No, Sadhvi Pragya Has NOT Been Acquitted of All Terror Charges
(Editor’s note: This article has been reposted in the light of BJP president Amit Shah’s recent comments, defending Pragya Thakur’s candidature. It was originally published 18 April.)
Almost a month after Pragya Singh Thakur was given a ticket from Bhopal by the Bharatiya Janata Party, party president Amit Shah defended her candidature again, claiming that the case framed against Pragya Thakur is fake. He said, “Pragya Thakur ka candidature, ye farzi Bhagwa terror ke farzi case ke khilaaf hamaara satyagraha hai (Pragya Thakur's candidature a satyagraha against fake charges of saffron terror).”
The BJP had, on 17 April, announced Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur's candidature from Bhopal, making it the first time a terror accused has been nominated as a candidate from a major political party.
However, many believe that Sadhvi Pragya has been given a clean chit by the court, including herself. In fact, soon after her nomination was announced, Sadhvi Pragya was reported by news agency ANI as having said:
On Twitter too, many, including Amish Devgan, the Executive Editor at Network 18, claimed that the ascetic has been exonerated and acquitted of all charges against her.
This, however, is untrue. While Sadhvi Pragya is currently out on bail, she still faces trial under sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and the Indian Penal Code (IPC), among others, at a Mumbai special court for the Malegaon attack – she has not yet been acquitted.
But before we look at the charges framed against Sadhvi Pragya , here is a look at the case against her.
What is the Case Against Sadhvi Pragya?
Soon after a bomb blast in Maharashtra's Malegaon killed 6 and injured over a 100 on 29 September 2008, the state's Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrested Sadhvi Pragya as one of the primary accused – ‘Accused No. 1’, in fact.
According to the chargesheet filed by the ATS, the team, led by Hemant Karkare, had traced the motorcycle which set off the explosives to Surat and ultimately to Sadhvi Pragya, leading to her arrest in October.
A subsequent investigation by the ATS resulted in the revelation of an 'alleged conspiracy to retaliate against Jihadist attacks in India', leading them to arrest and name 14 accused, including Sadhvi Pragya, in their chargesheet, which was filed in January 2009.
Two years later, in 2011, the case was transferred to the NIA on the orders of the then UPA government at the centre.
The Tale of the Motorcycle
The bomb used for the Malegaon blasts was set off with an IED fitted on an LML Freedom motorcycle, which was registered under Sadhvi Pragya’s name.
The ATS, in its chargesheet, mentioned that the motorcycle was provided by Sadhvi Pragya to Ramchandra Kalsangar, who along with Sandeep Dhange (also known as Sandeep Dange), executed the attack. Sadhvi Pragya also facilitated the procurement of explosives via another accused to the duo, according to the chargesheet.
Another relevant piece of primary evidence the ATS had against Sadhvi Pragya was of a meeting in Bhopal, held in April 2008. At this meeting, Sadhvi Pragya had taken “responsibility for providing men for the explosion," the chargesheet noted.
According to a report in The Indian Express, the evidence of this meeting came from the statement of one Yashpal Bhandana, who was also present there.
The NIA took over the case in 2011 and filed a supplementary chargesheet in the case in 2016. According to a press release by the investigating agency at the time, the NIA proposed dropping all charges under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) against all accused in the case.
Further, the agency claimed that the bike, which had served as primary evidence in the ATS's chargesheet, had been used by Kalsangra for at least two years prior to the blast, with the him even paying for repairs – and so it was not relevant that it was still registered in Sadhvi Pragya’s name.
The agency then proceeded to reject Yashpal Bhandana's statement about the Bhopal meeting, claiming that during re-examination he accepted he had made his statement under duress. Based on these factors, the agency sought to exonerate Sadhvi Pragya of all charges in its supplementary chargesheet, reported The Indian Express.
What Did the Special Court Say?
While the chargesheet was being considered by the trial court (a special NIA court), the accused also filed applications asking to be discharged and also tried to get bail.
The trial court had thus far maintained that Sadhvi Pragya could not be granted bail due to her connection with the motorcycle, but the Bombay High Court, in April 2017, decided to grant her bail. The court, however, clarified that the observations made in its bail order only applied to the bail plea, and that the “Trial Court is not to be influenced by them in any way.”
Later in December 2017, the NIA special court made its decision on the chargesheet and the discharge applications. While Judge SD Tekale agreed to drop the MCOCA charges against all accused, he refused to drop all the charges against Sadhvi Pragya because the evidence prima facie disclosed a number of terror-related offences by her.
Among the other evidence that the court cited in its order, was an alleged phone conversation between Sadhvi Pragya and the planters of the bomb.
The conversations included Sadhvi Pragya’s exchange with Sandeep Dhange, one of the main conspirators, over three different instances – three days before the blast, on the day of the blast and the next day.
The court’s order on this matter reads:
“... shows that accused No.1 also had several phone calls with absconding accused Ramchandra Kalsangra and Sandeep Dange in these two months... It (the court) has to bear in the mind that as per the statements of witnesses before ATS officer that accused No.1 had agreed to provide men for causing blast. As per both investigating agencies absconding accused Ramchandra Kalsangra and Sandeep Dange are the planters of the bomb. Hence above material cannot be over looked at this prima facie stage.”
Framing of Charges
Subsequently, judge Tekale at the special court in Mumbai observed that there was enough evidence to frame charges against Sadhvi Pragya. The charges to be framed were under sections 16 (committing terrorist act) and 18 (conspiring to commit terrorist act) of the UAPA, sections 3, 4, 5 and 6 of the Explosive Substance Act, 1908 read with several sections of the IPC.
The court, however, dropped charges under the MCOCA, as proposed by the NIA in its chargesheet.
Some of the accused challenged this decision, which meant that the charges were only finalised after several months.
Thus, in October 2018, the court affirmed its decision from December 2017 and proceeded to charge Sadhvi Pragya and seven others under the relevant sections of the UAPA, amounting to conspiracy to commit, advocate, incite or knowingly facilitate a terrorist act. The court also charged Sadhvi Pragya under the IPC for murder, criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity between communities, along with relevant charges under the Explosive Substance Act.