NIA dropped Bhima Koregaon probe bid in 2019, backed police
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) pushed to take over the Bhima Koregaon violence probe last year, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power in Maharashtra, but was satisfied with the progress made by the Pune Police, two senior officers told HT on Saturday, a day after the sudden transfer of the sensitive cases to the federal body sparked a political controversy.
The cases pertain to caste clashes that broke out in the village of Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra’s Pune district on January 1, 2018 during the bicentennial celebrations of a British-era war by Dalits.
The police investigation blames a Maoist plot to destablise the state government and assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other leaders, and nine prominent activists have been arrested.
Given the sensitivity of the case, in April 2019, NIA sent a proposal to the Centre to investigate the cases. The proposal was forwarded to the state government, which asked Pune Police to discuss the matter with the agency, said one of the officers quoted above.
That month, a team led by a joint commissioner-rank officer of Maharashtra Police reached NIA headquarters in Delhi and gave a detailed presentation to the agency sleuths, informing them about role of each activist, Maoists, nature of evidence both documentary and forensic, and details of charge sheets filed by then, the official said.
“After hours of discussion, the NIA top brass was satisfied and even congratulated the police for collecting evidence which will stand the scrutiny in the court of law and secure the conviction,” the second officer added. After this meeting, NIA did not push for taking over the probe. The Centre allowed Pune Police to continue with it.
But on Friday, the Union home ministry transferred the probe to the federal agency using its powers under section 6 (5) of the NIA Act, which allows the anti-terror body to take over probe in a scheduled offence “suo motu”.
Unlike 2019, the state government – which is now ruled by a three-party Opposition alliance led by the Shiv Sena – was not kept in the loop. Under the NIA Act, the Centre doesn’t need to inform the state government to transfer cases to the agency, but legal experts differ over the stage and manner in which cases are transferred.
The NIA or the Union home ministry did not comment on the issue.
After the January 2018 violence, the then BJP-led government had backed the Pune Police probe that expanded to several cities, and a number of top leaders had commended the police for ferreting out “urban naxals” -- a reference to alleged overground Leftist extremists.
But a change in power in the state late last year dramatically altered the government’s views on the probe.
Last November, the three-party Maharashtra Vikas Aghadai -- comprising the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress -- replaced the BJP-led government in Maharashtra. Soon after, some leaders from the Congress and NCP demanded a re-look at the Bhima Koregaon violence cases, saying the Pune Police had mishandled the probe.
The state government even announced a review of the less-serious cases, under which hundreds of people had been arrested in 2018, but steered clear of the high-profile cases involving alleged Maoist violence.
A few weeks ago, NCP chief Sharad Pawar asked the state government’s home department to form an SIT (special investigation team) in the case to look at the probe. On Thursday, Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar and home minister Anil Deshmukh met senior police officials in Mumbai to review the cases.
A day later, the Union home ministry transferred the probe.
“I think the government fears that it may be exposed. So the decision has been taken,” said Sharad Pawar, chief of the Nationalist Congress Party, which is in coalition with the Congress and former BJP ally Shiv Sena.
Deshmukh criticised the Centre for not taking the state government’s consent.
But former Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis welcomed the Centre’s decision and the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government was trying to mislead people. “Attempts are being made to lower the morale of the police and put them under pressure. The decision to hand over the probe to NIA is appropriate,” he said
During the April 2019 meeting, one of the key pieces of evidence shown to NIA by the Pune Police was a damaged hard disk recovered from the residence of Telegu poet and activist Varavara Rao, said the second official. NIA officials told Pune Police that the disk could be sent to a foreign laboratory like the one used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the US if the central agency took over.
Pune Police, the second officer said, told NIA that they would retrieve the data from the hard disk as they had already collected other technical data from other accused persons, and that their evidence was very strong. This convinced the NIA.
The controversy originated on New Year’s Day in 2018 on the banks of the Bhima river, where hundreds of thousands of people, many of them Dalits, had gathered to mark the anniversary of an 1818 victory of the British army, manned primarily by Dalit soldiers, over the Peshwa, the then rulers who instituted oppressive caste practises. A group of unidentified men on bikes attacked the visitors and pelted stones, killing one person and injuring 40.
Police investigation initially pointed at far-right Hindu groups but then concentrated on an event held in Pune on December 31, 2017 called the Elgar Parishad. Police said the event was funded by Maoists, and that provocative speeches made at the gathering triggered the clashes.
In June and August that year, police arrested nine prominent activists and raided the homes of many others in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities.
Police filed two charge sheets – first in November 2018 against several activists for their alleged Maoist links. A supplementary charge sheet was filed in February last year.
Those accused of helping Maoists include activists Sudha Bhardwaj, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferriera, Vernon Gonsalves, Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut and Sudhir Dhavale. Maoist leaders including Ganpathy, Kishan Da alias Prashant Bose and Prakash alias Rituparn Goswami were also named by Pune Police in the case.