Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar told the Pune Police that a letter recovered from Delhi-based activist Rona Wilson last year, allegedly showing a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to be a spoof obtained from suspicious sources, The Hindu reported on Friday.
Pawar is believed to have told the police this during a meeting held on Thursday to review cases related to the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence. Besides Pawar, Home Minister Anil Deshmukh, Maharashtra Director General Subodh Jaiswal and State Intelligence Commissioner Rashmi Shukla were also present at the meeting.
Pawar reportedly told the police that the source of this email containing the letter and other evidence in the 5,000-page chargesheet against 10 activists under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act must be substantiated in 15 days. Otherwise, the Maharashtra government will appoint a Special Investigation Team to take another look at the case, he is believed to have said.
Then Joint Commissioner of Pune Police, IPS officer Ravindra Kadam and Assistant Commissioner of Police Shivaji Pawar, who was also the chief investigating officer, presented the details to the government during Thursday’s meeting.
“We have seen the presentation from the two officers and believe there could be certain loopholes in the investigation as is being claimed by representations we have received,” Deshmukh said. “If some of the evidence made part of the charge-sheet are not substantiated, we are willing to re-open the investigation. A decision will be taken in the next 15 days.”
“In the previous government, anyone who did not toe their line was termed as an ‘urban-naxal’, which is not correct,” the state home minister said, according to The Times of India. “And so, we have asked the police for documents and evidence for the arrests made by them.”
Deshmukh said that they will hold another review meeting soon as it could not be completed on Thursday. “But we have sought details regarding the evidence that the police had while submitting the chargesheets in the Elgar case,” he said. “We want to know all the details to understand how the case was probed, which led to the arrests of these activists.”
Bhima Koregaon case
Violence broke out between Dalits and Marathas in the village of Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1, 2018. This happened a day after an event in Pune called the Elgar Parishad was organised to commemorate the Battle of Bhima Koregaon in 1818 between the East India Company and the Peshwa faction of the Maratha Confederacy. One person died in violence during a bandh called by Dalit outfits the following day.
The Pune rural police had booked Hindutva activists Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide for allegedly inciting the violence. While the Supreme Court granted Ekbote bail, the police never arrested Bhide.
Later that year, the Pune Police arrested 10 activists in connection with the violence, and accused them of having links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). Most of the activists are still in prison. Last month, eight of the 10 accused in the Bhima Koregaon case had written a letter to the Maharashtra Human Rights Commission, alleging that the previous BJP-led state government had imprisoned them because they were dissidents.
Earlier this month, Deshmukh said he had asked for a detailed report on the Bhima Koregaon case, including its current status. Deshmukh, who is from the Nationalist Congress Party, criticised the Bharatiya Janata Party for labelling dissidents and its critics “urban Naxals”. In December, Nationalist Congress Party President Sharad Pawar had sought a special investigation team inquiry into the actions of the Pune Police. The Bharatiya Janata Party has dubbed the efforts to withdraw the Bhima-Koregaon cases as a “blatant support to naxalism”.
“We have also ordered a probe into allegations that spyware Pegasus was used to snoop on officials and activists in the State during the previous government’s rule,” Deshmukh added, referring to the alleged tapping of phones of activists. “We will also check on which officers had travelled to Israel during the period to allegedly procure this malware.”
During a two-week period in May, at least 121 Indians were the target of an attempted security breach using the Pegasus WhatsApp spyware. According to the the government, the personal data of at least 20 WhatsApp users was accessed by unidentified hackers. The spyware was developed by an Israeli company that claims that the software was sold to only government agencies. The government, however, has denied its role in the illegal surveillance of the devices.
Pegasus was developed to hack into any phone simply through a missed call, predominantly via WhatsApp, giving the attackers unfettered access to the device, including location data, emails, passwords and even the ability to turn on its microphone and camera. NSO Group has disputed the allegations.
In November, WhatsApp said it had informed government authorities about the privacy breach in May. The tech company reportedly sent the Centre a second alert in September. It attached the two vulnerability notes in its response to a government notice last week.
India is WhatsApp’s biggest market with 400 million users. The platform is globally used by some 1.5 billion people monthly and has often advertised a high level of security, including end-to-end encrypted messages that cannot be deciphered by WhatsApp itself or other third parties.