The BJP on Wednesday named Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, key accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case, as its Lok Sabha candidate from Bhopal. This is the first instance of a major political party giving a ticket to someone accused of terrorism. Thakur is currently facing trial under stringent sections of The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in a Mumbai court, and is out on bail.
Malegaon, other cases
Around 9.35 pm on September 29, 2008, explosives hidden in an LML Freedom motorcycle went off opposite Shakil Goods Transport Company in Malegaon, Maharashtra, killing six people and injuring over 100.
The investigation led by then Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) chief Hemant Karkare (who was to be killed by Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists in Mumbai less than two months later), traced the motorcycle to Surat, and ultimately to Thakur, a former ABVP activist. Investigators travelled to Pune, Nashik, Bhopal, and Indore, and Army officer Lt Col Prasad Purohit and retired Major Ramesh Upadhyay were arrested. Roles of the Hindutva outfit Abhinav Bharat, and a self-proclaimed seer named Sudhakar Dwivedi alias Dayanand Pandey emerged.
The investigation revealed an alleged conspiracy to retaliate against jihadist attacks in India. In a chargesheet filed on January 20, 2009, and a supplementary chargesheet filed on April 21, 2011 before the special Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) court in Mumbai, the ATS named 14 accused - also including Shivnarayan Kalsangra, Shyam Sahu, Sameer Kulkarni Ajay alias Raja Rahirkar, Rakesh Dhawade, Jagdish Mhatre, Sudhakar Chaturvedi, Pravin Takalki, Ramchandra Kalsangra, and Sandeep Dange.
In December 2010, the CBI arrested Naba Kumar Sarkar alias Aseemanand, who confessed before a magistrate that the Malegaon blasts of 2006 and 2008 were carried out by radical Hindu groups as "revenge against jihadi terrorism". He said the plan to target Muslims was hatched by a group led by former RSS pracharak Sunil Joshi. He said the group was behind the Samjhauta Express, Ajmer Dargah and Mecca Masjid blasts of 2007. Aseemanand subsequently retracted his statement, and has now been acquitted of all charges.
In early 2011, the Centre transferred the Malegaon 2006, Malegaon 2008, Mecca Masjid, and Ajmer Dargah blast cases to the NIA. The NIA had been investigating the Samjhauta blasts since 2010.
Thakur's alleged role
It was Thakur's arrest on October 24, 2008 that opened a window for investigators into the alleged activities of Hindutva extremists. Her name figured multiple times in the larger conspiracy, but she was chargesheeted in only the Malegaon 2008 case, in which her motorcycle was used.
According to the ATS chargesheet, Thakur was part of most meetings of the radical activists from 2006 onward, at which plans to target Muslim-majority areas were discussed. Meetings about the Malegaon 2008 attack took place from January 2008 in Faridabad, Bhopal, Kolkata, Jabalpur, Indore and Nashik. At a meeting in Bhopal on April 11 that year, Thakur allegedly took charge of finding the men to execute the attack. These men were Sunil Joshi, Ramchandra Kalsangra and Sandeep Dange, the chargesheet said.
According to the chargesheet, Thakur was close to Joshi and Kalsangra, whom she allowed to use her motorcycle to plant the bomb. Kalsangra had already been using the bike at the time.
In its Samjhauta chargesheet, NIA said Thakur had come to know Aseemanand back in 2003. During discussions with her and Joshi, Aseemanand had expressed anger at terror attacks on temples. Over time, they "developed (a desire for) vengeance not only against the misguided jihadi terrorists but against the entire Muslim community", says the chargesheet.
Evidence against Thakur
The key material evidence against Thakur in ATS chargesheet is her bike. There is a conversation, intercepted by investigators around the time she was apprehended, between Major Ramesh Upadhyay and Lt Col Purohit, in which they discuss her alleged role in the Malegaon blast, and the law catching up with her. The two officers say the "cat is out of the bag", and refer to Thakur repeatedly as "Singh Saheb", according to the chargesheet.
READ | Who is Sadhvi Pragya?
The most important evidence, however, is the statement of Yashpal Bhadana, an RSS member who claimed he was part of two meetings in Bhopal on April 11, 2008, attended by several of the alleged conspirators.
In the first meeting, attended by Thakur and others, "Col Purohit repeated the issue of waging a guerrilla war against jihadis that he had first mentioned at a meeting in Faridabad on January 26," Bhadana said in his statement. In the second meeting, "Col Purohit said that we must do something quickly to take revenge against Muslims," the statement added. "In Maharashtra's Malegaon the population of Muslims is very high. If we explode bombs there then we can avenge the atrocities against Hindus. On this, Sadhvi Pragya Singh said that she would arrange for men for the work."
What NIA did with the case
The NIA took over the case on the directions of the Home Ministry on April 13, 2011, and filed a chargesheet in 2016. The chargesheet exonerated Pragya Singh Thakur and prosecuted Col Purohit, but with the caveat that the evidence was weak. It dropped charges under MCOCA against all accused, and described Karkare's investigation as fudged. Before the chargesheet was filed, NIA's special public prosecutor Rohini Salian alleged that the agency was pressuring her to go slow.
The bike, the NIA said in its chargesheet, was in Thakur's name, but was being used by Kalsangra for two years prior to the blast. He paid for its repairs and maintenance, the NIA claimed, citing witnesses.
The agency also said not a single statement had been recorded in front of a magistrate (under Section 164 CrPC) saying she was part of the conspiracy meetings. All witness statements had been recorded under MCOCA before a police officer - and given the agency had dropped MCOCA, these statements had lost evidentiary value, it said.
The NIA virtually rejected the evidence presented by Bhadana, who claimed during re-examination that his statement had been made under duress. Another witness who spoke to the ATS, R P Singh, made the same claim. NIA got their retractions, which exonerated Thakur, recorded under Section 164 CrPC before a magistrate.
Following the chargesheet, Thakur was granted bail by the NIA special court. However, it did not accept Thakur's exoneration, and ordered in December 2017 that both Purohit and Thakur would face trial under the UAPA. In October 2018, the court framed charges against Thakur and six others under Sections 16 (committing terrorist act) and 18 (conspiring to commit terrorist act) of the UAPA, and under the IPC for murder, criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity between communities.
Links to other cases
* Thakur's name cropped up in the Ajmer dargah blast case, but she was never charged. In April 2017, the NIA filed a closure report against Thakur, RSS leader Indresh Kumar, and two others in a special court in Rajasthan. The Rajasthan ATS had said Thakur and Indresh were part of a meeting on October 31, 2005, along with others. This is the only case among Hindutva extremism matters in which two RSS pracharaks, Devender Gupta and Bhavesh Patel, were convicted. These men were alleged to be close to Sunil Joshi and Pragya Thakur.
* Thakur was also accused of conspiracy in the December 2007 murder of Sunil Joshi. In 2014, the NIA filed a chargesheet against Thakur and others. It claimed that beginning 2006, relations between Joshi and Thakur had begun souring and "licentious advances" by Joshi had angered their associates so much that they murdered him. The case was transferred to a Dewas court which in February 2017 acquitted all the accused.
Charges framed in 1 case, dropped in 1; acquitted in 1
Malegaon Blast, 2008
PRAGYA LINK: LML Freedom bike used was in her name; she was allegedly part of meetings where plan was discussed.
OTHER ACCUSED: Col Prasad Purohit, Ajay Rahirkar, Sudhakar Dhar Dwivedi, Sudhakar Chaturved, Major (Retd) Ramesh Upadhyay and Sameer Kulkarni.
CASE STATUS: Maharashtra ATS chargesheeted 14, but NIA dropped charges against 5; 2 are absconding. NIA exonerated Thakur of all charges, said evidence against Purohit was weak. The court refused to accept NIA's contention, framed charges against Thakur, Purohit and 5 others under UAPA sections.
Sunil Joshi murder, 2006
PRAGYA LINK: Along with Thakur, NIA arraigned 9 accused in 2014; claimed that "licentious advances" made by Joshi on Thakur had provoked their associates into murdering him.
OTHER ACCUSED: Raj Singh, Vasudev Parmar, Anandraj Kataria, others.
STATUS: NIA chargesheet claimed it was a murder due to personal issues. The case was transferred to a Dewas court which in February 2017 acquitted all the accused.
Ajmer Dargah Blast, 2007
PRAGYA LINK: Rajasthan ATS said a secret meeting on terror conspiracies was held on October 31, 2005, which Thakur, Joshi and others attended.
OTHER ACCUSED: Aseemanand, Sandeep Dange, Ramji Kalsangra, Joshi, Devendra Gupta, Bhavesh Patel, others.
STATUS: Only alleged Hindutva terror case in which NIA has secured a conviction - of RSS pracharaks Gupta and Patel. NIA filed closure report against Thakur and others.