Malegaon blast, Sadhvi Pragya and the politics of investigation
Heated political exchanges and blame-games apart, the Malegaon blast will forever be a case study to suggest how our investigative agencies work — politics of political masters take precedence over national security
Eight years after she was arrested in the Malegaon blast case, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur is set to walk out of jail.
The fact that she wore saffron robes and other accused persons in the case had links with radical Hindu outfits, gave coinage to the controversial term "saffron" or "Hindu" terror. Her arrest in 2008 and the filing of the first chargesheet by the Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) of the Maharastra Police in 2009 has been a matter of heated political and public debate.
Their arrest, particularly of Pragya, Colonel Prasad Srikant Purohit and Swami Aseemanand was vigorously contested by the BJP, even charging the Congress of conspiracy to defame Hinduism and distract attention from the actual perpetrators of the crime (Islamic terror modules). The Congress held that the investigative agencies were on the right track. In January 2013, speaking at the Congress convention in Jaipur then (UPA) home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde had claimed that RSS and BJP were promoting Hindu terror: "Reports have come during investigation that BJP and RSS conduct terror training camps to spread terrorism. Bombs were planted in the Samjhauta Express, Mecca Masjid and a blast was also carried out in Malegaon. We will have to think about it seriously and will have to remain alert."
Interestingly a month later, faced with retaliatory fire from the BJP, Shinde expressed "regret" for his Hindu terror remark.
Under the Congress-led UPA regime, the ATS in Maharastra and later NIA at the Centre had booked Pragya and others, and kept pressing terror charges against them till UPA exited from power both in the state and at the Centre. However, the change in the course of investigations and conclusion that there was no substantive evidence against the Sadhvi after the BJP came to power at the Centre raises some very serious questions about whether the investigations in cases as serious as Malegoan, Ajmer or the Samjhauta Express are guided by the whims and fancies of political masters. The flip flops, U-turns with changes in regime, or even mid-course of the same regime erodes popular faith in investigative process and draws ridicule from neighbouring Pakistan.
First, the Maharastra Police arrested nine Muslims allegedly linked to banned outfit Student Islamic Movement of India (Simi), the CBI too investigated along the same lines, but then it all changed after 2008 when ATS under Hemant Karkare picked up Swami Aseemanand and Sadhvi Pragya. The NIA that took over investigations in 2011 continued to work on the Hindu terror angle. Two years ago, during the closing months of the UPA regime, the NIA had told the MCOCA court that it didn't have any evidence against nine Muslim accused but changed its position in April 2016 by opposing their acquittal in the case. The NIA has now dropped charges against Pragya and taken a more cautious view on the involvement of other accused including the trial of other accused persons like Colonel Purohit under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). This would mean that all supposed confessions made by the accused before the police would not be admissible as evidence in court of law.
It must also be noted that the NIA that took over the case in 2011 couldn't file a chargesheet in five years.
One of the three course of investigations — two under the UPA (first, charging alleged Simi activists, then blaming Pragya, Purohit et al) and the third under the BJP-led NDA that gave a clean chit to Pragya — is closer to the truth than the rest, or perhaps there could even be a fourth angle that has not yet been investigated.
Soon, as it became clear that Pragya would be released, Congress general secretary took to news channels to blast the Narendra Modi government and give the narrative an emotive spin by recalling "Shaheed" Hemant Karkare, the ATS chief who was killed in the 26 November, 2008 Mumbai terror attack. The BJP, on the other hand, expressed satisfaction that Sadhvi Pragya was to be freed. Party spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi said she always believed that Sadhvi was framed and even indicated that there could a probe to investigate who hatched a conspiracy to frame her in the blast case.
The political narrative over the case is not going to die down any time soon.
Sadhvi Pragya is suffering from cancer and has some other health issues. There are suggestions that she might appeal in a court of law, seeking compensation for "conspiracy, torture and wrongful confinement" in jail. If that happens and if the court admits her petition, it is bound to spark off another round of heated debate.
Eight years ago, Rajnath Singh as BJP president had openly defended Sadhvi Pragya and some others. Singh is now home minister and the NIA reports to him.
In an interview to Shekhar Gupta for NDTV's Walk the Talk, Rajnath had said: "I personally believe that there is a huge conspiracy behind these happenings (the Malegaon investigations) —and do not forget that Maharashtra has a Congress-NCP coalition government and this could be part of the conspiracy. This possibility cannot be ruled out... I am completely convinced that they (Sadhvi and others) are not involved... I'm not ready to believe that Sadhvi Pragya Thakur is a terrorist until there is enough evidence against her. She has been subjected to three or four brain mapping tests, narco-analysis tests. Have you ever heard of this being done to any terrorist?"
It's a different matter though that Pragya in January 2015 felt betrayed by Rajnath but hoped that that Modi would give her justice.
Heated political exchanges and blame-games apart, the Malegaon blast will forever be a case study to suggest how our investigative agencies work — politics of political masters take precedence over national security. The actions of the police, ATS, CBI and NIA yet again prove that these supposedly premier investigative agencies are caged parrots.
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