The Jheeram Ghati case, dealing with the killing of 27 Congress leaders in a Maoist attack in 2013 in Sukma, is emerging as a major flashpoint between the Centre and Chhattisgarh — with the former demanding that the case be left to the NIA and the state government holding back.
The Union Ministry of Home Affairs last month wrote to Chhattisgarh calling its move to register a case on May 26, to investigate the “political conspiracy” behind the attack, as illegal. It has virtually threatened that it might take over the case suo motu.
The NIA has been probing the attack, in Sukma’s Darbha, since 2013 and has filed two chargesheets against 39 accused, in which trial is on. The attack, which wiped out virtually the entire state leadership of the Congress, happened under the Raman Singh-led BJP government. It had transferred the case to the NIA, under a UPA government at the Centre.
One of the first announcements by Congress Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel on coming to power in December 2018 was to order an SIT probe into the Jheerum Ghati massacre. After that, it first tried to take the case back, then went ahead and registered a fresh FIR, and has since rejected repeated requests by the NIA to transfer the same. The Congress government maintains that the NIA did not investigate the matter “properly” and left out several “political angles”.
The NIA challenged the fresh FIR in the NIA court, and the state filed its response on July 1.
Revival of political angle theory
With virtually the entire state Congress leadership wiped out in the 2013 Sukma massacre, there have been allegations of political conspiracy since the beginning. However, the NIA has ruled out any political angle to the killings by Maoists. With a new FIR, the Congress government in Chhattisgarh has revived it. The Centre believes it will ruin the NIA case. The developments also come in the backdrop of raids by Income Tax and ED on aides of CM Bhupesh Baghel in March.
The Centre has reminded the state that under the NIA Act, the agency can take over any case registered under any law by a state government if it relates to an incident the NIA is already probing. Although the Centre mostly waits for the state’s consent in such cases, largely to honour the spirit of the federal structure, it did not do so recently in case of Maharashtra while taking over the Elgar Parishad case.
In the FIR filed on May 26, the Chhattisgarh Police incidentally did not invoke either the UAPA or any other law which falls under scheduled offences (as listed under the NIA Act). The NIA deals with only scheduled offences. The state FIR mentions Section 302 (murder) and 120 B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC.
In a letter sent to the Chhattisgarh Home Secretary last month, the Home Ministry suggests that the state government move runs foul of the NIA Act. Signed by Under Secretary Dharmender Kumar, it said, “Section 6 (6) of the NIA Act specifically prohibits the state government to proceed with the investigation once NIA is entrusted with the investigation under Section 6(4) of the Act. Further, section 8 of NIA Act empowers NIA to investigate any other offence connected with the scheduled offence.”
Apart from the Centre’s letter to Chhattisgarh, on May 30, the NIA wrote to the state police, offering to probe any new information it might have. Two chargesheets in the same case in different courts would harm the outcome of both, the NIA believes. Calling the registration of the FIR by the Chhattisgarh Police “not bona-fide, highly irregular” and “against the settled law”, the NIA letter said, “It would also lead to violation of fundamental rights of the accused or subjects… and may lead to further vexatious and avoidable
Notably, in January this year, five months before it registered an FIR in the case, the Chhattisgarh government had challenged the validity of the NIA Act in the Supreme Court, calling it against the federal structure of the Constitution.
According to sources, the Chhattisgarh government filed a fresh FIR after relatives of some of the deceased in the incident wrote to it. Cabinet minister and government spokesperson Ravindra Chaubey told The Indian Express, “In a so-called Naxal attack, an entire generation of senior Congress leaders was murdered. The Jhiram massacre was never properly investigated, who knows to protect whom?”
Bastar IG P Sundarraj said, “As the matter is sub-judice, we can’t talk. But the NIA investigations couldn’t uncover much, and we wanted to probe the incident separately. The investigations are parallel and will not affect the NIA’s work.”
The attack in Jheeram Ghati, on May 25, 2013, had killed 29 people, including senior Congress leaders V C Shukla, Mahendra Karma, and Nandkumar Patel. Karma, who had set up the anti-Naxal Salwa Judum volunteer force, was claimed to be the main target.
The NIA made a list of 88 accused, of which 11 have so been arrested, mostly low-level Naxal leaders, while several killed in “encounters” across Maharashtra, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. One mastermind surrendered in 2016. Of the 39 named in the NIA chargesheet, two are dead and 26 absconding.– with inputs from Gargi Verma, Raipur