Maharashtra in 2021: Courts stepped in during COVID second wave; Aryan Khan, Anil Deshmukh in limelight


MUMBAI: As the devastating second wave of COVID-19 hit Maharashtra early this year, the Bombay High Court stepped in to provide relief to harried citizens with a slew of judgements related to oxygen supply, medical aid, hospital beds and vaccinations, while in 2021, the legal landscape was also dominated by cases related to star kid Aryan Khan, politician Anil Deshmukh, police officers Param Bir Singh and Sachin Waze.

The HC found itself flooded with public interest litigations (PILs) and pleas filed by citizens in the wake of the second wave of the pandemic, and the high court immediately stepped in to set in motion a system adept at tackling the health crisis.

The high court at all its benches in the state – Mumbai, Nagpur and Aurangabad – passed several directions this year on oxygen supply, stocking up and providing anti-COVID-19 vaccines, timely medical aid, hospital beds and directions to decongest public spaces and prisons.

The Bombay HC provided proactive judicial relief through its timely orders on streamlining the vaccination process for citizens, prioritising it for the elderly, and vulnerable sections, including the mentally ill and destitute.

The HC directed the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to begin door-to -door vaccination against COVID-19 for the elderly and the physically unequipped in the metropolis despite resistance from the Union government in granting a go ahead to the state authorities for the initiative.

The high court functioned through the summer vacations to preside over all COVID-19-related matters.

In December, Chief Justice Dipankar Datta said Maharashtra was one of the pioneers in successfully tackling the COVID-19 crisis.

“Let us not forget about the dark days. We must not let our guards down. We hope the New Year brings in a new beginning and we never see a repeat of April 2021,” CJ Datta had said while referring to the second wave of the pandemic.

Apart from coronavirus-related matters, the courts across Maharashtra also witnessed several high-profile cases like the arrest of superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan Khan in a drug related offence, arrest of former home minister Anil Deshmukh, criminal cases related to suspended IPS officer Param Bir Singh and arrest of former cop Sachin Waze in the Antilia bomb scare case.

Businessman Raj Kundra, husband of actor Shilpa Shetty, spent two months in jail after his arrest in a case related to alleged creation and distribution of pornographic films through apps.

A high court judge, Justice Pushpa Ganediwala, was criticised over a series of judgments that were deemed controversial for their interpretation of what constitutes a sexual assault under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act).

Justice Ganediwala came under the scanner for her judgments that ruled that there has to be ‘skin-to-skin contact with sexual intent’ for an act to be considered as an offence of sexual assault under the POCSO Act, and that “holding hands of a minor girl and opening of zip of his pants’ does not fall under the definition of ‘sexual assault’ in the special legislation enacted in 2012.”

Taking a dim view of these rulings, the Supreme Court Collegium later decided not to recommend Justice Ganediwala’s name as a permanent judge which means she would be demoted back to district judiciary at the end of her additional judgeship in February 2022.

Actor Shah Rukh Khan’s 23-year-old son Aryan was arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) on October 3 in the drugs-on-cruise case.

Aryan Khan, who was accused of illicit drug trafficking, consumption, possession and sale/purchase of drugs, was released on bail by the HC on October 28.

Justice N W Sambre, while granting bail to Aryan Khan, observed there was no positive evidence to show that the star kid conspired to commit drug-related offences.

The high court refused to accept the NCB’s argument that there were WhatsApp chats to prove its case.

The drugs-on-cruise case opened a can of worms with NCB Mumbai zonal director Sameer Wankhede, who was supervising some high-profile drugs-related matters, coming under the lens over allegations of extortion attempt and corruption.

Maharashtra cabinet minister Nawab Malik levelled serious allegations against Wankhede, whose father later filed a defamation suit against the politician in the HC.

Actor Kangana Ranaut faced several legal complaints this year.

Apart from a defamation suit filed by lyricist Javed Akhthar, Ranaut also faced complaints for her social media posts against Sikhs.

In September, Ranaut appeared before a Mumbai court in connection with the defamation suit filed against her by Akhtar.

Ranaut claimed she had lost faith in the court as it had indirectly threatened to issue a warrant against her.

Two other significant matters that dominated the HC proceedings throughout 2021 were the Elgar Parishad-Maoist links case, and the investigation and litigation that followed in the aftermath of allegations of misconduct and corruption made against former state home minister Anil Deshmukh by ex-Mumbai police commissioner Param Bir Singh.

The Elgar Parishad case forced the HC to examine a citizen’s fundamental rights to life and liberty guaranteed by Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.

As the lower courts denied bail and other reliefs, including medical aid, a pair of spectacles and a straw sipper to some of the activists and academics arrested in the Elgar Parishad case, the accused moved the HC seeking protection of their rights.

The high court granted temporary medical bail to ailing poet Varavara Rao, an accused in the Elgar Parishad case, in February on humanitarian grounds.

A bench led by Justice SS Shinde said if the HC did not grant Rao such bail, it would be “abdicating its duty to protect the principles of human rights.”

Another accused in the case, Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist Stan Swamy, however, could not get medical bail from the HC.

He was permitted by the court to be admitted to a private hospital where he died in July.

In December, the HC granted bail to another accused Sudha Bharadwaj.

On April 5, a bench led by CJ Datta directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI to conduct a Preliminary Enquiry into the allegations of corruption levelled against Deshmukh.

Besides the CBI FIR, Deshmukh also faced a probe by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in a case of money laundering.

This led to a barrage of petitions by the Maharashtra government, Deshmukh, Singh, highlighting the centre-state tussle on the issue, and all seeking reliefs ranging from independent probes, expunging some portions of the CBI’s FIR, protection from arrest, among other things.

On December 16, the HC dismissed a plea filed by the Maharashtra government alleging bias by the CBI.

Deshmukh, booked under the provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), was arrested by the ED in November.

The NIA filed a chargesheet in a special court against ten persons, including dismissed cop Sachin Waze, in the case related to Antilia bomb scare and killing of Thane businessman Mansukh Hiran.

Param Bir Singh is facing as many as five extortion cases in Mumbai and Thane.

The courts concerned issued non-bailable warrants against him for failing to appear before them.

A court in Mumbai had declared him a proclaimed offender as he was not traceable.

However, Singh, who had not reported to work since May after his transfer from the post of Mumbai police commissioner appeared before the courts towards the end of November.

He got the warrants and the proclamation order cancelled.

The Supreme Court has granted Singh protection from arrest.

Union Minister Narayan Rane was arrested by the Maharashtra police and faced multiple complaints over his controversial remarks against Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.

In November, the HC commuted to life term the death penalty awarded to three convicts in the 2013 Shakti Mills gangrape case in Mumbai.

The court had then noted that although the offence was “barbaric and heinous”, it cannot be said at the threshold that the convicts deserve only death penalty and nothing less than that.

“A sentence of death is irrevocable and therefore, the basic principle in sentencing policy would be life imprisonment is the Rule and Death Penalty is an Exception,” the court observed.