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Bhima-Koregaon clash: HC declines interim protection to key accused

The Bombay High Court refused to grant any interim protection from arrest to Milind Ekbote, a key accused in the case related to the January 1 violence at Bhima-Koregaon in Pune district.

A bench of justices S C Dharamadhikari and Bharati Dangre rejected Ekbote’s argument that a sessions court in Pune had erred in rejecting his anticipatory bail plea last month.

The bench instead said that the Pune courts observations made against the right-wing leader in rejecting his plea could not be ignored.

Ekbote, who heads a trust called the Samast Hindu Aghadi, has been booked by the Pune Police in three separate FIRs for inciting violence under the Indian Penal Code, and sections of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

He had approached the high court after the Pune court refused to grant him any relief.

In his plea in the high court, Ekbote had argued that the police erred in filing charges against him since he was not present at the site of the incident. Therefore, there existed no question of him having incited any violence, or committed any act of atrocity, he had said.

Ekbote had contended that the ground situation in the area had been “simmering” for about 10 days prior to the January 1 violence.

“However, it was a failure of intelligence on part of the authorities since they could not assess that the situation will get so bad,” the right-wing leader had said.

He had also said that events preceding the violence at Bhima-Koregaon, particularly the Elgar Parishad event where JNU student leader Umar Khalid and Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani gave speeches, were the real cause of the violence which had caste overtones.

“Khalid and Mevani made provocative speeches,” he had alleged.

The Maharashtra government, however, had told the court that the police had evidence that on December 30 (just ahead of the violence), Ekbote was present at a hotel about 4 km away from Bhima-Koregaon. His call data records (CDR) showed he had been in contact with several other accused persons in the case, they had said.

Ekbote had 17 previous cases of atrocities registered against him, the prosecution said, adding public property worth Rs 9 crore was vandalised during the violence.

Ekbote, however, argued he had been planning to go to Bhima-Koregaon on December 30 to “appeal to the public to maintain peace”.

“However, the police advised me against going there and so I stopped at a hotel about 4 km away. I held a press conference there and distributed a press note which was in no way provocative,” he said.

Ekbote also said that the mere fact that he had been in touch with four of the 49 people (charged under SC/ST Act) was not adequate evidence against him.

The bench, however, observed since the police were still in the process of collecting evidence, the court need not comment on the relevance of the CDR at the present stage.

“The probe is still on. The police is still recording statements of victims and collecting evidence.

“Therefore, it will be totally unsafe to express any opinion on the evidence and also on the complicity, even prima facie, of the appellant (Ekbote),” the bench observed.

“We, however, cannot ignore the averments made by the trial court (in Pune) against the appellant. Therefore, we find no merit in this plea and are inclined to reject it,” it said.

The bench also observed that the entire incident could have been avoided if the local leaders as well as the general public had “shown some discipline”.

On January 22, the Pune court had rejected Ekbote’s anticipatory bail application, observing he was accused in a “grave matter” and had “very serious charges” against him.

One person was killed and several others were injured in the violence which erupted after right-wing outfits opposed the 200th anniversary celebration of the Bhima-Koregaon battle, in which forces of the East India Company defeated Peshwa’s army.

People belonging to the Mahar community among Dalits had fought for the British, while the Peshwa’s were Brahmins.

Dalit groups celebrate the victory as a symbol of their resurgence.

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