Mumbai: Crushing any hope that the Maharashtra state government may release the rights activists and lawyers implicated in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon case, the Ministry of Home Affairs on Friday abruptly decided to hand the investigations over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The NIA Act allows the department to take over any investigations related to “scheduled offences” and the state has little role to play, leave alone decline permission.
On January 22, Maharashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar met the Pune police and the state intelligence officials for a review meeting on the case. Soon after the meeting, Deshmukh announced that by the next week, his department would take a decision on whether a Special Investigation Team (SIT) needs to be constituted to look into the investigation.
But even before the state could act upon its announcement, the Union home ministry decided to take the case away from the Maharashtra police. Nine activists and lawyers have been languishing in jail since June 2018 over allegations of being active members of the “urban Naxal” movement.
The Pune police had claimed that the accused had conspired and instigated the gathering at Bhima Koregaon, 30 kilometres off Pune city, which had led to violence. Several others, including professor Anand Teltumbde, right activist Gautam Navalakha, cultural activists from Kabir Kala Manch have been named in the earlier FIR and are yet to be arrested.
Those arrested include Sudhir Dhawale, a writer and Mumbai-based Dalit rights activist, Surendra Gadling, a UAPA expert and lawyer from Nagpur, Mahesh Raut, a young activist on displacement issues from Gadchiroli, Shoma Sen, a university professor and head of the English literature department at Nagpur University, Rona Wilson, a Delhi-based prisoners’ rights activist, advocate Arun Ferreira, advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, writer Varavara Rao and Vernon Gonsalves. While the first five were arrested on June 6, others’ arrests followed.
According to the Pune police’s investigation, led by ACP Shivaji Pawar, the accused hatched a conspiracy to assassinate prime minister Narendra Modi in a “Rajiv Gandhi style execution”. This, the police had claimed on the basis of one letter allegedly found on the computer of one of the arrested persons.
In November, soon after the tri-party government comprising the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress took over, they have on several occasions hinted at the possibility of revisiting the investigation into the case. During the winter assembly session, NCP leader and state cabinet minister for housing Jitendra Awhad had accused the former BJP government, led by Devendra Fadnavis, of wrongly targeting rights activists and falsely branding them as “urban Naxals”. Within weeks, NCP chief Sharad Pawar too spoke in favour of those arrested and demanded a fresh probe.
Early this month, Pawar sent two separate letters to the home department seeking the formation of an SIT. The Centre, however, decided to strike back before the state could react.
The NIA, unlike other investigative agencies, doesn’t need sanction from the state government. While the Act allows the involvement of the state government in the investigation, this decision is entirely dependent on the centre.
“Centre’s decision is unconstitutional”
As soon as news about the probe being handed over to the NIA broke, several NCP and Congress leaders in Maharashtra called the decision “unconstitutional”. State home minister Anil Deshmukh who was on his way to Gondia stopped by to call an urgent press briefing, where he said that the Centre has acted in an arbitrary manner.
“Right when the state government decided to go to the root of the matter, the Centre decided to step in,” he said. “It is wrong for the Centre to go ahead and take over a state-led investigation without keeping them (the state government) in the loop, leave alone taking their permission,” he further added.
I strongly condemn the decision to transfer the investigation of “Koregaon-Bhima” case to NIA, by the Central Government without any consent of Maharashtra State Government..@PMOIndia@HMOIndia@PawarSpeaks@supriya_sule pic.twitter.com/Ov8PZlSknG
— ANIL DESHMUKH (@AnilDeshmukhNCP) January 24, 2020
Awhad claimed that the Centre’s decision is a direct attack on the Constitution. “It is a direct attack on the constitution, the federal structure and the autonomy of the state,” he said.
Speaking to media in Mumbai on Saturday, NCP chief Sharad Pawar said, “The state has all the right to probe this matter. What was the reason to transfer the case in haste? They were afraid that the truth will come out.”
NCP spokesperson Mahesh Tapase asked, “What is the BJP afraid of? Why have they suddenly lost faith in the Maharashtra Police?”
Revenue minister and senior Congress leader Balasaheb Thorat tweeted that the state government was not consulted before the decision. “Without consulting the Maharashtra government, the decision of the Central Government, abruptly handing over the Bhima Koregaon case to the NIA is unconstitutional and against the federal structure of the Union of India. We strongly condemn it,” he said.
Without consulting Maharashtra government, the decision of Central Government, abruptly handing over #BhimaKoregaon case to #NIA is unconstitutional and against the federal structure of Union of India We strongly condemn it.
— Balasaheb Thorat (@bb_thorat) January 24, 2020
Nihalsing Rathod, defence lawyer in the case, said that the Pune police have held the nine arrested activists for over 18 months. “The chargesheet relies heavily on digital evidence, which has not been made available to them till date. The defence lawyers and the media, in their independent investigations, have clearly established a pattern of lies weaved to keep the arrested activists in custody,” he said.
When the new state government was showing signs of having another look at at the case, the BJP is attempting to suppress the truth and “directly meddle into the state’s investigation”, he said. Rathod called the move “a direct attack on the Constitution and the federal structure”.
There have been several apparent inconsistencies and discrepancies in the Pune police’s investigation. The Wire on December 21, had published a detailed report on several anomalies in the evidence that the Pune police have relied upon. There are several obvious instances of digital tampering in the purported evidence gathered from the computers and hard disks of two of the prime accused, Gadling and Wilson.
The National Investigation Act was brought in by the Congress-led UPA government in 2008, after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. Though the agency was set up to look into terror cases, it has been accused of being misused by the Central government for political gains.
On January 15, the state of Chhattisgarh filed a suit in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of the NIA Act.