The Home Ministry’s abrupt decision to transfer the investigation into the Bhima Koregaon cases in Maharashtra to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is an unwarranted interference in the police powers of the State. It is clearly aimed at preventing the new regime in Maharashtra from reviewing the controversial probe done under the BJP-led government through a Special Investigation Team of its own. The Pune police have filed a charge sheet against known rights defenders and activists on the grave charge of being part of a Maoist plot against the government, basing their claim on purported material seized from computers during raids. What began as a case relating to alleged provocative speeches during the ‘Elgar Parishad’, an event held on December 31, 2017, to commemorate a military victory of Dalits against the Peshwa army 200 years earlier, followed by some incidents of violence, was then transformed into a sinister plot to overthrow the government, allegedly at the behest of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The police conducted raids across the country and named some activists and lawyers in the FIR. Even though there was an outlandish claim based on a letter of doubtful authenticity that there was an assassination plot against the Prime Minister, this allegation did not find place in the FIR, or remand applications. Despite its inter-State ramifications, the State government vehemently opposed a petition in the Supreme Court for a court-monitored independent probe. At that time, the Centre, also helmed by the BJP, expressed no inclination to hand over the probe to the NIA, even though sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) were invoked.
Significantly, the Supreme Court, by a 2-1 majority, declined to intervene with the police probe, remaining unmoved by the arguments of scholars such as Romila Thapar and Prabhat Patnaik that it was an attempt to hound rights defenders and suppress political dissent. The Union government cannot now turn around and claim that it is a fit case for an NIA probe. A provision in the NIA Act does allow the Centre to give a suo motu direction to the NIA to take over any investigation, if offences listed in a schedule to the Act are committed. The Centre’s suo motu power is likely to be tested for its constitutionality when Chhattisgarh’s suit against the NIA comes up. The episode highlights fears expressed by some States that their police power would be compromised if the NIA was established. But what is legally questionable now is not the Centre’s power, but whether such a decision is tenable at this stage, long after it became common knowledge that an offence under UAPA had taken place and its ramifications known. The inevitable conclusion is that the Centre’s intervention is a ploy to continue the political narrative that the lawyers and activists sympathetic towards the cause of tribal people in conflict-hit areas are ‘urban Naxals’ or Maoists.