The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief and kingmaker of the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, Sharad Pawar, on Thursday held a high-level meeting with ministers from NCP, Congress, and senior officers from the home department. Pawar took stock of progress of the probe in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, Home Minister Anil Deshmukh, Power Minister Nitin Raut, Education Minister Varsha Gaikwad, Additional Chief Secretary for Home Sitaram Kunte, and Principal Secretary for Home Amitabh Gupta were present for the meeting. According to sources, Deshmukh sought details of the ongoing probe in the matter. "The leaders were not happy with the probe. They felt that the NIA (National Investigation Agency), on the direction of the Union government, is trying to hide the real culprits in this case," the source informed NewsClick.
It was decided in the meeting that the option of the state government initiating a separate probe in the matter should be explored. Nitin Raut, who is also executive chief of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee, tweeted: "Idea to form an SIT to book the real culprits of #BhimaKoregaon riots discussed in a meeting today with Hon. Sharad Pawar @PawarSpeaks ji. Those who were let go unpunished by BJP government will not be spared anymore."
According to Nilesh Pawaskar, a senior lawyer from Mumbai, the state government can set up an SIT under the provision of Maharashtra Police Act. "I have read that the concerned people are complaining about the abuse of power by the investigation agency, Pune Police, in this matter. As per Section 4 and 36 of the Maharashtra Police Act, the state government can set up a probe committee to find whether the police have really abused their power," he said. According to him, this SIT will be then entitled to access the documents which are with the NIA presently. Asked about if the SIT's findings went against those by the NIA, Pawaskar said, “It is hypothetical right now that the SIT findings would be contradictory to the NIA. But in that case, it is up to trial in the court,” he said.
Earlier, Pawar had taken interest in the Bhima Koregaon controversy in December 2019. On January 22, 2020, Ajit Pawar and Anil Deshmukh had sought a similar briefing from the officers of Maharashtra Police as well as the home department. Till then, the probe into the case was being conducted by the Pune police.
The government’s attempt at such an intervention now is being perceived as a possible riposte to the Opposition. Supporters of the ruling parties recently had expressed concerns about the “silence” of the government in the face of the Opposition’s attack.
"It seems that our leaders are finally recognising the need to be aggressive with the BJP. If you want to survive in this era, you will have to be ready to fight tooth and nail against the BJP," said a senior minister from NCP as he found out about the meeting on Thursday.
The Bhima Koregaon riot took place on January 1, 2018—under the Fadnavis-ruled BJP-Shiv Sena government in the state—following which Pune police had booked several human right activists. An event called Elgar Parishad, which was held a day before the riot in Pune, was declared to be a “conspiracy against the nation”. Activists across India had slammed this “outrageous” theory.
Sambhaji Bhide, a Right-wing leader and head of Shri Shiv Pratishthan, who is the main accused in the case, however, has remained free.
According to former IPS officer, Dr Sanjay Aparanti, the proposed SIT could throw light on the real culprits and also how a few police officers “mischievously, on the direction of then state government, changed the direction of the investigation”. "The way NIA took over the case hastily when MVA had decided to set up a probe is enough to doubt the investigation of Pune police. The NIA action is itself a violation of human rights," he said.
JV Pawar, senior author, activist and one of the founders of the Dalit Panthers movement, however, questioned the timing of this move. "The state machinery during the Fadnavis regime was unleashed against Ambedkarites everywhere. MVA should probe the case. But why are they talking about it now? They should have done this four months back and immediately after NIA took over. Are you using this serious case to settle your political score with the BJP? Citizens who believe in the Constitution won't be fooled,” he said.
Senior Journalist Padmabhushan Deshpande echoed this view. He said, "Last time as well, a few meetings were held, reports came that MVA would probe the matter and suddenly everything went silent after the NIA took over. This case is very sensitive and the government should ensure that people don’t see it as the MVA using the case to settle its political score.”
Home Minister Deshmukh told NewsClick, "We are thinking of setting up an SIT. But that will be done after looking into the judicial issues within the case." He rejected the notion that the MVA could be using the case politically. "Many social activists met us in these months and expressed their concerns about the case. It is our duty to address the concerns of these activists," he said.
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