PUNE, Maharashtra — The Maharashtra government refused to hand over the Bhima Koregaon case to the National Investigation Agency, until it did. The state home ministry under the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)’s Anil Deshmukh was opposed to the NIA, but the Shiv Sena Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray wasn’t.
Senior police officers in Maharashtra are suspected of having gone behind the back of the state government to send an “SOS” to the Union Home Ministry in Delhi, urging the NIA to take up the case. The Maharashtra state government tried to stop the NIA from seizing the case-files in a Pune court, only to reverse its stance a day before the court was scheduled to rule in the matter.
In June 2018, the Pune police launched a series of country-wide raids targeted at lawyers and human rights defenders involved in fighting politically-charged legal cases involving Dalit issues, Adivasi rights, and those accused of supporting the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). Those arrested soon after the raids included celebrated Dalit rights lawyer Surendra Gadling, lawyer, and trade unionist Sudha Bhardwaj, Ambedkarite activist Sudhir Dhawale, Adivasi rights activist Mahesh Raut, writer Arun Ferreira, and retired university professor Vernon Gonsalves.
In November 2019, it emerged that a “state-actor” — most likely the Government of India — had deployed the controversial Pegasus snooping software developed by the Israeli NSO Group to break into the electronic devices of several individuals associated with those arrested. The Israeli government classifies Pegasus as a cyberweapon and doesn’t allow its sale without a valid export license.
In this context, the conflicting signals emerging out to Maharashtra reveal Bhima Koregaon case encapsulate many separate strands of India’s current state of political crisis: the continued politicisation of the Indian police, the arrest and prolonged detention of citizens without charges or sufficient evidence, the unregulated, and possibly illegal, use of cyber-weapons against Indian citizens, the Narendra Modi government’s use of central agencies to overrule state authorities, and the fractured state of the political opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In January 2020, NCP Supremo Sharad Pawar had a press conference calling for the creation of a Special Investigation Team of the Maharashtra police to re-evaluate the Bhima Koregaon case and the Elgar Parishad case.
The two cases are intrinsically linked together, with the Pune police 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).
As HuffPost India has previously reported, one section of the Pune police is investigating the role of two BJP-affiliated Hindutva activists — Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide — in fomenting the violence, while another section of the Pune police is investigating the so-called urban Naxal angle.
“Overall 22 FIRs were filed for the Bhima Koregaon violence which clearly pointed out Bhide and Ekbote’s involvement but there was no action on it and all these activists were arrested on one FIR filed by Bhide’s disciple,” said Advocate Rohan Nahar, who is representing Varavara Rao and some other activists in this case.
In his press conference, Pawar questioned the intent, attitude, and behaviour of some IPS officers associated with this case and sought action against these officers.
“The actions of the Pune police commissioner and some of his associates, in the Elgar Parishad case, were vengeful and a clear misuse of power,” Pawar had said, as he justified his demand for a special probe. “ The actions of Pune police, in this case, were extremely suspicious. The Pune police commissioner and his associates have misused their powers to jail these people and encroached on their fundamental freedom which should be investigated.”
Pawar said his government could not stand by as fundamental freedoms were snatched.
“People, in this case, were booked for sedition only for expressing strong views over some issues and jailed for months and years. It was clearly an encroachment on fundamental freedom,” he said. “The police administration will misuse its powers if it gets a sense that they can do such things and the government of the day acts as a mute spectator.”
As Pawar’s party controls the Maharashtra Home Ministry through Home Minister Anil Deshmukh, who is from the NCP, political watchers expected this SIT to be formed.
The Pune police were asked to brief Deshmukh and Maharashtra deputy CM Ajit Pawar, but hours after their briefing the NIA — which reports to the Union Home Ministry controlled by the BJP’s Amit Shah — announced it was taking over the case. The Maharashtra state government was not consulted before this decision was made.
Police sources told HuffPost India that the Union Home Ministry had been tipped off by a senior police officer in Maharashtra, but refused to name the officer.
“The newly formed three-party government is still to tighten its grip and the BJP is already planting reports that this government could go. As long as it does not survive for 6 or so months, the bureaucracy won’t fall in line which explains these IPS officers’ actions,” said a political observer close to Sharad Pawar. “Even after Pawar criticized the Pune police commissioner, he continues to be in the contention for the post of Mumbai city police commissioner.”
Bhima Koregaon’s political significance
Speaking on background, police officers in Maharashtra admitted to HuffPost India that the Bhima Koregaon case appears to be politically motivated. On the one hand, the case was an attempt protect the right wing-affiliates involved in the violence, on the other it formed a vital part of the BJP’s attempts to fracture Maharashtra’s Dalit polity by raising the spectre of national security.
“The previous Fadnavis government tactically used Bhima Koregaon. Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar was given limelight and promoted in the media as the face of the Dalit protest which took place after the Bhima Koregaon incident,” a police officer said, offering a worryingly prescient grasp of Maharashtra politics and the police’s role. “The result was there for you to see. Ambedkar’s party walked away with over 41 lakh votes in the Lok Sabha election with its ally AIMIM and garnered over 21 lakh votes in assembly elections.”
The rise of Prakash Ambedkar damaged the Congress and the NCP. He damaged Congress-NCP prospects at more than 12 seats in Lok Sabha and more than 23 seats in assembly polls.
Pawar’s position on the case could be viewed as an attempt to win back support amongst the constituencies captured by Ambedkar. On Jan 1, 2020, Pawar’s nephew Ajit visited the Bhima Koregaon memorial — a visible indication that Sharad Pawar and the NCP want to sideline Prakash Ambedkar by openly batting for the Bhima Koregaon accused.
From day one, our position is very clear on Bhima Koregaon and Elgar case that Bhima Koregaon incident was a pre-planned conspiracy by BJP people. Elgar Parishad’s case is a false one.NCP chief spokesperson Nawab Malik
Glaring fault lines in the Maha Vikas Aghadi government
This incident has again highlighted the fault lines within this three-party government.
Pawar was visibly upset when Thackeray gave the approval to transfer the case to NIA overruling the state home department.
“It was not right for the Centre to hand over the investigation into the case to the NIA. But it was even more wrong for the state government to support the transfer of the case,” Pawar said in Kolhapur on February 14.
But Uddhav Thackeray could be seen mellowing his stand on the issue.
During an interview with Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamana earlier this month, the CM had said that he did not see anything wrong in NIA taking over the case but objected to the state police not being consulted while doing so.
On Monday, Pawar cut short his Nashik trip and chaired a meeting of senior NCP leaders and NCP ministers in the Uddhav Thackeray cabinet in Mumbai.
After this meeting, home minister Deshmukh told reporters that the NCP was still in favour of a parallel inquiry of the Bhima Koregoan-Elgar Parishad case.
“As per section 10 of the NIA Act, the state has the power to conduct a simultaneous investigation. We will take legal opinion and see how an SIT can be announced for this case,” Deshmukh said.
Congress’s Mallikarjun Kharge and Balasaheb Thorat also expressed displeasure over Thackeray transferring the case to NIA “without consulting the allies”.
Even as the case will now be tried in the NIA court, the state government appointed SIT is likely to look into the alleged role of the then BJP government in the Bhima Koregaon riots.
As Maharashtra cabinet minister and NCP’s chief spokesperson Nawab Malik put it on Monday, “From day one our position is very clear on Bhima Koregaon and Elgar case that Bhima Koregaon incident was a pre-planned conspiracy by BJP people. Elgar Parishad’s case is a false one. To stop this falsehood from getting exposed, the central government transferred the case to NIA when Sharad Pawar wrote a letter to the CM demanding an inquiry. There is no rift among three parties that are a part of this government.”