Editor's note: This interview was originally published on 29 June, 2016, when the National Investigation Agency told the special court hearing the 2008 Malegaon blasts case that there was no case against Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur. This article is being republished in light of Thakur being granted bail on Tuesday.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has returned to the limelight after it told the special court which is hearing the 2008 Malegaon blast matter, that there was no case against key accused Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur. The special court on Tuesday slammed the NIA for re-recording witness statements who had already been questioned by the Maharashtra Anti-terrorism Squad (ATS).
The court came down heavily on the investigating agency for not probing the role of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur. Former special public prosecutor in the case Rohini Salian spoke to Firstpost, a day after the court rejected Thakur's bail plea, and said that the NIA, instead of investigating this case, is re-investigating the case made out by the ATS. "The rule of law in the country has always prevailed, and it is prevailing even now. But the NIA is not investigating the Malegaon blast case, it is investigating the ATS' case," Salian said on Wednesday.
It could be argued that conducting a fresh examination of witnesses who have already been questioned by the ATS makes little sense. What it also means is that the witnesses have turned hostile and the case — which, according to Salian, was foolproof when the ATS was handling it — is much weaker now. Is the NIA deliberately puncturing holes in a case that was solid?
The special NIA court on Tuesday had observed that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the charges against Sadhvi Pragya Singh are prima facie true and rejected her bail plea. Special Judge SD Tekale rejected the bail application during an in-camera hearing, after families of the blast victims objected to Pragya's plea.
The judge also said that safe conclusion can be drawn on the basis of witnesses' statement that during the Bhopal meeting (held to plot the Malegaon blasts), Pragya was present and there was discussion about jihadi activities in Aurangabad and Malegaon and (she along with others) discussed preventing it. The court also observed that the participants in the meeting want to establish 'Hindu Rashtra' and their discussion shows that they want to establish government in exile.
Advocate Wahab Khan, appearing for the intervenor in the case who was among the injured, said the court pulled up the NIA for conducting a fresh investigation under the pretext of carrying out further probe. The NIA had on 13 May dropped the names of Sadhvi Pragya and four others as 'accused' in the blast case in its chargesheet filed before the special court here, citing lack of evidence, and revoked provisions of the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA). It also did not oppose her bail plea moved earlier this month.
The trial in the 2008 Malegaon case began in September 2015. The NIA had charged 14 in the matter after taking over the case from the ATS. Seven people were killed in twin explosions when people were coming out after prayers during Ramzan on 29 September, 2008. The case was earlier investigated by the Maharashtra ATS under the leadership of slain IPS officer Hemant Karkare. The two leading anti-terror agencies of the country have been at loggerheads in the Malegaon case from the very beginning. In its chargesheet, the NIA had said that the Maharashtra ATS used torture to extract confessional statements from some accused, charges which were vociferously refuted by the then SPP Rohini Salian.
The chargesheet filed by the NIA in May 2015 dropped all charges against six of 11 accused, one of them being Sadhvi Pragya. The chargesheet was at sharp variance with what the Maharashtra ATS and the earlier NIA had alleged in their chargesheet. The key question is why the NIA would re-examine witnesses who had already been questioned by the ATS?
In an exclusive interview to The Indian Express in October 2015, Salian told the newspaper that the NIA told her to "go to soft" on the accused in the Malegaon blast case. In subsequent interviews, Salian told the media that it was Suhas Warke, a superintendent of Police in the NIA, who asked her to "go soft" after the NDA came to power.
On 11 and 12 April, 2008 in Bhopal, Pragya with Ramesh Upadhyay, Sameer Kulkarni and Prasad Purohit, Sudhakar Dhar Dwivedi, and Sudhakar Chaturvedi is accused of having conspired to take revenge against Muslims in Malegaon by exploding a bomb in a densely populated area. The Maharashtra ATS, after speaking to the witnesses, had prepared a case that Sadhvi Pragya Thakur was responsible for "providing men for the explosion". Pragya’s bike, an LML Freedom, which was used to plant the explosives, was alleged to have been driven to the spot by Ramchandra and his men. After NIA's re-examination of witnesses, the media was told that the "ATS had illegal detained witnesses and forcefully extracted statements from them."
Before the NIA took over the Malegaon blasts case in 2011, the Maharashtra ATS had booked 16 people but filed charges on 20 January, 2009 and 21 April, 2011 against the accused in a Mumbai court. Lieutenant Colonel Shrikant Prasad Purohit and Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur had moved several applications before the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court challenging the chargesheet and appropriateness of the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) in the case.
The NIA, as the chief investigating agency in the 2008 Malegaon blast case, should be examining the evidence collected by the ATS and not investigating the agency itself. This is counterproductive and the reasons for handing over the case to the NIA were never made clear by the government. SPP Salian has claimed that the case was being 'deftly handled by the ATS.' There is a view that the NIA is ruining a case that was being solidly chased up by the Maharashtra ATS.
Eight years since the horrifying blasts, the probe in the case has been floundering as investigating agencies have filed chargesheets and re-examined witnesses. There appears to be a tug-of-war ensuing between the two anti-terrorism bodies. Interestingly, under the National Investigation Agency Act 2008, there's a provision that suggests that the NIA should hand over a case to its original investigating body in case there are no substantial developments over a period of time. Whether or not this provision is invoked remains to be seen.
Updated Date: Apr 25, 2017 15:39 PM