Mumbai: Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar said Thursday that it was “unfair” for the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra government to transfer the high-profile Elgar Parishad-Bhima Koregaon investigation to the NIA.
However, multiple sources in the state’s ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition told ThePrint it was Pawar’s “nudge” that convinced a “reluctant Home Department” to hand over the documents pertaining to the case to the central agency.
The MVA is an alliance of the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress. Under the alliance agreement, the Home Department is held by the NCP.
Although the NCP chief has been publicly opposing the takeover of the case by the NIA, the sources said the Home Department would not have taken such a critical decision without Pawar’s go-ahead.
Pointing out that Pawar is the “mentor” of the MVA government, a source said no decisions were made without consulting him.
“There is a clear understanding that whether it is the Congress, the NCP or the Shiv Sena, these parties have the right to take decisions for their departments,” the source added.
“Pawar is kept in the loop about every decision. The remote to the chief minister is in Pawar’s hands. So, it is very surprising that Pawar is now saying the state should not accept the central government’s decision to transfer the documents to the NIA,” said the source.
Despite repeated attempts by ThePrint through telephone calls and text messages, state Home Minister Anil Deshmukh did not comment on the issue. Among NCP spokespersons, Clyde Crasto was unavailable for comment, and Mahesh Tapase said he was not informed about the matter since he is out of town.
‘Urban Naxals and Bhima-Koregaon’
The Elgar Parishad case pertains to caste riots that rocked some parts of Maharashtra just as 2018 dawned.
On 31 December 2017, a commemorative meeting was held in Pune’s Bhima-Koregaon village to mark 200 years of a 1 January 1818 battle where Dalits fighting under the British army banner had defeated a much-larger army of Marathas. It came days after the tomb of a Dalit historical icon — Govind Gaikwad, who conducted the last rites of Maratha king Sambhaji Maharaj in defiance of Mughal orders — was allegedly vandalised at the village.
The caste riots occurred on 1 January and investigators are probing whether they were triggered by “provocative speeches” made at the Elgar Parishad.
It is with this case that the term “urban Naxals” gained currency as Pune police used the term to refer to activists and lawyers arrested for their alleged association with the Elgar Parishad.
The erstwhile Fadnavis government had said the Bhima Koregaon caste riots were a national conspiracy, also suggesting a secret plot to harm PM Modi.
Those arrested included Telugu poet and Maoist ideologue Varavara Rao, lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj and activists Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut and Soma Sen.
Meanwhile, Sambhaji Bhide, who has been booked for allegedly instigating the violence and was opposed to the Elgar Parishad, has yet to be taken into custody. Pune police were quoted as saying in December last year that the case against Sambhaji and Milind Ekbote, both of whom are known to be associated with Hindutva, was in the “final stages”.
According to the sources, Pawar has been keen on the case being probed by a national agency because it involves prominent personalities.
Pawar, the sources said, doesn’t want the outcome of the probe to be “a burden for the Maharashtra government”. Since it involves two major communities — Dalits and Marathas — Pawar is keen on avoiding another round of caste riots, the sources added.
The fact that Bhide — a Brahmin — has not been arrested despite proof of his involvement is another sore point with the Dalits, they said. The arrests made so far are all activists and lawyers associated with Dalit rights.
Pawar, the sources said, does not want his government to lose the support of either community.
In January, Pawar had written to Thackeray to set up a Special Investigation Team led by an IPS officer to relook the Bhima Koregaon case as the NCP sees the Pune police’s investigation thus far as biased.
Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh subsequently told the media that the MVA planned to review the Elgar Parishad case. A few days later, on 24 January, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order stating that the NIA had suo motu taken over the case.
In the wake of the order, the NIA moved an application in the Pune court where the trial is being held to take over the probe.
After the NIA takeover, an editorial in the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, Saamana, criticised the central government. Calling India a union of states with their own rights and pride, the editorial said the central government was inviting instability by forcing its way into the affairs of the state.
On 8 February, the Maharashtra government opposed the NIA’s plea that all the documents pertaining to the case be transferred to the agency. However, according to sources, Pawar subsequently communicated to Thackeray that the NCP was keen on the probe going to the NIA.
The Maharashtra government relented and handed over all documents to the NIA. On Friday, the Pune court allowed the transfer of the case to the NIA.
“The NCP cannot distance itself from being amicable to the NIA probe and blame bureaucrat Sanjay Kumar (additional chief secretary of Maharashtra) for the transfer of the probe documents from Pune police to the NIA,” said a source.
Asked if Pawar wanted the probe out of Maharashtra, senior NCP leader Nawab Malik said, “Pawar saheb wrote the letter [to Thackeray] because the outcome of the probe is important. Under the previous government [led by Devendra Fadnavis], Pune police conducted a biased probe. That needs to be rectified and that is Pawar saheb’s concern.”
Another source said the proposal to move the investigation out of Maharashtra didn’t meet any resistance from the Shiv Sena — a coalition partner of the erstwhile Fadnavis administration — because Thackeray “is not too keen on embarking on a confrontation course directly with the Centre”.
“The central government has a pulse on the private funds of the Thackerays. All those concerned are aware of the implications of a probe in that direction,” the source added. “It is easier to give in.”
Speaking to ThePrint, Congress spokesman Sachin Sawant said, “It is beyond party lines now. The government has taken the decision. This sudden transfer of the case has generated much interest. The Congress has been opposed to the NIA takeover of the case,” said Sawant. He skirted questions on whether Pawar was kept in the loop by the central government on the NIA takeover, only saying, “Pawar saheb has written a letter, which means he was concerned.”