A minister of the Maharashtra government said on Monday it will form a special investigation team to probe the Elgar Parishad case after it was transferred from the state police to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), triggering a huge political row.
The announcement came from Maharashtra's minority affairs minister and Nationalist Congress Party leader Nawab Malik after NCP chief Sharad Pawar called a meeting of all party ministers earlier in the day.
The meeting was held amid reports of rising differences with ally Shiv Sena over the transfer of the case to the central agency and after Pawar expressed his displeasure over chief minister Uddhav Thackeray's decision to allow the handing over to NIA.
Malik pointed out that under the NIA act a state can also investigate a case.
"There is nothing wrong in the chief minister's decision to hand over the case to NIA because going by the NIA act it is binding on the state. But section 10 of the act also empowers the state to hold a parallel investigation in such a case," Malik said.
"Pawar saheb has asked the home minister to act following the provisions. The home minister will appoint an SIT to probe the case," he said.
Malik said the Supreme Court had also observed that the case needs to be thoroughly investigated though it has denied bail to the accused in Elgar Parishad case.
"From the beginning, the NCP chief was of the view that activists were wrongly implicated in the case. He has also written letters to the chief minister and the home minister demanding SIT probe which will happen now," Malik said.
Last week, Pawar said that while the Centre's decision directing NIA to take over the case was inappropriate, the state government's approval to it was not good either.
It was for the first time that Pawar had criticised any decision taken by the chief minister since the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government — made up of the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress — was formed on November 28, 2019.
The state home minister, Anil Deshmukh, said he will seek legal opinion over setting up an SIT in the Elgar Parishad case.
"The Elgar Parishad case was discussed in today's meeting. I will seek legal opinion over constituting an SIT in the matter. With legal opinion in place, I will also discuss the case with the chief minister to take the decision," Deshmukh said.
Deshmukh, who is from the NCP, had said last Thursday that Uddhav Thackeray used his discretionary powers to approve the handover. Deshmukh said they are still of the opinion that the Centre should have taken the state government into confidence before handing over the probe to NIA.
And on Saturday, Deshmukh had said the state's home department has sent a note to the advocate general seeking his legal opinion on whether an SIT can be constituted for probing Elgar Parishad case.
As soon as the MVA government was formed, Pawar had written a letter to Thackeray demanding a probe by a special investigation team into the case. The NCP chief had said the erstwhile Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government "abused" its power to book activists and called their arrests a conspiracy.
After Pawar's letter, deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar held a meeting with officials of the home department to review the case. The home department had also been considering appointing a special investigation team to probe the Elgar Parishad case.
However, before it could do so, the Centre directed NIA to take over the case. The central agency has the power to take over investigations over cases which have a bearing on national security.
The case relates to the violence on New Year's Day in 2018 on the banks of the Bhima river, where thousands of people, mostly Dalits, had gathered to mark the anniversary of an 1818 victory of the British Army, manned primarily by Dalit soldiers, over the Peshwa, the then rulers who instituted oppressive caste practises.
A group of unidentified men on motorcycles attacked the visitors and pelted stones, killing one person and injuring 40.
The police investigation initially pointed at far-right Hindu groups but then concentrated on the event called the Elgar Parishad on December 31, 2017. Police said the event was funded by Maoists, and that the provocative speeches made at the gathering triggered the clashes a day later.
In June and August of 2018, police arrested nine prominent activists and raided the homes of many others in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities.