Mumbai: Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, Lt Col Prasad Purohit and six others accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast will stand trial on stringent terror charges, a special NIA court ruled on Wednesday in the politically-sensitive case that raised speculation of saffron militancy.
However, Special NIA judge S D Tekale dropped organised crime charges against them under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), which is punishable by up to life in prison.
He also discharged three other accused - Shyam Sahu, Shivnarayan Kalsangra and Praveen Takalki - in the case.
Significantly, the National Investigation Agency had said there was no evidence against Sadhvi Pragya, but the court said it was difficult to accept the NIA's claim that she had nothing to do with the crime given that her motorcycle was used in the blast.
"There is evidence to suggest that the accused number one (Thakur) had knowledge about involvement of her motorcycle," the court said in its ruling on the nine-year-old case that had raised worries of Hindu militancy gaining a foothold as a reaction to Islamic extremism.
Sadhvi Pragya "had also expressed dissatisfaction about causing less casualties in the blast. Hence it is difficult to accept submissions on behalf of the NIA and the accused number one that she had no concern with the present crime," it said.
The court, ruling on their applications for discharge of all charges, said Sadhvi Pragya, Purohit and the other six will face trial under sections 16 (committing a terror act) and 18 (criminal conspiracy) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
The maximum punishment under the act is life imprisonment.
The court said they will also stand trial under sections 120(b) (punishment of criminal conspiracy), 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder) and 326 (intentionally causing harm to others) of the IPC.
It said "the UAPA sections 17 (raising funds for a terrorist organisation or a terrorist attack), 20 (being part of a terrorist organisation) and 23 (aiding somebody who is part of a terrorist organisation) have been dropped against all accused."
This part of the ruling gives relief to saffron outfit Abhinav Bharat, which was accused by the Mumbai Police anti- terror squad of providing arms training to right-wing activists. The ATS also says Purhoit was linked to Abhinav Bharat.
The case centres around the September 29, 2008 bomb explosion near Bhiku Chowk in the Muslim-dominated Malegaon town of Nashik district, which killed six persons and injured 101 others.
The blast, during the holy month of Ramzan, was caused by an improvised explosive device strapped to a motorcycle registered under the name of Sadhvi Pragya.
Apart from Sadhvi Pragya and Purohit, the others who will be tried are: Sudhakar Dwivedi, retired Major Ramesh Upadhyay, Sameer Kulkarni, Sudhakar Chaturvedi and Ajay Rahirkar.
Two accused - Jagdish Mhatre and Rakesh Dhawde - will face trial only under the Arms Act, the court said.
The accused are out on bail.
The court has asked all the accused persons to appear before it on January 15 for the formal framing of charges against them.