ONE MORNING IN FEBRUARY LAST YEAR, I noticed that I had missed a call from Vishal Garg, the investigating officer in the 2007 Samjhauta Express bombings case. I returned the call promptly, but no one answered. That evening, I received a text message: “Hello Leenaji this is Vishal Garg from NIA.” Garg went on to ask, over text, whether I could meet him at his office with the tapes from my interviews with Swami Aseemanand, the key accused in the Samjhauta case.
Excerpts and transcriptions of these audio recordings had just gone live on the Caravan website, following the publication of my profile of Aseemanand earlier that month. The tapes included his statements that Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, as well as Indresh Kumar, who is now a member of the organisation’s powerful all-India executive council, had given their blessings to carry out the multiple bomb attacks of which Aseemanand stood accused. I had interviewed Garg in the course of reporting the story.
My editors and I consulted the magazine’s lawyers, then sent Garg a reply saying that we would be happy to pass on a copy of the tapes to him. We also sent a registered letter to him at the National Investigation Agency office, adding that we would be more than willing to assist in their investigation in any way that they needed. We received no response; no one ever came to pick up the tapes.
The Samjhauta blasts—along with a series of bombings in Ajmer and Hyderabad in 2007, and two blasts in Malegaon, in 2006 and 2008—introduced the idea of “Hindu terror” into the public discourse, marking a crucial shift in how extremist attacks are understood. But over the course of my reporting, which began in early 2012, I came to the conclusion that the NIA, which eventually took over all of these cases, had simply not done enough in the pursuit of their investigations.
In fact, the NIA—a central body created in December 2008 to exclusively investigate “terrorism,” and staffed with the country’s best police officers—actually seemed to make less progress than the agencies originally looking into the blasts, among them the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Maharashra Police Anti Terrorism Squad. Before the NIA took on the cases, the CBI had nabbed Aseemanand, obtained a judicial confession from him, and identified crucial witnesses and suspects in the cases. The names of key RSS members in the network behind the bombings had also been unearthed.
The most senior among these was Indresh Kumar, who was questioned by the CBI in 2010. After taking over the cases, however, the NIA, then working under the UPA government, told the media that they were unsure whether there was justification for calling Kumar in for questioning.
But statements gathered during prior interrogations suggested otherwise. The Rajasthan Anti Terrorism Squad’s chargesheet in the Ajmer blast case, for instance, mentioned that Kumar was present at a “secret meeting” between key accused in the case, including Sandeep Dange and Pragya Thakur, held in Jaipur in 2005. According to the chargesheet, at this meeting, the “late Sunil Joshi”—the alleged mastermind of the plot—“delegated various tasks to his allies so that the bomb blasts could be carried out successfully.” Additionally, it claimed, Kumar “advised them to get associated with some religious organisation … This way, people would assume they were pilgrims on religious journeys, and hence would not doubt them. According to him, it would be a sure way to success.” Together, the chargesheets in this and the other cases contain detailed allegations of how Kumar supplied money and manpower to the conspirators.
If all this information did not merit even preliminary questioning by the country’s premier investigation agency, what would? When I asked Garg this in 2013, he refused to discuss it, saying it was an internal matter.
It appear, in hindsight, that after the handing of the cases to the NIA, under the UPA government, there were efforts to slow the investigation and prosecution. Whether this was decided at the higher levels of the political dispensation or in the government bureaucracy is not clear. But it is worth noting that RK Singh, secretary of the home ministry between 2011 and 2013, under whose purview the NIA fell, is now a BJP member of parliament from Arrah, Bihar.
In June, clear indications of interference in the cases emerged, albeit with regard to the current NDA government. In the last week of the month, the special public prosecutor in the 2008 Malegaon case, Rohini Salian, declared that soon after the NDA government took charge, an NIA officer asked her to “go soft” on the case.
The agency denied Salian’s charges. Within a week of her revelation came news of the NIA’s closure report for a bombing case in Modassa, Gujarat, which occurred on the same day as the 2008 Malegaon blast and had a strikingly similar modus operandi. When the NIA took over the case from the Gujarat state police—which had been criticised for its failure to actively probe the Hindutva angle—the Times of India claimed that its “investigators seem to have clinching evidence on the possibility of links between Modasa and Malegaon blasts.” The agency identified two suspects in common with the other blasts—Sandeep Dange and Ramji Kalsangra. But last month, a senior official told the Economic Times that Dange and Kalsangra could not be detected or apprehended, “despite our best efforts.” In its now public closure report, which was filed in April, the agency issued only a standard assurance that it would reopen the case if it gathers any new evidence in the future.
These are not the only “Hindu terror” investigations that are falling apart.
A string of witnesses turned hostile in the Ajmer case, which is being tried at the NIA court in Jaipur. Most of these witnesses were from the rank and file of the Sangh, and one of them, Randhir Singh, is a minister in the BJP’s Jharkhand government. The public prosecutor in the case, Ashwini Sharma, told the Indian Express that “The testimonies of those who have turned hostile would have made for a watertight case. Despite tough cross-questioning, they refused to admit in court what they had once told the ATS or the magistrate. This considerably shakes the ground of the case.”
The case surrounding the Samjhauta bomb blast, which was the most devastating in terms of casualties, with 68 people killed, has been similarly hampered by uncooperative witnesses. As of the second week of July, ten witnesses had turned hostile at the trial, being heard at the NIA court in Panchkula, Chandigarh. These included Bharat Mohan Rateshwar and his wife Kavita, who, according to the chargesheets, hosted crucial meetings at their home in Valsad district in Gujarat, thereby witnessing the planning of the attacks.
The NIA is also sending out conflicting signals about the value of evidence in the various cases. When I met Garg, as well as senior CBI officers, in 2013, they told me they had strong evidence, such as the linking of the accused to the SIM cards used in the attacks. But a recent Times of India report claimed that senior officers of the NIA are now doubtful about the worth of the available evidence. The courts would likely “question some of the scientific evidence collected in cases which came to the agency after several years,” the paper quoted an unnamed senior NIA official as saying.
The investigation into the 2007 murder of Sunil Joshi, the RSS activist who is believed by the agencies to have coordinated all the blasts, has also made little progress. The case was transferred in 2011 from the sessions court in Dewas to the NIA court in Bhopal. Last September, it was transferred back to Dewas; the agency claimed that the case did not in fact merit trial by a special court under the NIA Act. As of writing this, with chargesheets and supplementary chargesheets filed, the case is still awaiting the framing of charges.
Meanwhile, some of the accused in the blast cases have been leading fairly comfortable lives in judicial custody. In December 2013, I met Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, a key accused, for my story on Aseemanand. Wheelchair-bound and under medical treatment, she was allowed a continuous stream of visitors. A disciple attended to her, and for company she also had family members and fellow workers of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidya Parishad, who kept her supplied with fruits and tender-coconut water.
When I visited Aseemanad in Ambala Central Jail, Haryana, in early 2014, I learnt that he had been assigned a kind of VIP room, and had his own cook. He also told me that he had some freedom to travel when he left the jail to attend court hearings, and described one visit to Shabari Dham—the place where he set up an ashram, and where he is alleged to have hosted meetings to plan the attacks—and the nearby city of Nadiad, “to meet my guru-ji.” He also described meeting Vijay Patel, a former BJP MLA from the Dangs constituency. “We spent a good time and had a nice feast. It was nice, I met all the people,” he said. But recently, Patel, now the secretary of the BJP’s tribal wing, told the Times of India that “no one in Shabari Dham had contact with Swamiji since he was in jail.”
Aseemanand was granted bail in the Samjhauta case last August by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which cited procedural delays as justification. At first, the NIA told the press that it had not challenged the bail application because it had not received a copy of the order. As per news reports, the agency received a copy of the order in May, and it now has until August to file an appeal against the bail in a higher court. However, it seems the NIA may not challenge the bail at all, according to “sources in the government” quoted in a recent Economic Times report. Aseemanand received further relief when, on 30 June this year, the Punjab and Haryana High Court granted him a ten-day parole to visit his ailing mother—something he had desperately been hoping for the last time I met him.
During my conversations with him, Aseemanand told me that he had in the past benefited from the support of Narendra Modi, whom he has known since the late 1990s, before the BJP leader became the chief minister of Gujarat. He told me that after an outbreak of riots that he organised in the Dangs in 1998, and with Keshubhai Patel, the chief minister of Gujarat at the time, under pressure to rein him in, Modi approached him at an RSS gathering in Ahmedabad. According to Aseemanand, Modi told him: “Swami-ji, there is no comparison to what you are doing. You are doing the real work. Now it has been decided that I will be the CM. Let me come and then I will do your work. Rest easy.”
Modi attended a fund-raising event for Aseemanand’s ashram in the Dangs in 2002, and a 2006 festival near Shabari Dham organised by Aseemanand, at which adivasis were brought into the Hindu fold. Subsequently, while Aseemanand went on to be implicated in the extremist attacks, his supporter became the most powerful man in the country.
Last year, after Modi led his party to an unprecedented electoral victory, and after Aseemanand was granted bail, I was reminded of something Aseemanand’s brother had said to me in June 2013. The swami’s family in Kamarpukur, a village in West Bengal, had more or less refused to talk to me, but as I left, his brother said, “Wait for a few months. Once Modi-ji comes to power I will put a stage in the village centre and shout from the loudspeakers all that Aseemanand has done.”
Leena Reghunath is a freelancer based in the US. She was formerly the editorial manager at The Caravan, and has written for the New Indian Express, The Hindu, the Times of India and the Hindustan Times. She has a law degree and a master’s in English literature. Reghunath also had a brief stint as a public prosecutor and civil lawyer. She received the Mumbai Press Club’s RedInk award for her reporting in 2015 and 2018.