Nanded Blast: Court rejects former RSS man’s request to give witness against VHP leader

Yashwant Shinde’s hearing listed at the Nanded court. Shinde’s petition offering witness against VHP leader Milind Parande in a string of bomb blasts was dismissed by the court. SAGAR FOR THE CARAVAN
19 February, 2023

On 17 January, the Nanded district court rejected a former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member’s application requesting he be made a witness in an ongoing trial pertaining to the 2006 Nanded bomb blast. Yashwant Shinde, the former RSS man, had earlier argued before the court that he had “personal knowledge of the conspiracy” that led to the blast, which was “hatched by the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal.” Shinde also accused Milind Parande, the current general secretary of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, of masterminding the blast and requested that he be added as an accused in the case. Since 29 August, Shinde has appeared before the court on five hearings. The dismissal of Shinde’s application weakens the investigation into the larger conspiracy behind several blasts.

Shinde claimed that he was involved in a bomb-making training camp at a resort near Pune, in July 2003, which was attended by several others. The conspiracy led to at least three bomb blasts at mosques in Parbhani, Purna and Jalna, besides the accidental Nanded blast. Until 2006, the previous bomb blasts were treated as isolated incidents that were unconnected with each other. Shinde’s application had claimed the same conspiracy also led to the 2006 Malegaon blast, the 2007 Samjhauta Express blast, the 2007 Ajmer Sharif blast, the 2007 Mecca Masjid Hyderabad blast and the 2008 Malegaon blast. Rakesh Dhawade, an accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast is also an accused in the Nanded case. If Shinde’s claims are true, the bomb blasts borne out of the conspiracy have killed more than one hundred and twenty people, a majority of whom were Muslim.

The Nanded court, though, dismissed Shinde’s application on the same ground as the prosecution had previously suggested. As the Nanded blast had links with several other bomb blasts during the mid-2000s, the CBI had been the prosecuting agency in the case. The agency investigated the case from February 2007 to December 2020. They had filed two chargesheets by March 2009 and a closure report in December 2020 before the Nanded trial court—all of which is public knowledge only as a result of Shinde’s application.

On 22 September last year, the CBI had opposed the application, on the grounds that Shinde came forward after “a gap of 16 years” and that “he never approached the CBI nor he gave any information to the investigative agency at any point of time.” On 13 December, Shinde had argued that he had been “doubtful whether people would believe him” until the 2008 Malegaon bomb blast, one of the first wherein the involvement of top RSS leaders came to fore. Shinde also argued that from 2008 onwards he personally informed several senior Bharatiya Janata Party, VHP and RSS leaders, either directly or through intermediaries. These leaders included Indresh Kumar, a member of the RSS national executive; Shrikant Joshi, a former RSS national executive member; Venkatesh Abdeo, a former central general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad; Sunil Deodhar, a national secretary of the BJP; Tapan Ghosh, a former RSS leader and founder of the Hindu Samhati; Pramod Muthalik, the founder of the Shri Ram Sena; and Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak—supreme leader—of the RSS. Shinde had submitted before the court that senior RSS leaders including Bhagwat “tacitly supported such terrorist activities.”  

On 13 December, Shinde sought protection under section 311 of the Code of Criminal Procedure that empowers a court to call a witness at any stage of a trial. Shinde quoted the Supreme Court’s judgment in the 2004 Best Bakery case, in which the court had ordered a retrial while transferring the case from Gujarat to Maharashtra. The court order, while rejecting his application, mentioned that, “It is not in dispute that the criminal court has ample power under 311 of the code to examine any person as a witness. However, it is provided in the code that the accused persons shall be given copies of the documents on which prosecution relies. In the instant matter, the applicant never approached the investigating agency which could have recorded his statement and could have made him a witness.”

The court here has seemingly made a circular argument. Along with his application, Shinde had filed a sworn affidavit detailing his personal knowledge of the conspiracy. In his affidavit, Shinde details how he underwent training in bomb making, under the guidance of Parande, along with several others in 2003. He also details how he visited his friend Himanshu Panse—who died in the accidental 2006 blast—and had attempted to dissuade him from taking part in the bombing campaign. Shinde’s affidavit was shared with both the CBI as well as the accused in the case. In fact, besides the prosecution CBI, all the accused persons together had filed a separate written response asking the court to reject Shinde’s application.

If a new witness is allowed in a case at a later stage, under section 311, the information provided by the witness can only be given to accused persons after his or her appearance before the court. This is what Shinde did. For the court to dismiss Shinde’s petition, arguing that “the accused persons shall be given copies of the documents on which prosecution relies” and that he “never approached the investigating agency which could have recorded his statement,” seems logically inconsistent. As a witness cannot retroactively give evidence, the implication of the court order seems to mean that no new witness can ever be brought under section 311. Shinde himself argued this. “On one hand, the court says 311 is not in dispute. On the other hand, it also says accused persons should be given copies and that I never approached the investigative agency,” he told me in a telephonic conversation. “I did give them copies of my affidavit when I requested the court to make me a witness. I couldn’t have given them the copies decades ago before I appeared before the court. Why else would I seek protection under 311 then if I could have given my witness earlier?”

The only way to understand the order is to assume that the judge was referring to another provision here, not section 311. For example, section 207 of the CrPC requires a magistrate to supply police records and other documents to accused persons in a case. If the judge was indeed pointing to this or another provision of the CrPC, the court failed to explain its grounds for rejecting Shinde’s application under section 311. The court, in fact, did not address the revelations regarding the conspiracy made by Shinde at all in its order. The application was rejected in toto, on the technical grounds that Shinde did not have his statement recorded before the agency in previous years.

Mohnish Thorat, the advocate who argued for Shinde on 13 December, told me, “The learned court simply ignored section 311 while rejecting our application. Various supreme court judgments supported section 311. In that context, the learned district judge should have considered the provision and also the honorable supreme court’s order but that has not been at all considered.” Thorat added that, “As far as our case is concerned, the facts which were narrated in the application, it should have been reasoned in the order.” Thorat told me that Shinde’s claim actually favoured the accused persons who opposed his application. “I’ve narrated the circumstances. If these persons are not the actual accused, some persons who would have done it are still out there,” he said.

On 13 December, Thorat said he had argued before the court for almost two hours while explaining the object and scope of section 311. His written argument mentioned, “there are two parts of section 311: 1) giving a discretion to the court to examine a witness at any stage and 2) the mandatory portion which compels the court to examine a witness if his evidence appears to the just decision of the court.” In terms of compelling evidence, Thorat argued that Shinde had personal information of the conspiracy that matched with the statements given by two of the accused—Sanjay Choudhary and Rahul Manohar Pande—during narco-analysis tests conducted on them, as well as the testimony of Santkumar Rangvitthal Bhate, a former merchant navy man, who was previously interrogated by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad in relation to the blast.

The Caravan previously reported on these testimonies and how the CBI shifted the focus of its investigation away from the senior VHP leaders Parande, Sharad Krishna Kunte and Ashok Singhal, whose names feature investigations by the CBI, the special branch of the Pune Police and the Maharashtra ATS. Both Shinde and the ATS alleged that the person who gave bomb-making training to those accused in the Nanded blast was an individual called Mithun Chakraborty. Shinde, in his affidavit, gave a physical description of Chakraborty and claimed to have last seen him at VHP’s Mumbai office in 2007. The CBI, on the other hand, never mentioned Chakraborty in its closure report and instead put the entire blame on a certain professor Dev, who it said it could not trace.

Shinde in his application had also asked the court to make Parande a prime accused in the case and add two others, Chakraborty and one Rakesh Dhawade, also as accused. He had explained their specific role in the conspiracy in his affidavit. Shinde had claimed that while Chakraborty, whose real name was Ravi Dev, trained him along with other accused persons at a resort near Pune, Dhawade had provided logistics for the training. Until a previous hearing, on 22 September 2022, Shinde believed that “prof Dev” was the same person as Ravi Dev who trained the accused, and himself, for the blasts in mid-2003. In his most recent submission, though, he implied that prof Dev could possibly be a different person. On 13 December, after documents Shinde was given access to during the course of hearings revealed that Dhawade had already been made an accused, he withdrew his plea against Dhawade.

On 17 January, the court refused to make Parande and Ravi Dev accused in the case. The court order mentioned, “the allegations against three persons namely Milind Parande, Rakesh Dhawade and Ravi Dev are involved in the offenses are not finding any support from the prosecution. The allowing of the application of such nature after recording evidence of more than 10 witnesses and after the time gap of 16 years from the incident will be abuse of process of law.” On 22 September, the CBI had used almost the same language while asking to reject Shinde’s application. The court rejected the allegations against Parande, for it did not find support from the prosecution (the CBI in this case).

This is a strange position. Bhate, one of the witnesses in the case, had earlier testified in relation with the 2003 Parbhani blast, revealing Parande’s involvement. The Parbhani blast was part of the same conspiracy as the Nanded blast by the CBI’s own admission, and the same set of accused are on trial in the Nanded case, so the CBI’s lack of interest in prosecuting Parande is intriguing. In November, when I met him at his home in Pune, Bhate confirmed to me that Parande knew one of the accused Panse and had organised previous training camps in which Bhate had trained RSS cadre.

It was remarkable that the judge, the prosecution and the accused persons were all unanimous in their opposition to Shinde’s petition. The accused and prosecution are traditionally supposed to be on different sides. But, here, they seem to be on the same side, despite Shinde not mentioning any incriminating evidence against any of the existing accused. On the contrary, his claims only point to others as the real conspirators, trainer and mastermind. The CBI’s position seems even more suspect, as Shinde has brought several more leads to an investigation that it had admitted was closed because it reached a dead end. Shinde’s affidavit is corroborated by the Maharashtra ATS’s evidence as well as the CBI’s own findings, which suggest his value as a witness. Shinde told me that he would appeal against the dismissal before the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court.