Nanded bomb blast: CBI opposes RSS witness’s affidavit accusing VHP secretary general

Rakesh Dhawade (third from left) an accused in the Nanded blast and the Malegaon blast being taken to a sessions court, on 23 July 2010. Despite former RSS member Yashwant Shinde filing a sworn affidavit claiming that he was trained in bomb-making alongside Dhawade, the CBI refused to accept Shinde as a witness in the Nanded case. Ganesh Shirsekar/Express Photo
23 September, 2022

In a hearing on 22 September, the Central Bureau of Investigation asked the district court at Nanded in Maharashtra to reject an application by Yashwant Shinde to appear as a witness in a case relating to the April 2006 Nanded blast. Shinde has been a pracharak—full-time worker—of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh since 1990. On 29 August, he had filed a sworn affidavit to the Nanded court claiming that he participated in several meetings in which members of the RSS and its affiliate Vishwa Hindu Parishad—including Milind Parande, who is currently the secretary general of the VHP—planned a series of bomb blasts across the country. He also claimed to have undergone training in bomb making, under the guidance of Parande, along with around twenty others in 2003. In 2006, a powerful blast had taken place at the residence of Laxman Gundayya Rajkondawar, killing his son and his son’s friend, and injuring four others. The blast was later linked to a larger conspiracy that included explosions at masjids in Jalna, Purna and Parbhani in 2003 and 2004. Shinde claims that these blasts were conducted by the same group he trained with. Following Shinde’s submission, the court had sought responses from the CBI and the accused in the case.

All the claims Shinde made in his affidavit complimented the court submissions following the CBI’s own investigation, as well as an investigation previously conducted by the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad into the same case. And yet, the CBI—alongside the accused in the case, who were on the same page as the investigating agency in the hearing—opposed taking Shinde on as a witness, claiming that his application was “neither maintainable in law” nor “on facts.” The CBI’s argument rests primarily on the fact that Shinde had not approached investigative agencies for the last 16 years after the blast. The CBI additionally claimed that Shinde was not an affected party in the ongoing trial.

The CBI’s claims in court were paradoxical. On one hand, the agency argued in its most recent court filing they had not been able to determine the identity and whereabouts of the person who imparted “the training” and made “available the finances” for the blast. As a result, the CBI had filed a closure report in the case on 31 December 2020. Before Shinde’s affidavit it was not publicly known that the case had been closed. The CBI reiterated its position that “the case may be reopened and investigation may be taken up as and when any new, fresh, useful and definite clue is received about the identity of any person including Prof Dev involved in the commission of the crime in the instant case.”

In the same breath, the CBI was asking the court to reject Shinde’s application that not only identified the person who gave the “training” in his affidavit but also gave a detailed account of meeting with Ravi Dev at the VHP’s Mumbai office. Shinde claimed to me that Ravi Dev is the same person who the CBI identified as “Prof Dev.” In his affidavit he also named another companion from his training, Rakesh Dhawade, whom the CBI had already chargesheeted in the case and who is also facing trial in the 2008 Malegaon blast case.

Central to the CBI’s submission in court was their refusal to make Parande an accused in the case. If he was, he would be one of the senior-most office bearers of the Sangh Parivar to be investigated in a terrorism related case. The CBI maintained that, “during the investigation, none of the witnesses examined by the CBI has revealed his name nor his involvement surfaced in the investigation.”  

This is a strategic lie at best. A senior police officer who was in service at the time said that Milind Parande’s name prominently appeared in the Maharashtra ATS’s investigation of the blast. In his book Who Killed Karkare, SM Mushrif, a former inspector general of the Maharashtra Police describes the Maharashtra ATS’s investigation of the Nanded blast. Mushrif writes that the ATS tracked down Santkumar Bhate, a former merchant navy captain, in relation to the blast and that Bhate recorded two statements with the ATS in April and May 2006. Bhate claimed in his statements that Parande asked him to train several Sangh Parivar activists in the use of gelatin sticks—a common explosive. Bhate additionally noted that in another training camp that Parande took him to, Sangh Parivar activists were being trained by two ex-servicemen and a former Intelligence Bureau officer.

Mushrif told me that his account was based entirely on the Maharashtra ATS’s chargesheet for the case. From Bhate’s account, it is clear that the ATS investigation showed that Parande played a key role in organising the bomb training camps for Hindu extremists. For the CBI to claim that Parande’s involvement never surfaced is grossly inaccurate.

In their response to the Nanded court, the CBI took two technical grounds to argue against admission of Shinde’s application. The first is under section 173 (8) of Criminal Procedure of Code, which determines the police’s power to conduct further investigation even after submission of a final report. The CBI’s argument was that Shinde never produced himself before the investigating agency asking for a further investigation, which is true. Before coming to the court, Shinde had recently written a letter to the National Investigation Agency—which handles several other blast cases that share an accused in this case—and to the Mumbai police regarding the same matter. The second ground the CBI mentions to dismiss Shinde’s petition is Section 311 of CrPC which states that, “Any Court may, at any stage of any inquiry, trial or other proceeding under this Code, summon any person as a witness, or examine any person in attendance.” The CBI argued that Shinde was neither a complainant nor accused in the case so cannot avail of relief under Section 311.

I spoke with two criminal lawyers: one arguing at the Supreme Court and another at a Delhi district court, both of whom wished to remain anonymous. Both lawyers said that if one went by the letter of the law, Section 311 of CrPC would prevail and Shinde should have been taken as a witness. “The court’s power under this section is extraordinary,” the Supreme Court lawyer told me. “A long gap in one’s absence from the trial will not disqualify him to be added as a new witness.” However, they warned that a trial court judge is unlikely to exercise power under this section because it would likely open a floodgate of new witnesses in similar cases. The district court lawyer said that there was precedence for Shinde’s request. The Bombay High Court in 2020 allowed news anchor Arnab Goswami to challenge the chargesheet filed in a 2018 abetment of suicide case and seek amendment to the chargesheet under even after the case had been closed.

Over the past few weeks, I conducted a series of interview with Shinde regarding the bomb blast, the conspiracy, his colleagues within the Sangh and his career trajectory as a pracharak. Most of his claims regarding three bomb blasts in 2003 in masjids in the neighbouring districts of Jalna, Poorna and Parbhani factually line up with media reports as well as court records of these cases. It is not possible to legally verify Shinde’s claims unless they are tested against evidence such as telephone call records, training camp registers, forensics, videos and photographs from the crime scene, which have been in the CBI’s possession since it took over the Nanded blast case from the Maharashtra ATS in 2008. Shinde has filed more applications to gain access to the evidence and chargesheet filed by the state police in 2006.

In my interviews with him, he recounted several details relevant to the case from his own experience working with the accused. He also seemed to have a close association with the accused in the case. He was able to take me to the exact location of Himanshu Panse’s residence. The Panse family have moved, but neighbours as well as the current residents of the house identified the last owner as Panse’s father. Shinde claims that Panse was also present at the training camp.

Panse was killed in the 2006 blast, at the Rajkondawar residence. The 2006 blast had killed Naresh Rajkondawar—Laxman’s son. The four other who were injured were Maruthi Keshav Wagh, Yogesh Deshpande, Gururaj Jairam Tuptewar and Rahul Manohar Pande. Initially, the state police assumed it was an innocent local incident, a firecracker explosion with no pan-India implications. Later, the Maharashtra ATS chargesheeted all six victims of the blast, along with five others. A narco analysis of one Pande, one of the accused, revealed that the blast was part of the same conspiracy as the bomb blasts in Jalna, Poorna and Parbhani. While narco analysis has largely been proven to not yield accurate information, and is often misused by investigating agencies, other evidence collected by the ATS also ties the conspiracy to these blasts.

Soon after, the CBI took over the case and has since been dogged by allegations in the media of diluting it. The CBI’s recent submission in court clarifies that the agency had dropped the charges of “conspiracy” under the India Penal Code and multiple charges under the Arms Act. These charges had been present in Maharashtra ATS’s chargesheet pertaining to the case. In the CBI’s account, Rakesh Dhawade—the companion that Shinde named—had disclosed in his custodial interrogation that “one Prof Dev financed the operation and trained them for the bomb blast.” The agency told the court that, “the sketch of Prof Dev was also prepared and shown to various persons including guest house owner, witnesses etc. However, the identity of Prof Dev couldn’t be established till date.” It promised the court that a further report will be submitted after establishing the identities of all the financiers and trainers in the case. This largely suggests that the CBI see the finding of Dev as the only possible lead in their case.

If this were the case, it is unclear why the CBI are so unwilling to take Shinde as a witness. The CBI’s response agreed with Shinde’s affidavit that Dev did train the men who carried out the bomb blasts. Shinde’s memory of Dev is mostly from the training camp held in 2003. “Dev was already in his 60s when he would come to the camp,” Shinde told me. “The camp was organised at a two-storeyed resort near the Sinhagad fort,” roughly forty kilometres from Pune. “All the men would eat, stroll, and spend time at the ground floor, while the training would be held at the first floor.” Shinde went on to describe the bomb-making training. “They would sit in a circle while Dev would demonstrate to them how to mix materials,” he said. “There were saffron colored and white coloured powder that was used in their training.” He did not know the name of the chemicals they used.

Shinde described Dev as a man of average height, roughly five feet and five inches tall, and having sharp nose and wheatish complexion. He told me he reckoned Dev was from north India because of the “shuddh”—pure—Hindi he spoke. Shinde was not certain but he said he remembered Dev sporting a tuft of longer hair on the back of his head—commonly associated with Brahmins. Shinde said that, at the time of the training, he was not aware of what specific role Dev played in the Sangh Parivar. He added that Dhawade would drive Dev to the training centre on a bike and then back home. It was Dhawade who took care of their stay at the resort, their food and other expenses, Shinde said, adding that Dev had nothing to do with the financing. In his affidavit, Shinde even shared a phone number that he claims Dev used.

He said that Dev went by the name Mithun Chakraborty at the time. Shinde claims in his affidavit that four years after the training camp, he met Chakraborty again at the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s office in Mumbai, known as Firoza Mansion. Shinde said it was only here that he found out Chakraborty’s real name was Ravi Dev. Shinde had previously spent six months at Firoza Mansion as pracharak in 1999, so was well acquainted with staff there. A staff member at the office told him that Dev was working as a sah sanyojak—additional coordinator—of the Bajrang Dal, the VHP’s youth wing. When Shinde called Dev by his real name, he claimed that Dev fled in fear. Shinde told me Dev “ran towards Parande while I followed him. At the ground floor, he whispered into Parande’s ear about my discovery.”

Shinde told me that “the CBI’s focus on Dev distracts from Milind Parande, who was the actual mastermind of the conspiracy.” His affidavit claims that Panse—a victim of the Nanded blast who had continued making bombs for the conspiracy—“had informed him that Milind Parande was the master mind of the plan of country wide bomb blasts.” Even if Dev is central to the conspiracy, Shinde told me that the CBI could find out more about him by investigating Parande’s relations to him.

Shinde said that he became distant from the Maharasthra leadership of the VHP after he travelled to Jammu and Kashmir and later to the North East. He claimed that it was only in July 2003 that two of Parande’s close associates approached him at a temple in south Mumbai to participate in the training. “I will reveal the names of the two associates at the right time before the court,” Shinde said.

It was also evident from my interviews with Shinde that he and Parande were not on good terms. Parande, Shinde recounted, was not happy with the latter’s methods of functioning during a stint with the Bajrang Dal in Mumbai in the late 1990s. In one such incident, Shinde told me that a senior RSS worker had called him seeking help in dealing with some local hooligans. He said he went to the location immediately and taught the hooligans a lesson “in their own language.” Parande expressed his disappointment with Shinde after the incident. Shinde believed Parande was angry with him because he felt his authority was being undermined. Shinde said that Parande commanded respect in the organisation only because he was “brought in” by Ashok Singhal, the former international president of the VHP who was in-charge of leading the campaign against the Babri Masjid. Shinde also said that Parande was previously working abroad.

I called up the VHP’s headquarters in Delhi to speak to Parande. The person on the other end of the line told me that Parande has gone abroad and asked me to speak instead with Alok Kumar, an advocate and the VHP’s international working president. Kumar told me that Shinde’s claims were nothing but “hearsay.” “He [Shinde] says somebody told him something that is hearsay. He has no foundation to build on.” Kumar also said that Shinde has given “no details of what all was discussed by Milind Parande.” When I asked if the VHP acknowledged Shinde as one of their own, Kumar said, “We have not been able to find any such people.” The CBI’s spokesperson did not respond to multiple calls or messages.

The Nanded court has fixed the next hearing in the case on 4 November. Shinde will be given an opportunity to argue his case on that day. The CBI and the accused will argue as well.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the CBI identified the “Ravi Dev” named in Yashwant Shinde’s affidavit as Prof Dev,”  the alleged mastermind behind the blasts in Nanded. The CBI has not addressed this matter. It is, in fact, Yashwant Shinde who claimed they are the same person. The Caravan regrets the error.