If an extension is granted, the Commission's next hearing will be a long one: From October 16-28, so as to complete the cross-examination of all remaining witnesses.
Jyoti Punwani reports.
As the Bhima Koregaon Commission of Inquiry comes close to finishing its hearings, it faces a familiar roadblock: the end of its current term. September 30 is the last day of its functioning, till it gets another extension.
The testimonies of the last few witnesses remain to be completed. Most of these are policemen who had handled the violence on January 1, 2018 around Bhima Koregaon, which is the subject matter of the inquiry.
The Commission is investigating the violence that took place on January 1, 2018, when Dalits making their way towards Bhima Koregaon to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle that had taken place there between the British and the Peshwas, were attacked by saffron-flag wielding mobs. This led to clashes in which one youth died.
Among the officers whose cross-examination is still to be completed are Suvez Haque, then Superintendent of Police Pune Rural, and Rashmi Shukla, then Commissioner of Police, Pune. Both were to have been present during the two sessions held this month, but failed to appear.
Haque was travelling, and Shukla said she was busy with the G20 summit. However, the summit got over on September 10, while Shukla's August 29-30 hearing was re-scheduled for September 14 and 15.
As CP of Pune on January 1, 2018, Shukla's testimony is crucial, and the Commission has the power to issue her a summons.
Another senior police officer proving elusive is former Police Commissioner of Mumbai Parambir Singh, who was additional DGP Law and Order when the Bhima Koregaon violence took place. The Commission summoned him because they felt the knowledge he would have about the violence would be valuable.
Singh was first issued summons in October 2021. At that time, facing several extortion and corruption charges, he was untraceable. In November 2021, he was suspended by the then Uddhab Thackeray government.
However, in May this year, the Eknath Shinde government revoked his suspension and dropped all charges against him.
Despite all its powers, the Commission is unable to summon the IPS officer as they cannot get his address. Interestingly, the cases against Shukla of illegal phone-tapping have also been closed; she is currently in the running for the coveted post of Mumbai's CP.
Param Bir Singh is an important witness for another reason too.
As additional DGP Law and Order, he had held a press conference in August 2018 to show 'documentary proof' against the intellectuals arrested in the Elgar Parishad-Bhima Koregaon case. This 'proof', however, was later probed by international forensic experts who found that it had been planted on the computers of some of the Bhima Koregaon accused through malware.
Both the high court and later Justice Dr Dhananjay Yeshwant Chandrachud in his dissenting Supreme Court judgment had criticised Singh for holding this press conference.
But even as top cops favoured by the government stayed away, the last two sessions of the Commission saw a star witness: Prakash Ambedkar. The man who had presided over the controversial Elgar Parishad held in Pune on December 31, 2017; and had called for a state-wide bandh to protest against the violence that took place at Bhima Koregaon the next day on January 1, 2018, filed his affidavit only in July this year.
In the limited time that he appeared before the Commission: just half a day in each session, Ambedkar made the starling claim that the Elgar Parishad had been conceived of as a means of defusing the tension between the state's Marathas and OBCs, which had intensified in the wake of the Maratha reservation agitation that swept the state in 2016-2017.
This is the first time any witness has claimed this to be the reason for the Elgar Parishad.
If an extension is granted, the Commission's next hearing will be a long one: From October 16-28, so as to complete the cross-examination of all remaining witnesses. An application for a six-month extension has been sent to the government. However, since January 2023, the government has been granting only three-month extensions, leaving it in a state of uncertainty.
In another indicator of the manner in which the government treats the Bhima Koregaon Commission, salaries of its staff have not been paid since July. The Commission held sittings in July, August and September.
It may be recalled that in January 2020, just before the Covid lockdown, the Commission had announced it was winding up as salaries had not been paid for two months and its budget had been slashed.