Special National Investigation Agency Judge VS Padalkar had warned Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur of 'serious repercussions' if she failed to present herself before the court prior to the weekend break.

Pragya, a defendant in Padalkar's court for her alleged role in 2008 Malegaon blasts, was recalcitrant and cited a string of reasons to not appear for the proceedings. But Padalkar had his way.

22. Pragya Singh arrives - Outside Sessions Court, Mumbai where the NIA Special court is located

(Above: Pragya Singh arrives outside Sessions Court, Mumbai, where the NIA Special court is located.)

23. Pragya Singh arrives to attend the Melagaon Trial

(Above: Pragya Singh arrives to attend the Melagaon blasts trial)

Pragya, a recent victor in the Lok Sabha election battle for Bhopal, where she defeated Congress strongman Digvijaya Singh, turned up before Padalkar on 7 June. And when she did, Pragya was accompanied by the sort of heightened drama that trails her wherever he goes; on pilgrimages, in public rallies, and even her chaperoned appearances before the press.

On that Friday, I watched as she threw a ten-minute tantrum just as Padalkar had left the room. She railed against the judge, and hissed venom at the injustice being meted out to a medically unfit person like herself. She vowed to write ‘letters’ – it was unclear to whom these would be addressed, skirted the media scrum outside the south Mumbai courthouse, and drove off in a huff.

26. Malegaon Trial

This was the sort of behaviour that I witnessed frequently in the two weeks that I spent tailing Pragya mid-way into the Sadhvi’s election campaign in Madhya Pradesh. It is the sort of capricious braggadocio that has lifted the 49-year-old from the dusty, boiling outpost of Lahar to the thick of mainstream Hindutva politics in the state capital.

On The Sadhvi’s Trail

0. Campaign shot

“How much more video will you shoot of me, take some of the Bhagwan too,” irritated Pragya Singh told me before turning to face the cameras. It was the first time she directly addressed me since I began tracking her during her election campaign. Interestingly, those were the only words she directed at me in the two-week-long trail. The BJP, which gave her a ticket to run against Singh, had her bound to a tight script. She wasn't supposed to utter a word off the script if her minders from Delhi had anything to say about it.

0.1. Supporters of BJP wait for Pragya Singh Thakur

(Above: BJP supporters wait for Pragya Singh Thakur)

0.5 Bjp Mahila Morcha members wait for Pragya Singh. She is two hours late.

(Above: BJP Mahila Morcha members wait for Pragya Singh. She is two hours late.)

Pragya had drawn heat for a variety of reasons, not one of them was for her alleged role in the Malegaon blast which killed 10 people and injured 80. As her chaperones had it, the Sadhvi could nod, smile, wave and make eye contact with the press, but she couldn’t talk to them or answer questions.

Her campaigns usually began with a visit to a temple where the cameras gathered, hoping for some sort of a sensational quote. But the local BJP spokesperson Rahul Kothari, who was assigned the duty of overseeing her campaign and public interactions stopped her and led Pragya back to her vehicle.

0.2. Pragya Singh_s campaign vehicle

(Above: Pragya Singh's campaign vehicle)

0.4. Campaign shots

(Above: On Pragya Singh's campaign trail)

The BJP candidate wasn’t taking this muzzling well and she made her displeasure visible. Pragya often inched towards the cameras, but be quickly whisked away. Her party seemed to have overestimated her capability of handling the media. After multiple slipups, a senior BJP associate Hitesh Bajpai had taken over as her spokesperson.

Pragya 5

"It is not the question of a single constituency, all the constituencies in the northern belt will be affected, please understand," was his response when I insisted that it didn't make sense to accept his answers as those of the candidate's. "I can’t help you then. Everybody is doing it but I understand if you don’t want to," he said, grinning. Over the next hour, I wasn’t offered anything other than Bajpai’s carefully constructed rhetoric.

He was very matter of fact. I had to send him questions meant for Pragya on WhatsApp. He dictated answers to each of them — on behalf of the candidate – which he said I could publish as a direct quote from Pragya. A leader of cabinet secretary-rank and a medical practitioner, Bajpai began and closed all his sentences with either 'shadayantra' (conspiracy) or 'dirty politician Digvijaya Singh', the former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh who lost to Pragya by 3,64,822 votes.

The closest I got to Sadhvi (after the BJP gag had come into effect) was with her sister, Upma, who invited me to their home in Bhopal’s Rivera Township. A tent had been erected in front of the building. This was used by armed security guards who were with Pragya round the clock. The house next to Pragya's was occupied by Upma, who had taken over as the campaign's unofficial chief-of-staff, crafting strategies for her sister.

Karyakartas of the Sangh, displaying long beards and saffron cloth wrapped around either neck or head, waited alongside young sanyasis and other women so they could talk to Upma about inviting Pragya Singh to a rally of particular importance to them. Upma noted down particulars in a register. She then advised them to forego any political ambitions they harboured for the "greater good of the Sadhvi’s campaign."

Sarala, Pragya and Upma's mother, walked out of her room and sat in a corner, surveying the room, not smiling or acknowledging the presence of those waiting.

1. Indide Upma_s basecamp

(Above: Inside Upma's base camp)

2. Upma seated on the extreme right, her mother is the one sitting on the chair

(Here: Upma is seated on the extreme right; her mother is the one sitting on the chair)

That every conversation and meeting was coated with thick layers of caste implications was evident from Upma's tone, her gestures of approval or in introductory remarks made by her supplicants. When a Bajrang Dal office bearer introduced himself as Badauriya (a Thakur surname), she smiled approvingly, 'Oh, you are a Badauriya?'

As he was leaving, Upma asked if he was married. He said yes and that he was married to a Brahmin. "These days, Khuswaha’s have started accepting Brahmin brides!" Upma remarked to the room at large, with a laugh. Brahmins and Thakurs (Khushwaha’s belong to the umbrella category of Thakurs) have over the decades fought tooth and nail to emerge as the most powerful caste grouping in Madhya Pradesh.

Almost everyone who entered the room and introduced themselves was either a Thakur or a Brahmin. There were also many women present, a rarity in such gatherings. Most of them were Mishras, Saxenas, Singhs or Khushwahas. There was one woman who was seated next to Upma. She was introduced to everybody as Upma's close aide but no one revealed her surname. When I spoke to her, she told me that she was an office bearer of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and had joined the organisation when she was 18.

The BJP in Madhya Pradesh is predominantly Brahmin or Thakur. While the Bhopal unit of BJP drew up the plans, organisations like Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini, Matru Mandali, and other cadre-based wings of the Sangh played the most crucial role in campaigning at Bhopal.

These are also the organisations where the Brahmins and Thakurs come together with those from the lowered castes. The election basecamp of Pragya was always bustling with cadre from these organisations, either planning their next move or drawing out fresh plans to attract voters.

Why did BJP pick Pragya?

Pragya 1

Pragya's candidature was seen by many within the Sangh as an experiment to test the limits of a country, which is in the process of a churning — a process which rests on the imagination of the Hindu Rashtra. The ideation of this rashtra is more than a century old. While Savarkar can be credited for defining a Hindu Rashtra in his book Hindutva, early revivalists like Dayanand Saraswati had envisioned it during the formation of Hindu Sabha's in the late 1800s.

That was a time of tumult as well, where Brahmins and landed merchant castes in the North felt compelled to react to the British extending an identity to Muslims of pre-independent India.

Pragya was cast in the 2019 election as the protector of this Hindu Rashtra. The PR team of the BJP in Bhopal churned out pamphlets and press statements which described her as taking on Singh's alleged "criminalisation" of Hindu nationalists as "Hindu terrorists". This message was taken from door to door.

But the word on the street was different. Many of those who attended her rallies said that she did nothing wrong – it was implicit that the topic of discussion was Malegaon. There were others who said: "She must have been dissatisfied with the state of affairs, she must've thought of doing more than what others do. Didn't Nathuram Godse do the same for the welfare of the country?"

It is unclear if these sentiments made a difference to the 23 May results, but victory or defeat notwithstanding, caste, and particularly her caste, was critical to her candidature and poll narrative.

It is pertinent to pose a few questions here — What are the possibilities of anybody else but a Thakur pulling this off? An alleged Hindu terrorist who is out on bail, with a past which is murky, emerging as a victor and trouncing a former chief minister, who, coincidentally is a Thakur. Did she win just because Bhopal was already a BJP bastion? What made the people of Bhopal choose the Thakur out on bail over a senior politician?

Thakurs occupy the most important place in every sphere of Madhya Pradesh — politics, bureaucracy, economy, brute force, and class supremacy. They are also critical to the Sangh, after the Brahmins. Their support networks are spread through every city, town, and village in Madhya Pradesh. Bhind, the district from where Pragya hails, has been a Thakur stronghold for decades, before which it was the domain of Brahmins; a situation which has led to simmering friction between the two groups.

The other castes are required to align with one of these communities or take to the preferred vocation of outcasts — dacoity — who have made the maze of gullies and basins of Chambal their hunting ground. Most often, the Thakurs receive more support than the Brahmins — this might either be out of fear or because the Thakurs are politically more relevant than anybody else in state.

For the RSS, Pragya was clearly a risk worth taking. Could they field a Thakur, skip the caste calculations which is otherwise crucial to how elections are fought in Madhya Pradesh and set a homogenising agenda — the one where ‘dharma’ takes on ‘adharma’? Could Pragya’s victimhood trounce the chances of the ruling state government?

Pragya attempted to play the part of a candidate the best she could, even before her candidature was officially announced. She appeared in the media starting January and kept at it till April. In one interview, Pragya said this was her 'third birth' as a Hindu nationalist sanyasini. She was first introduced to the order of saints by Swami Avdheshanand Giri, the head of the Juna Akhara, in 2007, at the Allahabad Kumbh. Next, Laxman Singh Goud, who had served as education minister under the BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, arranged for a meeting between Pragya and Swami Avdheshanand Giri; she was then a part of the national executive of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

Her guru distanced himself from Pragya after charges were brought against her in the bomb blast case and she was expelled from the Juna Akhara. The institution took her back when she was released from prison in 2017 — the NIA court granted her bail after it dropped charges against her under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act. Two years later, she engineered her third coming, setting up her own Akhara in February 2019.

The Sadhvi called it Bharat Bhakti Akhara and crowned herself as the Mahamandleshwar (head).

When she was granted deeksha, or initiated to the order of saints, she took on the name Swami Purnachetanand Giri. Hardly anyone knows her by this appellation. Thakur, which announces her caste, is what Pragya displays in public; at meetings, in rare interviews, at campaign rallies and in the political jingles that she vets for release.

Her past has this quality: it is a history of several versions, all of them conflicting, not one of them entirely convincing. For instance, her sister Upma, her mentor Kailash Prajapati and an old Sangh karyakarta and a family friend, Chandraprakash Tiwari said that Pragya led a student's movement demanding that a university be set up in Lahar, the town she hails from. But her teacher, Kishore Singh Kushwaha and her classmates said that the university began operations in Lahar many years after she left the town.

It is possible that the label of 'Hindu terrorist' has made the narrators of her past stick to a version that is most common or in circulation. It could also be admiration for Pragya’s version of Hindu nationalism or fear of the consequences of speaking out of turn or subverting established narrative. Whatever it is, everyone who has been close to Pragya offers conflicting stories about her past. Pragya contradicts herself on several occasions.

In her interviews and her speeches, she asserts her “kshatriya lineage”. In two interviews, one to News Nation and other to Sudarshan News, she has said:

"My father was an RSS worker. I was brought up in a Sangh household. I am a sanyasi, but our blood is Kshatriya. My father used to tell me that a Kshatriya is the protector of the country. He used to tell me if the country is faced with a calamity it is my responsibility to protect this rashtra and its dharma".

But in an interview to India TV, she chants:

“Na mai brahman, na mai Kshatriya;

Na mai brahman, na mai Kshatriya;

Na mai Vaishya shudra na jati hun

Idham rashtraya idhanamam mai vo achyut Shashi hun

Mai sanyasi hun”

Though Pragya got her Sanskrit wrong, she is trying to imply that she is an ascetic and therefore belongs to no caste.

Home in Lahar 

9. Lahar mucipality board

(Above: Lahar Municipality)

The house where Pragya Singh was brought up is buried under layers of dust and cobwebs. It is a two-storied structure. A faded signboard reads “Nadi Nidanaen Ayurvedic Clinic – Dr (Ayurvedic) CP Singh."

6. The steet on which Pragya_s house is located

(Above: The street on which Pragya's house is located)

4. Outside Pragya_s house in Lahar

(Above: Outside Pragya's house in Lahar)

5. Close up of C. P. Singh_s board

(Above: CP Singh's name board)

Dr Singh is Pragya’s father. He moved to Lahar from the bordering village of Parawa, in Uttar Pradesh. He then set up the practice and, given his religious inclinations, instituted the town’s first RSS shakha in 1962 – Singh did this along with four others, Asaram Sharma, Suraj Singh, Radheshyam Gupta and Ram Sevak. The ayurvedic practitioner then became the head of the shakha, telegraphing its ideals with zeal.

In 1983, the same group of five founded Saraswati Shishu Vidya Mandir, a school affiliated to the Vidya Bharati network, the educational arm of the RSS.

12. Sign board of Saraswati Shishu Mandir, Lahar

(Above and below: Saraswati Shishu Mandir, Lahar)

13. Saraswati Shishu Mandir Lahar

Chandraprakash Tiwari began teaching at Shishu Mandir when it was set up. He is a close friend of CP Singh and has known Pragya since she has been a child. He recollects how all the four daughters of Singh – Upma, Pragya, Uttama, and Prathiba — were “always involved with the activities of the school and the Sangh”. In fact, two of Pragya’s sisters, Upma and Prathiba, taught at the Saraswati Shishu Mandir. Though Pragya completed her schooling from the government school in Lahar, she frequently organised programmes at Saraswati Shishu Vidya Mandir.

The people of Lahar were deeply immersed in the Hindutva project, taking part in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Gangajal Yatra of 1980, and participating in the Ram Janaki Rath Yatra a few years later.

In 1989, Pragya's father led the celebration of Dr Hedgewar Shatabdi Year in Lahar. "This year, we travelled to every village of Bhind spreading the message of Hedgewar. An awareness-raising exercise was carried out in every village where we spoke of two things – one, the reasons for the downfall of this glorious nation and two, that Ram Mandir had to be built,” recollects Tiwari. By then, Pragya was a college-going student and was involved in all activities of the Sangh.

Starting from the 1990s, teams travelled from Lahar to Ayodhya multiple times. Of these, a group of four women from Bhind participated in the demolition of Babri Masjid on 6 December, 1992. They were Pragya Singh, her sister Prathiba, and two companions named Narayani Pachauri and Asha Mehant.

7. Pragya_s tutor Kailash Prajapati and family friend Chandraprakash Tiwari

(Above: Pragya's tutor Kailash Prajapati and family friend Chandraprakash Tiwari)

While Tiwari is the man closely associated with the family, Pragya’s tutor, Kailash Prajapati, at least by his own claim, is the person who influenced the young woman in ways that determined her animating philosophy. Prajapati was hired as her personal teacher after she dropped a subject in the eighth standard. "I made sure Pragya never failed after that," he said.

"She was smart and always interested in sports. She played all kinds of sports. When she was as young as 15, she told me she wanted to enter politics. I was hoping she would and was dejected when she became a Sadhvi in 2007. She had that capability to transform into a great leader. She was one of my favorite students."

Prajapati, like Pragya, was questioned by the lead investigator in the Malegaon blasts case, and former Mumbai Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare. And like Pragya, her tutor alleged that Karkare tortured him during interrogation. When asked about the interrogation, he nearly broke down and sputtered a few sentences that appeared to mirror Pragya’s public statements about her treatment at Karkare's hands. The police officer was killed during the 2008 terror attack on Mumbai.

However, on being pressed, Prajapati changed his story: "I am not sure who the intelligence officers were who questioned me. In fact, I don’t know if Karkare is the one who questioned me." I offered to show him Karkare’s photo, to which he replied: "Actually, it was always dark when they summoned me, so I am not sure."

Not everyone who taught Pragya remembers her with fondness. Kishore Singh Kushwaha, one of her teachers, said, "Ask anybody who has lived in Lahar. Nobody who remembers her will have a good opinion about her." By way of explanation, he added, "She was the first to wear jeans in Lahar. She had a bike before most boys her age had a one. All she did was go up and down the streets of Lahar on her bike, picking fights with men and showing off. But yes, though we didn’t like her activities, as Thakurs we protected her and made sure nobody from another caste raised a finger against her."

Prajapati said that in the 1990s, Pragya turned into an active political leader. "She was brought up among karyakartas of the Sangh. They visited and stayed at her house,” he said. “She was naturally inclined towards politics. She joined the ABVP and worked with the then ABVP Bhind head Arvind Badaurya and Mahesh Pratap Singh Chauhan."

8. Pragya_s school teacher Kishore Singh Kishwaha

(Above: Pragya's school teacher Kishore Singh Kushwaha)

10. Pragya finished her schooling here

(Above: Pragya finished her schooling here)

11. Government Girls High School, Lahar where Pragya did her schooling

(Above: Government Girls High School, Lahar, where Pragya did her schooling)

When Pragya was arrested in 2008 for her alleged role in the blasts, Badaurya claimed he didn’t know who she was and that he had never worked with Pragya. "Nobody from Bhind stood by her when she was arrested," her cousin, Dilip Singh, said. "I used to visit her often but everybody else had abandoned her."

A past buried in Malwa

In 1997, Pragya left for Ujjain, to work as the ABVP’s sangathan mantri. The defining ten years of Pragya's life till she was arrested in October 2008 were spent in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh. This has been a Sangh stronghold since the organisation came into being. Hedgewar had himself set up the first few shakhas in Malwa in 1929, following which a network of similar outposts cropped up across the region.

Pragya 8 - Pragya in an ABVP meeting in 1998. Seated below is V.D. Sharma, the MP from Khajuraho (Procured)

(Above: Pragya in an ABVP meeting in 1998. Seated below is VD Sharma, the MP from Khajuraho.)

Pragya didn't use one city as a base, she worked across the region, from Ujjain, Bhopal, Indore, Dewas to Jabalpur. Those who were with her remember Pragya as being politically ambitious. Her association with ABVP didn’t last long. She left the organisation in 2003 and began constructing her image in the region.

This was also the time Sadhvi Ritambhara and Uma Bharati began to gain prominence. Pragya had already met Ritambhara in 1992. Upma told me Pragya became inspired by Ritambhara following the encounter. While Pragya’s eloquence wanes in comparison to Ritambhara's, it isn’t difficult to see how the young Sadhvi modelled herself after the woman who became one of the impelling forces of the Babri Masjid demolition on 6 December 1992.

Pragya was arrested two months after the Malegaon blasts took place because the bike to which the bombs were strapped belonged to her. Though the number plates on it were fake, the ATS traced the vehicle to Pragya. Her arrest led to several other detentions. It came to light that an organisation named Abhinav Bharat was responsible for the attack. ATS officials alleged that it was founded by an army man, Colonel Prasad Purohit. The chargesheet filed by Hemant Karkare detailed the manner in which meetings of Abhinav Bharat were organised across the country, with the objective of forming a Hindu Rashtra.

Within days of Pragya’s arrest, a man named Shyam Sahu was arrested from his shop in Indore. I met him at the same establishment, now a showroom of branded footwear. Sahu has known Pragya since 1999 (she had moved from Ujjain to Indore by then). He had been an RSS karyakarta since 1984. He has claimed that all those arrested by ATS were tortured in detention; Sahu has described a “hall with partitions” where they were housed and questioned.

17. Shyam Kumar Sahu

(Above: Shyam Kumar Sahu)

"We were in illegal custody for close to 15 days. The officers took turns beating us," he said. "Pragya was the only woman with us." Barring a few who offered them support, the Sangh had disassociated itself from the group, he said. Sahu was released on bail in August, 2011. "Abhinav Bharat was formed by Colonel Purohit, I don’t deny that. But neither Pragya nor I had any role in it. What Karkare did is he picked people from different organisations and fabricated a story connecting all of us," he said.

The last known president of Abhinav Bharat who acknowledged the presence of Pragya at its meetings was Himani Savarkar. Himani married Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s nephew and became a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha. During her interrogation by the ATS, Himani said she attended public meetings of Abhinav Bharat.

In one such gathering held at Ram Mandir in Bhopal in April 2008, she said she met Pragya. After the public meeting, Himani claimed a smaller group assembled where Colonel Purohit brought up the idea of planning a bomb blast at Malegaon. According to her, Pragya volunteered to provide the men to carry out the task. At this point, Himani said she and a few others walked out of the meeting after stating their opposition to the plan.

After Pragya was arrested in October 2008, she filed an affidavit in November stating that while she was indeed the original owner of the bike used to carry out the blast, the vehicle was sold to a man named Sunil Joshi in 2004. Incidentally, Joshi was murdered in December 2007. Joshi belonged to the RSS but the organisation charged that his death was caused by the banned Islamist outfit Students' Islamic Movement of India.

15. The spot where Sunil Joshi was found murdered

(Above: The spot where Sunil Joshi was found murdered)

16. Sunil Joshi lived here, with Mehul and Harshad who were both wanted in the Best Bakery case

(Above: Sunil Joshi lived here, with Mehul and Harshad who were both wanted in the Best Bakery case)

The day after the organisation made this claim, a group of pracharaks forced their way into a Muslim home in Sutharkheda and killed Rasheed Shah and his son, Jaleel, purportedly for their involvement in Joshi’s death. The case went to trial. A decade after it began, the trial court convicted four of the accused. Their appeal was accepted by the High Court of Madhya Pradesh and the conviction was reversed.

Around the same time, Pragya filed an affidavit in 2008 about having sold her bike to Joshi, the police was not investigating the role of SIMI activists but of two men named Harshad Solanki and Mehul for the man’s murder. Joshi had provided refuge to both the men, who were wanted in the Best Bakery case, in which a Muslim-owned establishment in Vadodara was burned down and 14 people of the family that ran it were killed; the violence was reported in 2002, during the Gujarat riots.

The two along with Sunil Joshi were residing together in the outskirts of Dewas. The case was almost abandoned when newspaper reporters interviewed Joshi’s niece Chanchal as part of their coverage of the investigation. They were told that the day her uncle was killed, Pragya “walked into the house, took a suitcase with her and left”.

In the weeks to follow, Pragya Singh and her close aides were charged for the murder of Joshi. Pragya and Joshi had worked together since she made a foray into the Malwa region.

Eventually, the case was taken over by the National Investigative Agency. The agency believed that those involved in a series of violent attacks against Muslims – blasts in Malegaon, Samjauta Express, Ajmer Dargah and Mecca Masjid – had killed Joshi to destroy evidence, as he was one of the conspirators of these blasts. The agency couldn’t establish links to the blasts in Joshi’s murder and handed the case back to the team that began the investigation, the MP’s Dewas Police. All eight accused in the case were acquitted in 2017 for want of evidence.

14. Dewas Trial Court

(Above: Dewas Trial Court)

Both the NIA and the Dewas Police did not follow up the claim by Joshi’s niece that Pragya was in his house and walked away with a briefcase. Chanchal was not summoned to testify in court. The NIA charge sheet simply stated that “due to long lapse of time, neither the said briefcase could be traced nor its ownership or contents independently verified during investigation.”

Sunil Joshi's murder

Sunil Joshi was a senior RSS karyakarta in Dewas. He supervised Sangh activities in the Malwa region. He was installed as the zila pracharak of Dewas from 1998 and then moved to Mhow, a town 60km away, in 2001. He met Pragya Singh during his time here. In an interview to Caravan’s Leena Raghunath, Swami Aseemanand, who was named an accused in the Ajmer dargah, Mecca Masjid and Samjauta Express bombings, said Joshi and Pragya visited him in Dang, a region of Gujarat which has a large population of Christians, and one where he launched a “re-conversion” project to bring these people back into the Hindu fold.

Apart from Harshad Solanki and Mehul, two other men, Anand Raj Kataria, and Ramcharan Patel were arrested for Joshi’s murder. I spoke to both these men. Kataria himself accepts that he was a close confidante of both Joshi and Pragya. Kataria recollected how they all worked together and when Pragya started her own organisation ‘Jai Vande Mataram’, Joshi and Kataria had supported her all along. He also spoke of the times Joshi and Pragya had worked together during the Kumbh at Dang in 2006, which was organised under the leadership of Swami Aseemanand.

The charge-sheet details how Ramcharan Patel picked up Joshi’s phone from where he was murdered and kept it with him for five days. Patel, who is now a BJP nominated corporator from Dewas, doesn’t deny this or accept it when I ask him whether he did this. He just looked away. Solanki, the accused from the Best Bakery case worked at Patel’s tea shop. Patel told me: “I didn’t know any of this [details of the investigation NIA took over and handed back to Dewas Police]. I knew Joshi since 1996. I trusted him.”

Unlike Patel, Kataria confessed to having been part of the conspiracy to kill Joshi – he named Pragya as a co-conspirator. Eventually, like the others accused of the killing, he rescinded his statement. “I was tortured. I would never say such things about Pragya didi or Sunil Joshi,” he told me. “I had known them for years. I had met Pragya Didi when I was in ABVP and I was truly inspired. And Sunil Joshi, he was a great man. A real genius.”

Joshi had violence associated with him. None of his associates, or those who knew him in Dewas, admitted to it. Police records, however, showed that Joshi was in hiding when he was killed. According to a case diary, he disappeared from public view following a double murder in 2003. The two men killed were an Adivasi leader in Manpur and his son. In the weeks after the killing, the MP Police announced in a press conference that Joshi had engineered the killings.

One of those killed was Pyar Singh Nenama, a celebrated backward community representative in the Congress. I met his son, Mahesh Nenama, at his residence, the same house where his father and brother were brutally killed. He told me that his father had objected to the setting up of an RSS shakha in a village near Manpur. Pyar Singh fought with Dharmendra Pandya, the pracharak who backed the proposed shakha, and, following a scuffle, the RSS man’s ponytail, a mark of his status as Brahmin, was chopped off.

20. An installation in memory of Pyar Singh Nenama

(Above: An installation in memory of Pyar Singh Nenama)

21. Pyar Singh Nenama (Source Mahesh Nenama)

(Above: Pyar Singh Nenama. Image courtesy Mahesh Nenama)

The Sangh took out marches in the area in protest, alleging a threat to Hindus from Christian missionaries in Manpur, who they claimed were backed by Pyar Singh. The police arrested three of the Congressman’s family to quell tensions. But just as things began to settle down, a gang of about 15 men forced themselves into Pyar Singh’s home with swords and pistols and hacked him to death. His son Dinesh Nenama was shot more than 20 times. Pyar Singh’s wife Sugra Bai who attempted to intervene was attacked with swords.

The police announced to the press weeks later that the killing of Pyar Singh was orchestrated and planned by Joshi and a man named Loksesh Sharma. Journalists were told at a briefing that the two men plotted at the Saraswati Shishu Mandir in Dewas. During investigation, one of those interviewed, Raju Mishra, told the police that Joshi and Sharma had “bought pipes from his workshop ‘Aryavat Yantriki’ in Pitampur.

Police said Joshi then built a bomb out of the pipes at the workshop. Mishra said he provided Joshi with a time circuit to set off the bomb. They tested it in the fields of Pitampur and two other locations in Mhow.

The police made several other arrests in the weeks to follow and the charge-sheet that was filed contains statements that corroborate the events that Pyar Singh’s son Mahesh, and Mishra described. But in a few months, the Congress was unseated from power and the BJP’s Chouhan took over. According to Mahesh, those remaining in Pyar Singh’s family were threatened routinely, especially when they had to attend the murder trial proceedings.

Mahesh said that on each occasion, crowds of Sangh karyakartas would gather. Frequent attacks took place in his village, Mahesh said. His brother Ramesh was the sole witness in the case as he was the only one who survived the massacre. He identified the men who killed his father and brother. Ramesh was shot dead in 2009. A man named Lokesh Sharma was arrested as a suspect but the police could find now witnesses to identify him. He was eventually acquitted.

The case passed hands within the administration multiple times and by the time the judgment came in 2012, a watered down version of the prosecution’s argument prevailed. Four out of the 13 were convicted. All of them have submitted petitions in the High Court of Madhya Pradesh and are out on bail.

What does any of this have to do with Pragya?

Pragya first finds mention in police records not because of her alleged links to the Malegaon blasts but for the Manpur murders, and the investigation that followed; underlying which is a snaking thread that connects four of the most widely-reported instances of extremist Hindutva attacks in India.

In probing Joshi and his role in the Adivasi leader’s murder, the police stumbled upon a person they described as one of his closest associates. Joshi had several people in his inner circle, an officer who investigated the case in 2007, and who continues to work on active duty in Madhya Pradesh, said: "One of them was a short-haired woman."

Pragya 7 after her release (Procured)
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