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From a quiet, benign presence to the midst of a media melee

Last updated on: November 05, 2018 15:01 IST

Pragya Singh Thakur remained at the back of the courtroom during Tuesday’s framing of the charges, her face serene, quite different from the fiery person one read about or saw on television.

But once the day’s proceedings were over and she was wheeled out, the sadhvi decided she actually was very keen to meet the media and headed right out into the melee, says Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com.

 

IMAGE: 2008 Malegaon blast case accused Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur leaves the special NIA court after she was charged for terror conspiracy, murder, and other related offences, in Mumbai, Tuesday, Oct 30, 2018. Photograph: Shashank Parade / PTI Photo

Pragya Singh Thakur, one of the accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case, sitting on a red blanket, was wheeled into Judge Vinod S Padalkar’s NIA Courtroom 26 on the fifth floor of the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, Kala Ghoda, in a black wheelchair on October 30, Tuesday.

She was a study in bright saffron from head to toe.

Across her forehead was an intricate band of orange, punctuated by two red tikkas, that must daily take 10 minutes out of her life to paint onto her face.

The palms of her hands had orange circles inscribed on them.

Her ear lobes were daubed with haldi (turmeric).

 

Three chunky malas and/or rudrakshas sat around her neck -- one of orange-brown beads, another sienna-brown and the last had clear plastic or glass beads.

A rudraksha was also wrapped around her wrist. She wore a gold ring on the fourth finger of her right hand. Spectacles were perched on her nose.

A silver ring shone on the big toe of the sadhvi’s left foot and her slightly puffy feet were jammed into laced, heeled sandals. She is said to be paralysed below her waist.

The sadhvi’s voluminous orange robes, that had a light zari edging, concealed a thick-set figure. Her face was framed by a boy cut, and her wrists and arms were chunky.

She was a benign, quiet presence in the back of the courtroom, through the hearing, her face serene, quite different from the fiery person one read about or saw on television.

She emitted a soothing fragrance that seemed closest to baby talc. 

The other motley six accused in this case, who were granted bail by the high court in 2017 along with Pragya -- the court clerk referred to one of them as “Swamiji” -- occupied two benches near the sadhvi at the back of the courtroom at the command of the judge.

Some were in dhotis, some in orange robes, many in kurtas, some sporting saphas (scarves wrapped around the head) or gold earrings (the men).

The room was full of tikkas and tilaks.

Plenty of reds and oranges presided too.

And uch Hindi.

Lieutenant Colonel Prasad Shrikant Purohit, a man of short stature and one of the last to enter the room, strode over to occupy the bench the judge had designated for the aropi/accused (given that the box was too small for seven). He looked out of place in his sober white shirt and grey-black pants, a decorative steel chain looped between his shirt pocket and its buttons, among that crowd.

One usually knows when Purohit is visiting the sessions court because the television cameras, on tripods outside, multiply and his security detail floods the narrow lane outside the court. Turbaned soldiers pace about while guards hoisting menacing AK47s stand by. And the court’s own security is on its toes, checking bags and purses assiduously. It is a signal that someone important is within the building.

But Tuesday in the courtroom, sitting along with the other accused on a rickety bench, some of Purohit’s importance had been taken away from him, even if his military demeanour and erect posture set him apart from the rest of that bunch.

The September 29, 2008, Malegaon blast case, one of the most prominent cases of alleged “saffron terror” in which six were killed and 101 injured by an explosive strapped to a motorcycle in a central Maharashtra, Muslim-dominated town, has been occupying headlines for the past 10 years now --  initially while a tediously long investigation unfolded and more recently when charges against only seven out of 12 remained and when the fate of the commencement of the trial was tied up by orders and counter orders from higher courts. (You would be forgiven for being quite surprised to hear that 10 years later the trial has not even begun.)

But the stern-mannered Judge Padalkar, recently appointed, who runs a very starchy, efficient, newly-renovated courtroom, had had enough. He told the court as much Tuesday when he framed the charges that set the trial on its way when he announced, “I am going to frame the charges today only!

His announcement came after the defence lawyers made a last-ditch attempt to stall the start of the trial.

IMAGE: Lieutenant Colonel Prasad Purohit leaves the special NIA court after he was charged for terror conspiracy, murder, and other related offences, in Mumbai, on Tuesday. Photograph: Shashank Parade / PTI Photo

Purohit’s lawyer Shrikant Shivade made a manful attempt to request the court to wait another four days to a week for an answer from the higher court though the Bombay high court had refused to stay the framing of the charges in Courtroom 26. “All will be washed out… if my challenge in the high court succeeds.”

He went on to speak about Purohit’s “extremely meritorious record” and how he had been injured “several times on the border” and that an ex-Pakistani army chief had demanded his custody. Yet he had spent more than seven years in jail.

Speaking for Purohit, Shivade declared that “framing charges was worse than a death sentence” for him, given honour was at stake.

The prosecution advocate Avinash Rasal countered Shivade’s argument in a few sentences and asked, “Is it not that you delayed the process?”

Shivade responded: “Every time we moved for bail (we were) told the investigation is pending…” Asking for time to move a higher court Shivade said, “Just give me four days’ time. Four days won’t make a difference in eight years!” With that he closed his plea and sat down.

Given the ebb and flow of arguments in a courtroom, with each view sounding utterly convincing till the next is tabled, it looked like Purohit’s lawyer might have made some impact on the judge.

But Judge Padalkar, after carefully hearing out both advocates and making very precise notes himself, firmly stated he had no intention of delaying, for even one minute longer, the business of framing the charges – which he said were prepared and ready -- and beginning the trial.

“(Four days) makes a difference to this court.”

With that he set the ball rolling.

Each of the accused was asked to identify himself/herself, supply his/her age, profession and confirm the address the court already had on record.

One of the accused had not yet reached court though it was already 1 pm and his lawyer sheepishly announced he was just reaching Kala Ghoda (a few minutes away).

Two other accused -- Sandeep Dange and Ramchandra Kalsangra -- have been absconding for many years, with their relatives alleging that they have been killed.

IMAGE: Malegaon blast 2008 accused and religious leader Dayanand Pandey leaves the special NIA court after he was charged for terror conspiracy, murder and other related offences, in Mumbai, Tuesday, October 30, 2018. Photograph: Shashank Parade / PTI Photo

The professions of the accused were mixed -- sanyasin/sanyasi, social work (“samajik kaam”), small business owner, army service.

The ages varied between 45 and 60 something. Said Pragya in Hindi “47. 48 chal raha hai.”

The addresses of the accused ranged from Pune, Mumbai to Bhopal and Haridwar.

Great emphasis was made, by some of the accused, to inform the court that Bhopal was in Madhya Pradesh and Haridwar in Uttarakhand, seeming to give the subtle message that a Mumbai court might be weak on north Indian geography.

Accused Major (retired) Ramesh Upadhyay got up to give his age and said he was from Gurgaon, Haryana.

As the judge was noting it down, Upadhyay added pointedly that the place was now called Gurugram.

The judge looked up at him, momentarily pausing his writing.

Upadhyay took it as a sign to help explain his geographical location better and said succinct words to the effect: “Gurugram, where a Christian killed a judge’s wife and son.”

The judge ignored him.

Judge Padalkar then asked the accused in which language he should announce the charges and if they either understood English or Marathi.

A whole bunch of murmuring started up among the accused (barring Purohit whose English is fairly impeccable) as they indignantly announced they didn’t know English or Marathi and would like to hear the charges in Hindi.

The chorus: “Hindi sabko aati hai (Everyone knows Hindi).”

The refrain for Hindi was again it seemed, an effort to make statement. Later many of those demanding the court speak to them in Hindi were speaking excellent English in the corridors outside the court.

The judge lost patience and muttered something to the effect of “Arre bhaiya…”

Upadhyay, like an irritating smartie-pants classroom back bencher, popped up again to announce that the judge’s usage of the word bhaiya was an insult given the word’s connotation in Mumbai.

But this time Upadhyay had gone too far.

Judge Padalkar began reprimanding Upadhyay.

Someone dug an elbow into Upadhyay whispering to him to apologise and Upadhyay offered a half-hearted, lame “I had not intended to say that.”

The judge carefully read out the charges -- the accused had been charged with being part of a terrorist act under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, and for participating in a criminal conspiracy and murder under the Indian Penal Code. Judge Padalkar asked the accused to appear before the NIA court by November 2.

With that the proceedings wrapped up.

Colonel Purohit, whose wife Aparna was in the courtroom with him, approached the judge to say that he was upset that the charges were still being framed against him: “I never expected this.” He went on to say that it was about “my integrity” and “honesty” and how “no one could doubt it.” Disappointed he left.

One by one the other accused exited the courtroom.

The sadhvi was taken down to the ground floor by lift.

Her reverential handlers then debated which path to use to leave the building.

Several advised them to not try departing from the front entrance because the media had gheraoed it.

But the sadhvi decided she actually was very keen to meet the media and headed right out into the melee.

As she was carefully brought down the ramp, towards the entrance gates, television crews, in less than a split second, noticed her arrival and scrambled (leapt) over to her side, in a mad dash mowing down anyone in their path.

They began sticking mics and cameras through the bars of the court gate for significant sound bites from her, edging suffocatingly closer.

Passers-by, seeing the hyperkinetic media enthusiasm on the street, stopped in their tracks and migrated over to this spectacle, peering at the sanyasin through the bars of the court’s boundary fence.

The bewilderment on their faces said it all.

This celeb in her orange clothes was no Bollywood star or neta. They were baffled. Who was she?

The sadhvi took off in a loud voice, back to the fiery persona one had read about: “Lekin hum shanti purvak sab prakar ka kaam karte hain. Humare desh mein, Hinduo ke desh mein, Hinduvadi desh mein, Hinduon ke dharti par koi terror kaise phela sakte hai (We work peacefully. In our country, in our Hindu country, our country of Hindu followers, on the earth of Hindus, how can one spread terror)?”

She was then wheeled over to her vehicle as the media scrimmage made a Usain Bolt-style dash towards Purohit who was exiting from another gate.

On November 2, 2018, ten years after the terror attack, the trial in the Malegaon 2008 blast case will finally begin in Mumbai.

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Rediff.com in Mumbai