Eleven years since the attack on the Samjhauta Express, and eight years since the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took charge of the case, all the accused have been acquitted. The significance of the Samjhauta Express blasts was that it was the first step in a breakthrough on blasts where the initial suspects were all Muslims. In the post-9/11 world, any indiscriminate attack by the non-state actors generally tends to lead one on a ‘radical Islam’ trajectory. The second major breakthrough in the series of blasts that took place between 2006 and 2008 came after the second Malegaon blast. Vikash Narain Rai, who headed the Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted by the government of Haryana to investigate the Samjhauta Express bombing maintains that the involvement of Hindutva loyalists is certain.
The series of blasts in question began with the Malegaon blasts in 2006. Four explosions took place outside a mosque in Malegaon, Maharashtra, killing 38 people. In 2007, the Samjhauta Express (running between New Delhi and Lahore) was rocked by IEDs, killing 68 people. A few months later, it was the Mecca Masjid blast in Hyderabad that claimed nine lives. Later in the same year, a dargah in Ajmer was attacked again with IEDs. Three people were killed in the blast. Before the end of 2007, one of the accused in the blasts, Sunil Joshi was murdered. Then in 2008, twin blasts struck Malegaon again and Modasa in Gujarat, in which eight people were killed – bringing the total number of deaths to 127, including the murdered accused Sunil Joshi.
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The initial impressions in these blasts, and supported by the media was that there may have been a Pakistan or Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) angle to them. According to Rai, the SIT at the time also probed the SIMI angle. However, as luck would have it, the Haryana police were able to recover an unexploded bomb from the scene. The bomb was packed in a suitcase and upon finding the origin of the different components of the bomb, the investigation led the SIT to Indore. At this point, the SIMI angle had not yet been given up. It was at this point that the investigation threw up a name, Sunil Joshi, a senior member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). However, before Sunil Joshi could be apprehended, he was murdered. There is a strong suspicion that his death was an ‘inside job’.
According to Rai, the Ministry of Home Affairs was keeping an eye on the investigation at the time and kept inquiring about a Pakistan angle that never appeared. The second major breakthrough appeared after the 2008 Malegaon blasts. The head of the Anti Terror Squad (ATS) in Maharashtra was Hemant Karkare who had just returned from deputation in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Karkare’s investigation found a motorcycle which belonged to Sadhvi Pragya Thakur. This motorcycle led to unravelling the entire conspiracy and all the names tumbled out. The three big names associated with the attacks were Aseemanand, Pragya Thakur and Lieutenant Colonel Prasad Shrikant Purohit. However, Karkare was killed in November 2008 attack of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Bombay.
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The year 2010 was an important year for the investigation of the clandestine Hindutva networks of terror. It was the year when the blasts cases were handed over to the newly created NIA. It was also the year when one of the accused, Aseemanand, confessed his involvement in the blasts before a metropolitan magistrate in Delhi. The breakthroughs were, however, short-lived. In 2011, Aseemanand retracted his confessions claiming that they had been tendered under duress. In 2017, Aseemanand received bail in the Ajmer Dargah blast case. After several witnesses turned hostile, the trial court was forced to acquit him. Both the RSS-affiliated convicted in the case have had their life sentences suspended by the Rajasthan High Court in August 2018. Aseemanand was acquitted by another trial court in the Mecca Masjid blast case in April 2018. Here too the witnesses had turned hostile. With the present acquittal in the Samjhauta Express blast case, the self-styled godman seems to be off the hook just ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
What is surprising is that the initial investigations were all carried out by state police forces before they were handed over to the NIA. It was the investigations in the Samjhauta Express and the 2008 Malegaon blasts cases that led the investigating authorities to believe that there was a militant Hindutva outfit behind the attacks. It was only after the investigation was handed over to the NIA that the Hindutva angle was made public. The ‘saffron terror’ phenomenon possibly made everybody uncomfortable. Unlike in the case of ‘Islamic terror’ where the radicalisation can be blamed on sources outside the country, in this case, every aspect is homegrown and organic.
What ought to be a cause for worry is that the NIA has not been appealing against any of the acquittals in the concluded cases. The only appeals that have been filed have been by those convicted by the trial courts. Keeping in mind the political affiliations involved, this begins to follow a familiar script. It ought to be noted that Sajjan Kumar was only convicted for his role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in December last year, over 30 years since the riots and probably because his party is not a part of the government in either Delhi or the Union. In this regard, it will not be surprising whether the appeals will be filed depending on the outcome on May 23.
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