NAGPUR, Maharashtra — The role of senior Maharashtra police officials who handled the Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad cases is under scrutiny after Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar once again took direct aim at them on Tuesday.
Hours after HuffPost India reported that a senior state police official had sent an ‘SOS’ message to the home ministry, following which the case was transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), Pawar held a press conference in Mumbai, questioning the “alacrity” with which the central government had stepped in.
“When I wrote a letter to the Maharashtra government demanding a special investigative team (SIT) on this issue, the state home minister and deputy CM called a meeting of police officials associated with this case to understand it. This meeting happened between 9-11 am that day and by 4 pm on the same day, the central government’s message came that the case should be handed over to them (NIA),” Pawar said, referring to events that took place in January.
The NCP supremo, who is considered the chief strategist of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi government, said that deputy CM Ajit Pawar and home minister Anil Deshmukh, both from the NCP, had denied any role in tipping off the Centre.
“Was this adventure undertaken by some of the senior police officials present in that meeting? Because the investigation which the state government was planning to undertake was to check the misuse of power and position by police officials in this case. Had that been exposed, even the previous government’s real picture would have come out,” alleged Pawar, demanding a parallel investigation into the role played by the officials.
Police sources had told HuffPost India that the Union home ministry had been tipped off by a senior police officer in Maharashtra, but refused to name the person.
Pawar’s combative stance indicates that the Maharashtra government will put up a tough fight against attempts by the home ministry, led by Amit Shah, to interfere in the investigation.
After Pawar’s press meet, CM Thackeray took another U-turn, saying the state government will probe the Bhima Koregaon incident.
“We will not let injustice happen to our Dalit brothers and Bhima Koregoan incident will be probed by the state police,” Thackeray told reporters.
Like Pawar, Thackeray also drew a clear distinction between the investigations into the Bhima Koregaon riots and the alleged Elgaar Parishad conspiracy.
However, Pune police think otherwise and its top officials had been claiming that an investigation into a violent clash at Bhima Koregaon in December 2017-January 2018 led them to a conspiracy orchestrated by the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).
In June 2018, the police arrested several lawyers and human rights defenders including Surendra Gadling and Sudha Bhardwaj, accusing them of being involved in the conspiracy.
HuffPost India reported in August 2018 that while the Pune rural police was investigating the role of two BJP-affiliated Hindutva activists — Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide — in fomenting the violence, their urban counterparts were investigating the so-called urban Naxal angle.
Since the Thackeray government took charge, Pawar had been demanding action against the police officials probing the Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad case and had objected to the behaviour of the Pune Police commissioner and some of his associates.
Last week, when HuffPost India asked Pune police commissioner K.Venkatesan about the Bhima Koregaon case, he refused to answer, saying, “ I have nothing to say. No more interrogation, please.”
ACP Shivaji Pawar, the investigating officer in the case, did not respond to repeated calls and messages.
Pawar, who alleged that police officials had “misused” their powers, also claimed that a large section of the state police thought that the case had been mishandled, allegedly at the behest of the previous government led by Devendra Fadnavis.
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Until Tuesday, it appeared that there was a rift between Thackeray and Pawar over the issue—after initially trying to stop the NIA from accessing the case files, the state government reversed its stance a day before a Pune court was scheduled to rule on the matter. People familiar with the matter said that Thackeray, after being briefed by some senior IAS and IPS officers based in Pune and Mumbai, agreed to hand over the case to the NIA without consulting anyone.
Sensing an opportunity, opposition leader Fadnavis issued a challenge to the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress, asking them to call for an election to prove their mandate.
But Pawar soon swung into action when he heard of Thackeray’s move. He cancelled his Nashik trip and rushed to Mumbai to call a meeting of all NCP ministers. People present at the meeting told HuffPost India that Pawar gave a dressing down to the ministers for not asserting themselves in the government.
Pawar’s refusal to back down left the chief minister in a bind.
A Shiv Sena MLC told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity that the state government would soon form an SIT to probe the case, as Pawar had demanded.
“There were issues in the home department over this case and even the CM did not want to be seen supporting people labeled as “urban Maoists”, but there is very little you can do when someone like Sharad Pawar takes a clear stand publicly,” he said.
The leader claimed that by bringing in the NIA, Amit Shah had turned this into a Pawar versus Shah-Modi battle.
“Pawar won’t miss this opportunity. It has gone far ahead of consolidating a vote bank now,” he added.