Sharad Pawar Once Again Considers Setting Up an SIT in the Elgar Parishad Case

The Nationalist Congress Party chief had convened an urgent meeting on the matter in Mumbai on September 10.

Mumbai: The Maharashtra state government is once again mulling over the possibility of setting up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe into the violence that broke at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018.

Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar had convened an urgent meeting in Mumbai on September 10. Ministers from both the NCP and Congress were present at the meeting. Several activists and lawyers directly involved in handling the cases of those booked in the ongoing Elgar Parishad probe by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) was also present at the meeting.

This is not the first time that Pawar has taken interest in the issue. In December last year, soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party government fell in the state and the tri-party government led by the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress came to power, Pawar had spoken against the probe in the case. The case was then handled by the local Pune police. But as soon as Devendra Fadnavis’s government was ousted, the Central government had whisked away the case and handed it over to the NIA.

Since the NIA took over, along with the earlier nine, six more people have been arrested in the case.

In the meeting at the YB Chavan centre in South Mumbai, Pawar sought the latest details on the probe. From the NCP, deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar and home minister Anil Deshmukh were present at the meeting. Congress’s education minister Varsha Gaikwad and energy minister Nitin Raut were also present. Additional chief secretary (home) Sitaram Kunte and principal secretary (home) Amitabh Gupta were also summoned to the meeting.

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“The current investigation is spreading like a hydra. Anyone and everyone is called for questioning, and arrested without any evidence, and the agency (NIA) is acting as if it is not unanswerable to anyone. Most of these concerns were raised at the meeting,” a senior leader, who was a part of the meeting, said. He also added that the SIT would most likely be headed by a retired judge who would work in consonance with senior state police officials. “The technicalities are yet to be worked out. Law and order is still a state subject and we want to go ahead with this, keeping an open mind,” a leader from the NCP said.

On January 22 this year, state home minister Deshmukh and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar had met the Pune police and 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 an SIT needs to be constituted to look into the investigation. Deshmukh had also openly condemned the Centre’s decision to involve NIA in the probe.

“Right when the state government decided to go to the root of the matter, the Centre decided to step in,” Deshmukh had then 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 had further added.

Not just in the media, NCP’s another leader and state cabinet minister for housing Jitendra Awhad had, in the winter assembly, accused former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis of wrongly targeting rights activists and falsely branding them as “urban Naxals”. He had accused the Pune police of working at the behest of Fadnavis.

The state government, however, had not proceeded with the SIT probe then. “In this meeting, however, they sounded a lot more serious and were discussing the minute details,” an activist who was a part of the meeting shared.

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This SIT, a senior minister said, would be different from the existing judicial commission set up in the case. “That commission’s mandate is very different than the SIT that this government is planning to set up. We are focussing on whether activists and intellectuals are really being targeted and who was really behind the violence at Bhima Koregaon.” The judicial commission set up in February 2018 under former high court judge Justice J.N. Patel and former chief secretary Sumit Mullick was mandated with finding out reasons behind the violence. The commission has barely made any progress and several anti-caste activists have accused it of playing a “biased role”.

What is the Elgar Parishad case?

On January 1, 2018, when members of Dalit-Bahujan groups and anti-caste activists were commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle near Pune, violence broke out. While those injured in the attacks have claimed that the violence was instigated by some Hindutva groups, the Pune Police have arrested several activists and rights lawyers.

The term “urban Naxal” was used by the Pune Police while probing the alleged links between the Elgar Parishad conclave of December 31, 2017, and the caste violence around Bhima-Koregaon the next day. The police have also claimed that the arrested activists were planning an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

While some rights activists were arrested in the case by the Pune city police, their rural counterparts had booked Hindutva Brahmin leaders Milind Ekbote and Manohar Kulkarni alias Sambhaji Bhide for allegedly inciting violence. Ekbote was granted bail by the Supreme Court, while Bhide was never arrested. The state police have not made any progress in those investigations.

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The first round of arrests in the Elgar Parishad case had begun in June 2018, with the arrests of 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, and Rona Wilson, a Delhi based prisoners’ rights activist.

In the second round of arrests in August 2018, advocate Arun Ferreira, advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, writer Varavara Rao and Vernon Gonsalves were taken into custody. The Pune police have already filed two sets of chargesheets – one main chargesheet, followed by a supplementary chargesheet – and the police have claimed that those arrested had “active links” with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and had helped organise the ‘Elgar Parishad’ of December 31, 2017, under the banner of the ‘Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerana Abhiyan’ in Pune.

After taking the case over, the NIA has arrested academics Anand Teltumbde and Hany Babu, activist Gautam Navlakha, and three artists of the Kabir Kala Manch – Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap.