Political Interference in the 2008 Malegaon Blasts Investigation

The 2008 Malegaon investigation is a textbook case of political interference in terror cases.

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Explainers
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The 2008 Malegaon blasts investigation is a textbook case of political interference in terror cases. (Photo altered by<b> The Quint)</b>

(On 25 April 2017, the Bombay High Court granted bail to Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, but denied relief to Lt Col Shrikant Purohit in the Malegaon blasts case. The following article was first published on 7 June 2016 and is being reposted from The Quint’s archives in light of the judgement)

“Saffron terror” became part of our political lexicon after the 2008 Malegaon blasts. The political uproar that came with the naming of former ABVP and RSS functionaries in the chargesheet nearly eclipsed the fact that a serving Army officer had also been named.

In the last eight years, the Malegaon blast case has changed investigators and prosecutors, and has changed two governments at the Centre. Here’s how the case turned around before and after the 2014 general elections.

The NIA has dropped all charges against Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and five others in the 2008 Malegaon blast case. (Photo: Altered by <b>The Quint</b>)
The NIA has dropped all charges against Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and five others in the 2008 Malegaon blast case. (Photo: Altered by The Quint)

Why MCOCA?

On 28 September 2008, two low-intensity bombs fitted in a Hero Honda motorcycle exploded, killing four people and injuring 79 others in Malegaon, a city in Maharashtra’s Nashik district. Almost simultaneously, another blast was triggered off in Modasa, Gujarat, where a 15-year-old lost his life.

The investigation was handed over to the Maharashtra ATS headed by Hemant Karkare, who was killed two months later by LeT gunmen in the 26/11 attacks.

On 20 November 2008, the ATS invoked the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) against the accused.

1. It allows the investigating agency up to six months to file a chargesheet as opposed to the mandated three months.

2. Statements or confessions made to the police officials above the Superintendent of Police rank can be considered evidence.

3. Statements or confessions about a co-accused can also be submitted as evidence in court.

The applicability of MCOCA in this case hinged on the fact that one of the co-accused, Rakesh Dhawade, was named in two other chargesheets of an organised crime syndicate.

Political Interference in the 2008 Malegaon Blasts Investigation

Prior to the 2008 Malegaon blast case, the Maharashtra Crime Branch and the ATS had invoked MCOCA in the 7/11 Mumbai local blasts case and the Zaveri Bazar blasts case.

On 20 January and 21 April 2009, fourteen people, including former ABVP activist Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, serving Army officer Lt Col Prasad Purohit and RSS workers Ram Chandra Kalsangra and Sandeep Dange (both absconding) were chargesheeted.

Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur who’s been in jail for the last eight years and has sought bail after the NIA dropped MCOCA chages against her. (Photo: IANS)
Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur who’s been in jail for the last eight years and has sought bail after the NIA dropped MCOCA chages against her. (Photo: IANS)

Terror Politics: Pre-2014

1. Saffron Terror Remark
On 25 August 2010, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram warned of “saffron terrorism” while addressing a meeting of state police chiefs. The BJP was left isolated when it tried to register its protest in Parliament.

Former Home Minister P Chidambaram was the first senior government official to use the term “saffron terror. (Photo: Reuters)
Former Home Minister P Chidambaram was the first senior government official to use the term “saffron terror. (Photo: Reuters)

2. NIA Takeover
On 13 April 2011, the National Investigation Agency took over the 2008 Malegaon blast investigation. The NIA Act allows the Centre to take over any terror case without the state government’s consent. Considering that the Congress and its allies were in power both at the Centre and in Maharashtra, the transfer of files pertaining to the Maleagaon blasts was relatively smooth.

However, there was some resistance from the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led Madhya Pradesh government. The Centre’s efforts to bring the Samjhauta Express blast probe, in which former RSS pracharak Sunil Joshi was an accused, under the NIA’s purview met legal roadblocks. Incidentally, Sunil Joshi was shot dead in 2013.

 Lt Col Purohit still faces MCOCA but the case against him stands considerably weakened. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="http://photogallery.outlookindia.com/images/gallery/20120628/lt_col_prasad_shrikant_purohit_550_20120709.jpg">Outlook Magazine</a>)
Lt Col Purohit still faces MCOCA but the case against him stands considerably weakened. (Photo Courtesy: Outlook Magazine)

Terror Politics: Post 2014

1. Rohini Salian Speaks Out
The reason why the Malegaon terror probe reeks of political interference becomes clearer after Special Public Prosecutor spoke out. Rohini Salian, who was brought in to represent the state on Hemant Karkare’s request, told The Indian Express that in 2014 she received a call from an NIA officer asking her to meet him.

He didn’t want to talk over the phone. He came and said there is a message that I should go soft. I told him I will always support the cause of justice.
Rohini Salian to The Indian Express

On 12 June, the same NIA officer reportedly told Salian that “there were instructions from higher-ups; someone else will appear instead of you.”

The whistleblower public prosecutor, whose job was to ensure that the accused stay in custody and provisions of MCOCA stick to the chargesheet, says there has been a clear shift since the new government came in.

Rohini Salian has stood by her statement on the 2008 Malegaon case. (Photo: ANI screengrab)
Rohini Salian has stood by her statement on the 2008 Malegaon case. (Photo: ANI screengrab)

2. NIA Revoked
On 13 May 2016, special public prosecutor Avinash Rasal was seen storming out of the courtroom. He’d spent all morning fielding questions on whether the NIA was filing a supplementary chargesheet. He denied the news report to every reporter who called.

Later in the day, NIA officers entered the court, accompanied by a junior lawyer who addressed the court directly. He said the agency was in fact filing a supplementary chargesheet and that the stringent MCOCA was not applicable in the case. Curiously, he contended that the MHA and the Attorney General’s opinion was being obtained in the matter.

Submitting the supplementary chargesheet as its ‘final report’, the NIA said it had not found sufficient evidence against Pragya Singh Thakur and five others to invoke the MCOCA. Lt Col Prasad Shrikant Purohit, however, was not among them.

Later, Avinash Rasal would tell the media that provisions of the MCOCA were very much applicable and that NIA never consulted him before proposing that the charges be dropped.

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