• Election 2019: BJP’s fielding of Sadhvi Pragya advances their Hindutva agenda

    Kanika Katyal

    April 20, 2019

    Image Courtesy: Manorama Online

    On Wednesday, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a Hindu sanyasi and a co-accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case, was declared BJP’s candidate from Bhopal Lok Sabha constituency. This is the first instance of a major political party giving a ticket to someone accused of terrorism. However, this is not the first time that the BJP or the Hindu right has shielded Thakur. Following her arrest in 2008, BJP leaders including Uma Bharti, Rajnath Singh, and LK Advani had spoken in support of Pragya Thakur, both in implicit and explicit terms.

    Standing against Congress bigwig Digvijay Singh, Thakur is contesting from the same state in which she was arrested in 2008. The Bhopal seat has been held by the BJP since 1989. Her candidature comes in the wake of former Madhya Pradesh chief ministers, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Uma Bharti, both declining to contest from the constituency.

    Soon after the BJP’s official declaration of her candidature, Thakur made her intentions of advancing the Hindutva agenda very clear. One of the first statements from Thakur during her press conference was: “They (Opposition) insulted the Hindu dharma, the Sanatan dharma and Hindutva. They insulted the bhagwa (saffron) flag. It will be one of our major issues in the coming elections.”

    The BJP’s fielding of Sadhvi Pragya establishes the centrality of the Hindutva agenda to their election campaign. 

    The Malegaon Blasts and Thakur’s role

    On 29 September 2008, around 9:30 in the night, a blast took place near a hotel in Bhikku Chowk in which more than ten people were killed and over 100 people, including several policemen, were injured. The bomb was reportedly planted in a motorcycle which was found near the site. The Mumbai police had called it a terrorist attack and deployed the Anti-Terrorist Squad to assist in the investigation. 

    The investigation, led by ATS Mumbai chief Hemant Karkare (who was later killed in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack at the Taj Hotel), made pioneering revelations linking terror attacks in the country to right-wing organisations. The team travelled to Pune, Nashik, Bhopal, and Indore, and three arrests were made. These included Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, Shiv Narayan Gopal Singh Kalsanghra and Shyam Bhawarlal Sahu. The bike that was used for the blast was traced to Pragya Thakur. Thakur, then 38, had been an ABVP activist before she turned to spiritualism. She took sanyas in 2007 and adopted the alias Purnachetananandagiri.  She went on to set up two organisations – the Jai Vande Mataram Janakalyan Samiti and the Rashtriya Janjagran Manch – in Indore.

    At the time, the trio had been slapped with charges of murder, attempt to murder, criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity between different groups on religious grounds. They had also been booked under the Explosives Act. The remand application mentioned that among other evidence, the police had recorded telephone conversations of up to 400 minutes between Pragya and her co-accused after the blast.

    Material seized during searches showed that the militants responsible for the attack were part of a Hindutva outfit called Abhinav Bharat, run by Sameer Kulkarni. Army officer Lt Col Prasad Purohit and retired Major Ramesh Upadhyay were also arrested. The role of a self-proclaimed seer named Sudhakar Dwivedi alias Dayanand Pandey also emerged.

    Endorsement by the Hindutva Front

    In October 2008, the Shiv Sena published an editorial proclaiming that the sadhvi was being falsely framed.

    Soon after, one by one, leaders from Hindutva groups started coming out in support of the sadhvi and other co-accused. Some also felt, however, that this support was not as full-throated as was necessary. Fellow sadhvi Uma Bharti Party expressed shock that the BJP and the broader Sangh Parivar were "disowning" the sadhvi. "When they wanted, they used her," she said.

    As the political wrangling developed, the Hindu Mahasabha decided to provide legal aid to the suspects from Pune – Upadhyay and Kulkarni. The national president of the Mahasabha, Himani Savarkar, also based in Pune, confirmed this.

    The broader network of Hindutva organisations soon flocked together. Endorsing the Shiv Sena's announcement of extending legal aid to Malegaon blast suspects, BJP Spokesperson Prakash Javedkar said, “For that matter, even RSS has promised help. It is not wrong for private funds to be utilised for helping someone. It is everyone's right." He added that the party's stand had been the same from day one – that no one should be discriminated on the basis of religion, caste or sex.

    The same day, L. K. Advani, the then BJP Chief, alleged that the majority community had been linked to terrorism to woo the minorities. He also said, "It has become clear that the ATS is acting in a politically motivated and unprofessional manner. After going through her (Thakur’s) affidavit, I have to express my shock and outrage, which I am sure all Indians will share. In view of the shocking charges made against the sadhvi by the ATS, and the fact that the present investigating team has lost all moral authority, I demand a change in the present ATS team and that a judicial inquiry be ordered to probe the charges made by Sadhvi Pragya and the manner in which unsubstantiated allegations have been made against army personnel." 

    Pragya Thakur, along with Lt Col Prasad Purohit, were also linked with the Samjhauta Express attack after it was established that the suitcase bombs, which had blown up two bogies of the Indo-Pak Samjhauta Express train in February the previous year, had been assembled in Indore.

    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 that 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.

    The Indian Express reported that in 2011, the Home Ministry handed the case over the case to the NIA 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.

    The bike, the NIA said in its charge sheet, was in Thakur’s name, but was being used by someone else for two years prior to the blast, 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.

    In May 2017, however, two key witnesses, who had made incriminating statements against Thakur to the ATS, changed their statements after the NIA re-examined them. Three others had also implicated her, but of them, one had died, one was said to be “missing”, and the third had already retracted his statement earlier.

    Jyoti Punwani in her report for the Scroll argued, “It is not clear why the National Investigative Agency, which took over the case in 2011, suddenly decided in late 2015 to re-examine witnesses. According to media reports, the central agency was all set to file a charge sheet in the case in 2014 when Narendra Modi’s government was voted in at the Centre. The investigation was then reportedly handed over to another officer.”

    In 2017, “RIP Indian justice” was trending on social media when Pragya Thakur got bail. She was granted bail following the dropping of charges under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act by the special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court citing medical reasons. Addressing a press conference after her bail, she accused the Congress-led UPA government of hatching a “conspiracy” resulting in her nine-year “ordeal”. “It (the conspiracy) was (meant) to endorse the bogey of saffron terrorism, a term coined by P Chidambaram (former home minister). I am innocent," Sadhvi told reporters.

    This was the first time Thakur was granted bail since her arrest in October 2008. Immediately after her arrest, she had applied for bail under normal bail provisions only to have her application turned down. The bail plea was rejected both by the trial court and the High Court in 2012 and 2014 respectively and finally once again in November 2015. This repeated denial of bail indicated the grave implications of the charges against her.

    Following the charge sheet, 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.

    Sadhvi Pragya Thakur is currently facing trial for terror charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act: Sections 16 (committing terrorist act) and 18 (conspiring to commit terrorist act) and under the IPC for murder, criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity between communities.

    The fielding of such a person, with such a catalogue of grave charges against her apart from a long background of vicious communal activism, sends a clear signal yet again to the electorate that Hindutva is the main plank for the BJP in the current Lok Sabha elections.   

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