The Bombay High Court has orally expressed doubts about the maintainability of criminal charges against Poonam Agarwal, Associate Editor of "The Quint", for the suicide of a jawan after a sting expose. She has approached the High Court seeking to quash the FIR registered against her alleging abetment of suicide of the jawan who was interviewed in the sting video.
She had conducted a sting operation with the assistance of an ex-military man and Kargil war veteran Deepchand Singh to show that 'sahayak system' of engaging subordinate officers for menial work for seniors was being followed in camps, despite its ban by Army as per Circular dated 19th January 2017. In the sting video published during February 2017, several officers, who were made to do menial work in a military camp at Deolali, Nashik, accused their seniors of harassment. The identities of the officers in the sting video were concealed by blurring their faces. After the video went viral online, one officer, Lance Naik Roy Mathew, who was interviewed in the video, committed suicide by hanging on March 7, 2017. Following this, an FIR was registered for abetment of suicide, naming Poonam Agarwal and Deepchand accused for offences punishable under Sections 306,451, 500 read with 34 of the Indian Penal Code. Offences punishable under Sections 3 and 7 of the Official Secrets Act were also included in the FIR. This FIR was sought to be quashed by the petition filed by Poonam and Deepchand.
While hearing the petition on August 29, the Division Bench of Justice Ranjit More and Justice Bharati Dangre doubted the maintainability of charges under Section 306 IPC. "The deceased committed suicide because his seniors scolded him and not because of the accused", observed the bench. The Court also wondered how offences under Official Secrets Act could be made out against them. In response to this, the Public Prosecutor submitted that the sting operation was carried out in a highly restricted military camp.
Advocate Uday Warunjikar, the counsel for the petitioners, told Live Law that the matter was being repeatedly adjourned by the state government for the past eight months on the ground that appearance by the Advocate General was necessary. He told that the Court was not pleased with this ground of adjournment and asked about the need for appearance by Advocate General in the petition. The matter now stands posted to September 19 for further hearing.
Earlier, the High Court had granted anticipatory bail to Poonam and Deepchand with respect to this FIR as per order dated April 26, 2017. While allowing the application for pre-arrest bail, Justice Revati Mohite-Dere observed, "After viewing the clip, it appears that the purpose of the sting operation was to show that sahayaks were made to do menial work like taking dogs for a walk, taking children to schools, driving the wives of officers to parlourls, shopping etc,contrary to the Circular dated 19th January 2017". It was also observed that "merely because the sting operation was done in a prohibited area would not automatically attract the provisions of Sections 3 and 7 of the Official Secrets Act". Prima facie observing that the offences were not attracted, the bail application was allowed.
Poonam Agarwal has also filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court, seeking guidelines for application of Official Secrets Act against journalists and directions to curb the practise of sahayak system, which is pending on this date.