A team of Maharashtra’s anti-terrorism squad swooped down on a housing society at Puna Kumbharia village in Gujarat’s Surat district on October 10, 2008, to arrest an ochre-robed, emerging Hindu leader: Pragya Singh Thakur.
She looked like the new version of Sadhvi Ritambhara or that of Uma Bharti in the 1990s. While other controversial sadhvis or women ascetics were accused of arousing religious passions through their speeches, Pragya was arrested for a violent crime: a bomb blast in Maharashtra’s Malegaon town on September 29, 2008, that killed six people and injured 101 others.
She was arrested because the LML Freedom motorcycle used in the blast was registered in her name. The Bombay high court granted Pragya, 36, bail on Tuesday, saying it had found “no prima facie evidence against” her.
Her father, an Ayurveda practitioner named Chandrapal Singh Thakur, has denied she had any role in the blast and said she had sold the bike to a person called Mahesh in 2004. The motorcycle, however, was still registered in her name at the regional transport office in Surat when the blast happened.
Pragya’s arrest shocked her friends in Madhya Pradesh where she finished college (WHICH). Pragya is the third of five children—the family has four sisters and a brother--and joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in the early nineties.
Pragya moved to Madhya Pradesh as her father was transferred from Jalaun district in Uttar Pradesh to Lahar in Bhind district of the central state in the seventies as an agriculture department employee. Her father again shifted to Surat around 2000 when Pragya was setting out for a post-graduation in history.
Pragya stayed back in Madhya Pradesh and charted her own course. It was a time when her family got proposals for her marriage. A young Indian Police Service officer contacted her father but Pragya, who was still in college, refused marriage because she wanted to pursue a career in student politics.
She rose to the post of the state organising secretary of ABVP in 1996 and lived in Ujjain for a year before quitting the organisation in 1997. She then tried to run an NGO in Bhind in 1998 but it was not successful.
Pragya was associated with many obscure and loose-knit organisations such as Vande Mataram Jan Kalyan Samiti and Rashtrawadi Sena. In 2005, she led a massive religious procession called ‘Chunari Yatra’ in Dewas, and stayed in Jabalpur for a while where she owns a house in the Gorakhpur locality. Pragya also owns some land in Jabalpur where it is believed she planned to build an ashram.
Pragya announced she had become a sadhvi in 2007 at the Allahabad Kumbh and was ordained by the popular seer Swami Avadheshanand Giri, the head of the powerful Juna Akhada.
She assumed a new name: Sadhvi Poornachetananand Giri.