed that he was in the vicinity of Nilakkal till late in the evening, and had not returned home as he had claimed.
Terming the vandalism “unjustifiable”, Justice Sunil Thomas was circumspect yet firm in appreciating the evidence, because similar pleas of mistaken identity and false implication can be raised by those hundred petitioners who indulged in vandalism in the name of ardent devotion. However, cameras don’t lie and there are reliable eyewitnesses aplenty who had been at the receiving end of the mob’s fury and are willing to come forward to testify. Just take the case of RSS follower Sooraj Elanthoor who was arrested on the basis of such unimpeachable evidence.
Justice Thomas also did well to note that if people like Madhusoodhanan were given bail, hundreds of other miscreants like him would be emboldened to violate the apex court’s orders, reducing the rule of law to a farce.