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State govt agrees to hand over Elgar Parishad probe to NIA

By Surendra P Gangan, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON FEB 14, 2020 12:12 AM IST

The Maharashtra government has agreed to transfer the 2018 Elgar Parishad case to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), complying with a January 25 decision by the Union government directing the federal agency to take over the probe.

The Union government’s order was contested by the coalition Maharashtra government, particularly the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

Mahrashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh made the announcement on Thursday, and admitted that there was a difference of opinion within the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) — made up of Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress — over the issue.

Deshmukh, who is from the NCP, said that chief minister Uddhav Thackeray used his discretionary powers to approve the handover.

Deshmukh told reporters that the state government will no longer oppose the Centre in court, and to facilitate that, the home department (through an order issued on Wednesday) directed the Maharashtra director general of police (DGP) to convey the decision to the sessions court in Pune during a hearing scheduled for Friday.

A senior government official aware of the developments said on the condition of anonymity that the order was issued following Thackeray’s remarks on the file.

“We are still of the opinion that the Centre should have taken us into confidence while handing over the probe to the NIA,” Deshmukh said on Thursday, indicating that the opposition to the move also stemmed from the manner in which it was announced. “We had clarified this in the Pune Sessions court at the last hearing. Our decision, however, has been overruled by the chief minister using his discretionary powers,” he added.

The home minister added that the government was considering the possibility of constituting a special investigation team (SIT) to probe the case. “The home department is consulting the state advocate general on this issue,” he said.

However, a senior home department official, who asked not to be named, said an SIT cannot be set up without the CM’s approval.

The official added that Thackeray decided to intervene after consulting the state advocate general, Ashutosh Kumbhakoni, who was of the view that the Centre was legally empowered to hand over the case to the NIA.

Last month, Pune Police did not grant NIA officials access to the case papers saying they had no instructions from the state director general of police.

The case in question is about the controversy that erupted 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.

The 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 of 2018, police arrested nine prominent activists and raided the homes of many others in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities.

Two charge sheets were filed – first in November 2018 against several activists for their alleged Maoist links, and a supplementary charge sheet in February 2019. 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.

In January, soon after the MVA wrested power in the state from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Pawar alleged that Pune Police misused its powers to arrested writers and activists because they were opposed to the government and its policies. He also wrote to the CM, calling for the setting up of an SIT.

The Centre transferred the case to the NIA before the SIT could be formed.

According to a government official who asked not to be named, Deshmukh spoke to both Thackeray and NCP chief Sharad Pawar on Thursday before briefing the media. “The NCP wanted the CM to change the government’s stand and oppose the NIA probe,” a senior NCP leader aware of the developments told HT, adding that the party leader told Deshmukh to make the NCP’s stand on the issue clear.

In an interview to his party mouthpiece Saamana last week, Thackeray said that he did not find the Centre’s decision wrong, but added that the Narendra Modi government should have taken the state’s view on the issue.

“Nobody denies the Centre’s right in this investigation. But, while exercising its right, the Centre should have taken the state into confidence or should have told us what was wrong in the investigation. Does the Centre not have confidence in the state’s investigative agencies? It leads to strained relations between Centre and State,” he said.

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