With Organised Crime Charges Dropped, What Remains of the Malegaon Blast Case Trial?

While the defence lawyers are jubilant about the judge’s order, the prosecution claims it still has a strong case against the accused.

Mumbai: Nine years after the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) for the first time cracked down on the alleged involvement of “Hindu hardliners” in the Malegaon bomb blast case, the designated special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court on Wednesday (December 27) dropped all the stringent charges against them. Of the 12 persons booked for their involvement in the incident, nine persons including prime accused Pragya Singh Thakur and Lieutenant Colonel Prasad Purohit will not be charged under the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999 (MCOCA). They will now be tried under relatively less stringent sections of the Indian Penal Code and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. For the other three accused, the court ordered that they not be charged at all.

The case dates back to September 29, 2008, when a bomb exploded in Malegaon, in the Khadesh region of Maharashtra, killing seven persons and injuring nearly 100 others.

While the defence lawyers are jubilant about special Judge S.D. Tekale’s order, the prosecution claims it still has a strong case against the accused. “MCOCA was never within our purview. Since this is a special agency set up to focus on terror activities, dropping of the MCOCA charges does not surprise us. We are more focused on their roles under the unlawful activities Act, and those charges still stand against the primes accused,” said special public prosecutor Avinash Rasal. Sources in the NIA said the agency is yet to decide if they will be appealing the order.

Defence lawyer Shrikant Shivade, representing Purohit, said that this order comes as a “major relief” for them. “Under the UAPA section, sanctions from the competent authority are essential. The prosecution here has not obtained proper sanctions yet,” Shivade told The Wire. According to Rasal, this is a matter to be debated at the time of the trial.

Purohit’s wife Aparna Purohit spoke to The Wire over the phone and welcomed the court’s order. “This has been a long drawn struggle. Today’s court order establishes that my husband (Purohit) was not involved in an organised syndicate as was earlier portrayed. We have a long battle ahead, but this adds impetus to our case,” she said.

Purohit, who was serving in Pachmarhi at the time of his arrest in 2008, is alleged to be the founder of Abhinav Bharat, a group floated on February 2, 2007 to propagate a separate ‘Hindu rashtra‘. Under the MCOCA sections, the prosecution had claimed he was involved in raising funds to the tune of Rs 21 lakh against the rules of the armed forces. According to the chargesheet, he took money from Abhinav Bharat to procure hand grenades and was responsible for organising entry passes to Deolali Military Camp for a co-accused. With the financial aspect of the charge dropped, Purohit, who is presently out on bail, will now face trial for criminal conspiracy and murder.

Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur. Credit: PTI

Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur. Credit: PTI

Shivade feels that though the remaining sections, if proved, could attract the death penalty, they still are not as harsh. “Under MCOCA, confessions obtained even by the deputy commissioner of police are acceptable. This is not acceptable under the UAPA and IPC. In this case most accused had given their statements to the police and not the magistrate. Now they will not be acceptable before the trial court,” Shivade added.

In 2008, the state ATS – headed by the then ATS chief Hemant Karkare – had booked Thakur, Purohit and several others in the case within months of the incident. Karkare was later killed in another terror attack involving Pakistani terrorists on November 26, 2008. Since then, the case has been handled by three different agencies, including the CBI and the NIA.

An important breakthrough had come in the case when the first and also the main accused, Thakur, was arrested within a month of the blast on October 23, 2008. A former ABVP member and the founder of Jai Vande Mataram Jankalyan Samiti, Thakur is accused of supplying her LML Freedom bike and sending two of her confidantes – Ramji and Sandeep Dange – to do the job of planting the bomb. The court observed yesterday, “Considering all evidence at this stage, Thakur had knowledge about involvement of her motor cycle in the blast and her dissatisfaction about causing fewer casualties. Hence, it is difficult to accept submission on behalf of Thakur that she had no concern with the present crime as she had been exonerated by NIA.”

Also read: Was NIA Chief’s Tenure Extended to Divert Attention From Hindutva Angle in Malegaon Blast Probe?

Over years, the trial court and the Bombay high court released 11 persons on bail. Only Rakesh Dhawade, a resident of Pune, is presently in prison. He too was let off under all sections except the Arms Act. “Since the maximum possible sentence under the Arms Act, if proven guilty, is only seven years and Dhawade has already spent nearly nine years in jail, we will be moving the high court for his release,” his lawyer Prakash Salsingekar told The Wire.

An arms curator, Dhawade had two chargesheets against him in two earlier blasts of 2003. It was on this basis that MCOCA could be applied in the Malegaon blast case. However, Dhawade was eventually exonerated in the other cases in 2012.

In the Malegaon case, the ATS had alleged that since 2004, Dhawade had been associated with Abhinav Bharat, a Hindutva organisation headed by Himani Savarkar, daughter of Gopal Godse, a convict in M.K. Gandhi’s assassination. The court today, however, debunked the prosecution’s theory and observed that there was no evidence to establish Abhinav Bharat existed in 2004. Special Judge Tekale observed, “There is also no material to show that during that period Dhawale had any connection with present accused persons at that time. In such circumstances it cannot be said that accused persons including Dhawale committed the act in Parbhani and Jalna as a member or on behalf of crime syndicate Abhinav Bharat.”

Three persons – Shivnarayan Kalsangra, Shyam Sahu and Praveen Takkalki – have been completely exonerated in the case. Shivnarayan, according to the prosecution, had hidden two electric timers at his residence. He is also related to the bomb “planter” Ramji Kalsangra. Ramji’s family has alleged that he was killed in police custody, and this allegation is being independently probed by the NIA. Sahu, an owner of a mobile store, was charged with supplying SIM cards to the group. The ATS, and later the CBI and the NIA, had relied on his 400-minute telephonic conversations with Thakur to prove conspiracy. Takkalki, an alleged close confidante of Purohit, was the last person to be arrested in 2011. A resident of Belgaum district in Karnataka, Takkalki, according to the prosecution, was an “important” member of Abhinav Bharat and was involved in the conspiracy. But the court yesterday ordered for his discharge from the case against a personal bond of Rs 30,000.