"SWAMIJI KO BULAO,” the jailer ordered. Call the Swami. Two police constables scurried out of the jailer’s office and onto the grounds of the prison. A deafening noise reverberated through the room, as if a hundred men outside the walls were howling at the same time. It was visiting hours in early January 2011 at Ambala’s Central Jail.
After a few minutes, Swami Aseemanand, the Hindu firebrand accused of plotting several terrorist attacks on civilian targets across the country between 2006 and 2008, stepped into the doorway of the jailer’s office. He wore a saffron dhoti and a saffron kurta that hung down to his knees. The clothes were freshly ironed. A woollen monkey cap was pulled down over his forehead, and a saffron shawl was wrapped around his neck. He looked bemused to see me. We exchanged namastes, then he ushered me through a door into an adjoining room, where clerks in white dhoti-kurtas were poring over titanic ledgers. He sat on a large wooden trunk behind the door, and instructed me to pull a chair from a nearby desk. He was informal, like a good host, and asked me about my visit. “Somebody has to tell your story,” I said.
This was the beginning of the first of four interviews I had with Aseemanand over more than two years. He is currently under trial on charges including murder, attempt to murder, criminal conspiracy and sedition, in connection with three bombings in which at least 82 people were killed. He could also be tried for two other blast cases; he has been named in the chargesheets, but not yet formally accused. Together, the five attacks killed 119 people, and worked as a corrosive on the bonds of Indian society. If convicted, Aseemanand may face the death penalty.
In the course of our conversations, Aseemanand became increasingly warm and open. The story he told of his life was remarkable and haunting. He is fiercely proud of the acts of violence he has committed and the principles by which he has lived. For more than four decades, he has loyally promoted Hindu nationalism; during much of that time, he worked under the banner of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s tribal affairs wing, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA), spreading the Sangh’s version of Hinduism, and its vision for a Hindu Rashtra. Through all this, Aseemanand, who is now in his early sixties, has never diluted the intensity of his beliefs.
After the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, Nathuram Godse and his accomplice Narayan Apte were executed by hanging and cremated at the Ambala jail, in 1949. Their co-conspirator, Godse’s brother Gopal, was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment. “I’m kept in the same cell as Gopal Godse,” Aseemanand proudly told me. Today, Aseemanand is perhaps the most prominent face of Hindu extremist terrorism. Journalists who met him in the years before the bombings described him to me as an extraordinarily arrogant and intolerant man. What I saw in the dark records room of the jail was a man subdued by his imprisonment, but void of remorse. “Whatever happens to me, it’s a good thing for Hindus,” Aseemanand told me. “Logon me Hindutva ka bhaav aayega”—it will stir Hindutva among the people.
ON THE NIGHT OF 18 FEBRUARY 2007, the Samjhauta Express started on its usual course from platform 18 of the Delhi Junction railway station. The Samjhauta, also known as the “Friendship Express”, is one of only two rail links between India and Pakistan. That night, almost three-quarters of its roughly 750 passengers were Pakistanis returning home. A few minutes before midnight—an hour after the train started its journey—improvised explosive devices (IEDs) detonated in two unreserved compartments of the 16-coach train. Barrelling through the night, the train was now on fire.
The explosions fused shut the compartments’ exits, sealing passengers inside. “It was awful,” a railways inspector told the Hindustan Times. “Burnt and half burnt bodies of the passengers were all over in the coaches.” Two unexploded IEDs packed into suitcases were later discovered at the scene; the devices contained a mixture of chemicals including PETN, TNT, RDX, petrol, diesel and kerosene. Sixty-eight people died in the attack.
This was the second, and deadliest, of the five attacks in which Aseemanand is implicated. He is now accused number one in the Samjhauta train blasts; accused number three in a bombing at Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid that killed 11 people, in May 2007; and accused number six in a blast at the dargah in Ajmer, Rajasthan, that killed three people, in October 2007. He is also named, but not yet charged, in two attacks in Malegaon, Maharashtra, in September 2006 and September 2008, that together took the lives of 37 people.
Many of these cases have been investigated by multiple agencies at different points in time—including the Mumbai Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS), the Rajasthan ATS, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the National Investigation Agency (NIA). At least a dozen chargesheets have been filed in the five cases. Thirty-one people have been formally accused, and two of Aseemanand’s close associates are among them—Pragya Singh Thakur, who was a national executive member of the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP); and Sunil Joshi, who was a former RSS district leader in Indore. All of the investigative agencies determined that Aseemanand played a central role in plotting the attacks. Aseemanand, by his own account, hosted planning sessions, selected targets, provided funds for the construction of IEDs, and sheltered and otherwise aided those who planted the bombs.
In December 2010 and January 2011, Aseemanand made two judicial confessions, to courts in Delhi and Haryana, in which he admitted to planning the attacks. At the time of his confessions, Aseemanand refused legal representation. He spent 48 hours in judicial custody, insulated from investigating agencies, before making each statement, thereby giving him an opportunity to change his mind. Both times, Aseemanand resolved to confess, and had his statements recorded in court. His confessions, and the confessions of at least two of his fellow conspirators, allege that the attacks were planned with the knowledge of at least one senior member of the RSS.
On 28 March 2011, Aseemanand accepted legal representation. The next day, he retracted his confessions, claiming that they were coerced by torture. An application he submitted before the trial court read, “the leak of Aseemanand’s alleged confession to the media, which is shocking and deliberate, is a part of the design to politicise and hype the case, conduct and conclude a media trial, and to create, at the global level, the notion of Hindu terror for the political purposes of the ruling party.” Aseemanand and several of the defence lawyers working on the Samjhauta case told me that the lawyers are all members of the Sangh; one of them said that they manage the case in meetings of the Akhil Bharatiya Adhivakta Parishad, the RSS’s legal wing.
When I interviewed him, Aseemanand denied being tortured, or that his confessions were coerced. He said that when he was arrested for the bombings, by the CBI, he decided it was “a good time to tell all about this. I knew I could be hanged for it, but I’m old anyway.”
Over the course of our conversations, Aseemanand’s description of the plot in which he was involved became increasingly detailed. In our third and fourth interviews, he told me that his terrorist acts were sanctioned by the highest levels of the RSS—all the way up to Mohan Bhagwat, the current RSS chief, who was the organisation’s general secretary at the time. Aseemanand told me that Bhagwat said of the violence, “It’s very important that it be done. But you should not link it to the Sangh.”
Aseemanand told me about a meeting that allegedly took place, in July 2005. After an RSS conclave in Surat, senior Sangh leaders including Bhagwat and Indresh Kumar, who is now on the organisation’s powerful seven-member national executive council, travelled to a temple in the Dangs, Gujarat, where Aseemanand was living—a two-hour drive. In a tent pitched by a river several kilometres away from the temple, Bhagwat and Kumar met with Aseemanand and his accomplice Sunil Joshi. Joshi informed Bhagwat of a plan to bomb several Muslim targets around India. According to Aseemanand, both RSS leaders approved, and Bhagwat told him, “You can work on this.” Indresh added, “You can work on this with Sunil. We will not be involved, but if you are doing this, you can consider us to be with you.”
Aseemanand continued, “Then they told me, ‘Swamiji, if you do this we will be at ease with it. Nothing wrong will happen then. Criminalisation nahin hoga (It will not be criminalised). If you do it, then people won’t say that we did a crime for the sake of committing a crime. It will be connected to the ideology. This is very important for Hindus. Please do this. You have our blessings.’”
Chargesheets filed by the investigative agencies allege that Kumar provided moral and material support to the conspirators, but they don’t implicate anyone as senior as Bhagwat. Although Kumar was interrogated once by the CBI, the case was later taken over by the NIA, which has not pursued the conspiracy past the level of Aseemanand and Pragya Singh. (Joshi, who was allegedly the connecting thread between several different parts of the conspiracy—including those who assembled and those who planted the bombs—was killed under mysterious circumstances in December 2007.)
Since allegations first emerged in late 2010 that Kumar had a role in the attacks, the RSS has closed ranks around him. Bhagwat, in an unprecedented act for an RSS sarsangh-chalak, participated in a dharna to protest the accusations against Kumar. The BJP has also defended him, and the BJP national spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi was his lawyer at the time he was named in the chargesheets. A lawyer for one of the accused told me that Kumar is “highly ambitious”, and “in waiting to be the sarsanghchalak”.
An officer at one of the investigating agencies, on the condition of anonymity, allowed me to inspect a secret report submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The report requested that the MHA send a show-cause notice to RSS authorities, asking why the organisation should not be banned in light of the evidence against them. The MHA has not yet acted on the recommendation.
The fear of being banned—as the organisation briefly was after the assassination of Gandhi, in 1948; during the Emergency, in 1975; and after the demolition of Babri Masjid, in 1992—looms over the RSS leadership. Whenever terrorist violence has been attributed to its members, the Sangh has taken a tack similar to the one they used with Nathuram Godse: there is no question of owning or disowning the perpetrators, the RSS says, because they have all previously left the Sangh, or were acting independently of the organisation, or alienated themselves from it by embracing violence.
Aseemanand poses a serious problem to the RSS in this regard. Since it was founded in 1952, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram has been in the nucleus of the Sangh family, and Aseemanand has dedicated almost his entire adult life to serving the organisation. At the time he planned the attacks, he had been the national head of the VKA’s religious wing—a position created especially for him—for a decade. Even before the inception of the terrorist plot, organised violence (including coordinated communal riots) was a well-known part of his methods.
Bhagwat and Kumar were allegedly aware of Aseemanand’s involvement in the plot by mid 2005. Aseemanand was not excommunicated—far from it. In December of that year, according to a report in Organiser, the RSS’s weekly mouthpiece, he was honoured with a Rs 1 lakh award marking the birth centenary of MS Golwalkar, the RSS’s second and most venerated chief; the veteran BJP leader and former party president Murli Manohar Joshi gave the ceremony’s keynote address. Even if Kumar remains insulated from a full inquiry into the allegations against him, there can be little question of the RSS convincingly denying its brotherhood with Aseemanand.
Denouncing terror attacks launched in the last decade by members of the Sangh, Swami Agnivesh, a prominent Hindu reformist, told me that the RSS “will harm themselves and others of the Hindu society” through militant Hindutva. “It is deplorable,” he said. The political scientist Jyotirmaya Sharma, who has authored three books on Hindutva, said, “the RSS involves itself in both covert and overt functions. But the organisation’s central premise is the sort of hit-and-run guerrilla warfare advocated by Ramdas, the guru of Shivaji. And the problem is that we don’t have enough liberal institutions within the country—from political parties to even strong enough media—to counter such acts of terror waged so blatantly in the name of Hindu religion.”
Despite such condemnations, the Sangh has come a long way since the ignominy of 1948. Through their efforts at man-making and nation-building, the RSS and its affiliates, particularly the BJP, now seem to represent a major current in the mainstream of Indian society. Aseemanand, too, is in many ways a product of those efforts, and he shares the RSS’s aims—albeit in magnified form: his vision for the future, he told me, is a global Hindu Rashtra.
ASEEMANAND’S PASSIONATE BELIEF in the Hindu Rashtra, and his commitment to violence as a means of securing it, emerged from two connected but radically different streams in Indian thought—the ecumenical karma yoga of the Ramakrishna Mission, and the Hindutva of the RSS. Aseemanand was shaped by both of these currents, and in some sense he chose to combine the ascetic life of the former with the extreme politics of the latter. This partly had to do with his early participation in a local RSS shakha, and it was also, in some measure, a rejection of the values of his father. In Aseemanand’s own account, it was a sort of awakening—to Hinduism as a political force.
Aseemanand was born Naba Kumar Sarkar in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, sometime in late 1951. He is the second of seven sons of the freedom fighter Bibhutibhushan Sarkar, a Gandhian who told his children that Gandhi was his god. The village where they lived, Kamarpukur, was also the birthplace of the 19th-century sage Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, who preached “yato mat, tato path” (many faiths, many paths to god). Ramakrishna’s most famous disciple, Swami Vivekananda, established the Ramakrishna Mission, in 1897, to carry on the work of karma yoga—service through selfless action. Aseemanand grew up around the corner from the mission’s local branch—a place of pilgrimage for Ramakrishna devotees—and spent many of his evenings listening to the monks there singing devotional songs.
Bibhutibhushan and his wife, Pramila, wanted their son to join the mission’s holy orders—a source of pride for many devout Bengali families. But Aseemanand and his brothers were also drawn to the RSS, whose own version of social service was burgeoning under the leadership of MS Golwalkar. “I have gone after ideologies in my youth and lived by them,” Aseemanand recalled his father telling them. “So I understand when you are influenced by an ideology and want to follow it. But the RSS is the organisation that killed Gandhi, so it is my duty to warn you against it.” The boys nevertheless grew close to local RSS workers, who often ate with the brothers at the Sarkar house, and they began participating in local shakhas. Aseemanand’s elder brother joined the RSS full time. Aseemanand and his younger brother Sushant Sarkar, whom I met in Kamarpukur, told me that their father didn’t try to prevent this, but he issued a stern warning: they were never to introduce him to a member of the Sangh.
The balance of Aseemanand’s beliefs tilted dramatically during his twenties, under the mentorship of two Sangh members. The first was Bijoy Adya, an RSS worker who guided Aseemanand towards radical Hindu politics. In his office in Kolkata, where he now edits the Bengali RSS newsweekly Swastika, Adya told me that he first met Aseemanand in 1971. Aseemanand was studying for his bachelor’s degree in physics at a local university—he eventually got his master’s degree as well—but “his parents always understood that he was different from their other sons,” Adya said. “They knew that there was no way he would lead a normal life like the other brothers.” Aseemanand was also still a regular at the Ramakrishna Mission. “It was in fact from his house that I read all the major literature” on Vivekananda, Adya said.
One of the books in the Sarkar library was A Rousing Call to the Hindu Nation, a collection of Vivekananda’s writing and speeches edited by Eknath Ranade, a stalwart of the Hindutva movement whose colleagues gave him the nickname “underground sarsanghchalak” for his leadership of the RSS during its prohibition following Gandhi’s assassination. The book emphasised Vivekananda’s call to Hindus to “Arise! Awake! And stop not until the goal is reached.” The Ramakrishna Mission had wrongfully made Vivekananda a secular figure in order to get government funding, and it took Ranade’s text to correct this, Adya said. (At the behest of the RSS chief Golwalkar, Ranade also oversaw the construction of the Rs 1.35-crore Vivekananda Rock Memorial off Kanyakumari, which was completed in 1970.) Adya encouraged Aseemanand to read the book.
“According to Ramakrishna Mission every religion is equal,” Aseemanand told me. “They used to celebrate Christmas, Eid—so I used to do the same. When Adya said that this was not what Vivekananda preached I did not believe him.” He then took up Ranade’s text. One particular line from Vivekananda dominated Aseemanand’s reading: “Every man going out of the Hindu pale is not only a man less, but an enemy the more.”
“I got a huge shock after reading this,” Aseemanand said. “In the days that followed, I gave this a lot of thought. Then I realised that it is not in my limited capacity to realise or fully analyse Vivekananda’s teachings, but since he has said it, I will follow it all my life.” He never visited the Ramakrishna Mission again.
IF RANADE’S VERSION OF VIVEKANANDA became the soul of Aseemanand’s political conviction, its form was provided by an RSS worker and ascetic named Basant Rao Bhatt, who had moved to Calcutta from Nagpur, in 1956, to work under Ranade. Bhatt was fiercely dedicated to the mission of the RSS, but had a soft, disarming charisma; Aseemanand told me that even his father once remarked, “It is hard to believe that an organisation that has people like Basant working for it could be bad.” In Bhatt, who eventually became the chief of RSS operations for West Bengal, Aseemanand found an example of how to unite the ideology of the Sangh with the sort of pastoral service practised by monks of the Ramakrishna Mission.
When Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency and banned the RSS in 1975, she started cracking down on its members. Thousands of Sangh workers were thrown in jail, including Aseemanand. Bhatt followed the example of his mentor, Ranade, and began operating underground, providing for the families of the imprisoned. When the ban was lifted at the end of the Emergency, Bhatt started a new wing of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, to cover Bengal and the Northeast. Soon after, Aseemanand moved in with him and began working full-time for the organisation. In 1978, they founded the first VKA ashram in the north-eastern part of the country, in the forests of Baghmundi, near Purulia, West Bengal.
The push towards the Northeast was part of a nationwide expansion of the VKA into tribal areas. Since it was founded in Jashpur (now in Chhattisgarh) by the RSS leader Balasaheb Deshpande—who began his work with a dozen children of the Oraon tribe—the organisation has strived to counter the influence of Christian missionaries and to prevent tribals from converting. Christianity, the Sangh believes, is a threat to the integrity of the nation, breeding separatist movements like those that have long operated in the Northeast. The VKA’s methods are largely derived from the successful model of Christian evangelists: it runs playgroups, primary and middle schools, hostels and health services that also serve as centres for proselytisation. Its goal is to promote Hindutva and thereby increase the cultural and political capital of the RSS.
Aseemanand spent most of the next ten years working in Purulia to advance these aims. But he also decided to follow some version of the monastic path his parents intended for him, and at 31 he resolved to take sanyaas. Bhatt told him that if working with tribals and furthering the Sangh’s cause was his mission, he didn’t need to join a holy order. But Aseemanand had made up his mind, and left Purulia for the ashram of the Bengali guru Swami Paramananda. “I chose him to be my guru because he followed Ramakrishna’s teachings,” Aseemanand said. “He worked mainly with the Dalits, but he was also involved in the propagation of Hinduism.” Paramananda administered the vows of sanyaas to Naba Kumar Sarkar, and renamed him Aseemanand—“boundless joy.”
After taking sanyaas, Aseemanand returned to Purulia and his work with the tribals. His life at the ashram there brought him into contact with the top leaders of VKA, including its all-India organising secretary, K Bhaskara Rao, who was also for much of his life the RSS chief for Kerala (which today boasts over 4,000 shakhas—more than any other state). Impressed by Aseemanand, in 1988 Rao and the VKA president, Jagdev Ram Oraon, asked him to extend the VKA’s dharma jagran—its work of spiritual awakening—to the Andamans.
Since colonial times, many of the more than 500 islands in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago have been settled by Indians from the mainland. To build townships for the settlers, tribals from areas in what is now Chhattisgarh were often shipped in. By the 1970s, the Sangh feared that tribal migrants to the Andamans were becoming increasingly enthralled by Christian missionaries, making the islands hostile to Hindus and Hindutva, Aseemanand told me. The islands had been represented in parliament for more than a decade by a Congressman, Manoranjan Bhakta. Aseemanand was to go and establish a foothold for the RSS.
“When I landed in the Andamans for the first time, there was no place to work from, no people to work with,” Aseemanand said. He set about forming bonds with tribal settlers through a combination of folksiness and unvarnished religious zeal. Although he didn’t go into detail, he told me that even in the Andamans he was using the threat of violence to coerce tribals into embracing Hindusim. He called these reformations “ghar vapasi”—homecomings. (The Sangh maintains that adivasis are fundamentally Hindus, not animists, and talks about “reconversion”.)
Aseemanand also employed more sophisticated types of propaganda. He lived among the tribal settlers, seeking out older members of the community who had not fully embraced their new religion. “They told me that though they had converted to Christianity, they still wanted to keep their traditions alive—the festivals, their dance,” he said. “So I told them that it is my job to get this done.”
Armed with the goodwill of these community elders, Aseemanand recruited half a dozen young girls, then sent them to a Vivekananda centre in Kanyakumari to teach them bhajans and get them to “start believing in Hanuman,” he said. Afterwards, he took them to the VKA headquarters at Jashpur, where they learned about Hindu culture for three months. Aseemanand and the girls then began a sort of road show, circulating through Andaman villages to lead bhajans and recruit another set of children. Because Aseemanand felt it was not right to travel in the company of young single women, the girls were married off, and the next batch of children—trained by the girls—were around 8 years old.
Aseemanand then set about formalising the Hindu community by building permanent spaces for worship and creating official bodies to look after them. In Port Blair, a man named R Damodaran became the president of the local temple committee, and a Bengali named Bishnu Pada Ray became the secretary.
Aseemanand lived full-time in the Andamans until the early 1990s. He said his efforts there laid the groundwork for Ray to become the territory’s first BJP parliamentarian, in 1999. “I told him that it’s good for him to go into politics, and so he went to Delhi and met Vajpayeeji,” Aseemanand told me. “Politics is also part of our work.” Damodaran was unanimously elected the chairman of the Port Blair Municipal Council in 2007.
Even after leaving the Andamans, Aseemanand frequently returned, sometimes to hand out medicines and food following natural disasters. But he callously restricted his relief efforts to those who declared themselves Hindu. He told me one story about the aftermath of the tsunami in 2004. “A Christian woman came for milk for her child,” he recalled. “My people said no. She said that the kid had not had any food for three days, and pleaded that it would die if we didn’t give some milk. So please give some. Then they said go ask Swamiji. I told her that what they are doing is right. You won’t get any milk here.” It is a story he likes to repeat.
THE DANGS IS THE SMALLEST, least populated district of Gujarat, and lies in its southern tail, bordered by Maharashtra to the east and west. Seventy-five percent of its population of roughly 2 lakh lives below the poverty line, and 93 percent is adivasi. Like other tribal areas, it has seen a disproportionate share of conflicts over resources and ideology. The British first subdued the area’s tribal kings in the 1830s, and obtained the rights to exploit the Dangs’ teak-rich forest, which still covers more than half the district, in 1842. Apart from Christian missionaries, the British banned all social workers and political activists from the area, fearing the influence they might exert over adivasis’ sense of entitlement to the land. The first mission school there was founded in Ahwa, the district headquarters, in 1905, and Christian evangelists of many denominations have been active in the area ever since. According to Aseemanand, Christians used to call the Dangs “Paschim ka Nagaland”—the Nagaland of the west. “The threat was as big as in the Northeast,” he said.
Aseemanand first visited the Dangs in 1996, while touring the country on behalf of the VKA. The organisation’s leaders had asked him to take his successful conversion programmes into every tribal area in India; they had even created a Shraddha Jagran Vibhag (faith awakening wing) and installed him as its president. But Aseemanand thought he could have a greater impact working in a single area, and felt a strong pull to the Dangs. The Dangs “had the kind of work that I am good at—staying among the tribals and working with them,” he said. “One should always do the work from which one gains contentment.” Unlike the Northeast, he told me, there was still a chance to reclaim the Dangs from Christians.
First and foremost, however, Aseemanand was loyal to the Sangh, and his superiors were worried that he would be unable to fulfil his national mandate from the forests of Gujarat. Aseemanand didn’t convince them to let him focus his operations on the Dangs until 1998. Their anxiety proved unwarranted: less than a year after setting up in the district, Aseemanand managed to galvanise Sangh cadres across the country with his combination of evangelical outreach and violent coercion. Rao, the VKA organising secretary and Kerala RSS chief, called it “an example for the whole nation,” Aseemanand recalled.
By the time Aseemanand stationed himself at a VKA ashram in Waghai, in 1998, religious differences were already straining adivasi communities in the Dangs, many tribals told me. Christian proselytisation in the area had been relatively limited before the 1970s; but since 1991 the Christian population in the Dangs had been growing by roughly 9 percent each year, according to census figures. When parents died, brother would fight brother over what sort of funeral rites they should perform. In the year before Aseemanand arrived, 20 attacks on Christians had been reported in the district, and they continued sporadically throughout 1998.
Every year, the VKA ashram housed around two-dozen tribal boys, providing them with free food and accommodation so they could attend a local government school. A day at the ashram began with Aseemanand leading the boys in chanting the Ekata mantra, an ode to Bharat Mata and prominent Indians—from Gandhi to Golwalkar—sung by RSS swayamsevaks to open every session at the shakhas. One of the students that Aseemanand met at the ashram was Phoolchand Bablo. Aseemanand credited Bablo, who became a sort of guide and aide-de-camp for the swami, with much of the success of his work in the Dangs.
When I visited the Waghai ashram last year, Bablo came from his village to meet me. He was plump, with a round face and a smile whose warmth reflected in his eyes—the sort of person I felt I could trust to give me directions in a strange land. Even the most disturbing stories Bablo told me were imbued with this warmth.
Aseemanand’s methods were similar to those he used in the Andamans. He trusted Bablo to guide him to communities where he would be easily welcomed and could recruit aides to extend his influence throughout the forests. He and his volunteers would then hike to remote tribal villages, where they camped for up to a week at a time, eating with the adivasis and sleeping in their huts. Aseemanand preached Hinduism; distributed chocolates, Hanuman lockets, and copies of the Hanuman chaalisa to children; sang bhajans; and told the villagers that they should not be converting to Christianity. In every village, Aseemanand and his aides would make lists of people who could be baptised into Hinduism. The lists were closely monitored by Aseemanand. When he left for the next settlement, his aides would make sure that the adivasis’ huts were flying the saffron pennant of the Sangh.
Aseemanand married these comparatively soft methods to fear mongering. “He talked of real life situations like that in the districts on the borders of Bengal,” Bablo said. “Over there, the entire Hindu community had to flee because of the Muslims who keep coming in from the other side.” In pamphlets that he printed in the thousands and distributed throughout the district, Aseemanand also denounced Christians. The header on one flier, announcing a massive rally in June 1998, warned: “Come Hindus, Beware of Thieves.” The invective below read: “The most burning problem of Dang District is the establishments being run by Christian priests … Wearing a mask of service these Satans are exploiting the adivasis … Lies and deceit are their religion.” Aseemanand soon turned these execrations into violence.
On Christmas evening 1998, the Deep Darshan High School, in Ahwa, was attacked by members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal, and the Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM), an offshoot of the VKA. Sister Lily, one of the Carmelite nuns who ran the school, said more than 100 people armed with stones participated in the rampage, breaking windows and destroying the roof of the school’s hostel for tribal boys. “Even after all these years I can still visualise it,” Sister Lily told me when I visited her at the school. “I was so frightened that day.”
Thirty kilometres away, in Subir, another school was attacked; a grain shed there was looted and then set on fire. In Gadhvi village, a mob of reportedly 200 people demolished the local church and then set it ablaze; afterwards, they went to a neighbouring village and burnt down the church there. The church in Waki village was torched the next day; a forest department jeep was reportedly used in the attack. The day after, six village churches in the Dangs were destroyed. The homes of Christian tribals were pelted with stones. Christian and Muslim businesses were destroyed, and Christian tribals were assaulted.
The destruction carried on like this for a total of ten days. Between mid December 1998 and mid January of the next year, “40,000 Christians got converted to Hinduism,” Aseemanand proudly claimed. “We demolished 30 churches and built temples. There was some commotion.”
The violence had started with three Hindu Jagran Manch rallies on Christmas morning—one in Ahwa and two in tehsils of a neighbouring district—organised by Aseemanand. According to Dasharath Pawar, who was then a general secretary of a BJP unit in the Dangs, 3,500 Sangh members wielding trishuls and lathis participated in the Ahwa rally. Slogans echoing Aseemanand’s anti-Christian rhetoric were raised. The town’s main road was hung with saffron banners. Local priests had petitioned the district collector, Bharat Joshi, to intervene. Instead of defusing the situation, he graced the dais at the Ahwa rally with his presence.
The scale of the rioting that followed the rallies owed a great deal to Aseemanand’s skill as an organiser. Before he arrived, there were only a handful of Sangh workers in the district; Aseemanand pumped energy into the Hindutva movement and turned it into a force with thousands of members, Pawar said. “His words were powerful enough to awake the sleeping Hindutva in you.”
“To stop conversions is an easy job,” Aseemanand told me. “Use the route of religion. Make the Hindus kattar [fanatic]. The rest of the work will be done by them.”
One of the accomplishments Aseemanand claimed in this respect was the founding of the HJM, which was set up to look like a purely tribal organisation. Because of the violence involved, “we couldn’t do all the Sangh’s work through VKA,” he said. “So we had to make HJM for this with tribals. This Janubhai”—the ostensible HJM President—“didn’t know a thing. What plan of action to undertake, what to print in the pamphlets, all those decisions were taken by us. We just kept him as a face since he is a tribal. Adivasis used to do all the Sangh’s work.”
Whether by inspiration or intimidation, Aseemanand’s ghar vapasi programmes also became increasingly popular. For the next three to four years, whenever they had a roster of 50 to 100 potential converts, he and his aides would gather them up and haul them in open trucks and jeeps to the Unai temple in Surat. After a dip in a perennial hot spring next to the temple, and a tilak-pooja, the tribals were declared Hindu. They were packed back into the vehicles with a photo of Hanuman and a copy of the Hanuman chaalisa under their arms. On the way back, bhajans were blared from the vehicles so that the whole programme became a spectacle. The carnivals would stop at the Waghai ashram, where Aseemanand hosted a feast and gave each convert a Hanuman locket.
Aseemanand’s concern for the tribals rarely extended farther than the question of whether they were praying to Jesus Christ or to Ram. In an interview with The Week, in January 1999, Aseemanand said, “We are not interested in poverty alleviation or developmental activities. We are only trying to uplift the tribals spiritually.” This approach, backed by Aseemanand’s participation in local communities, had a powerful appeal. “I have never seen a person live a more difficult life than Swamiji,” Bablo said. “With utmost devotion, he goes and stays with the most backward community. He stays there, eats there, and mingles with them—and makes those people his own. The people end up getting confident that now we, too, have someone to stand up for us.”
ASEEMANAND DESCRIBED THE DANGS TO ME as one of the most beautiful places in India. Many journalists who worked there in the late 1990s agreed. When I visited the area in June 2013, the forest was grey and bare. (“You should see it during the monsoon,” Aseemanand told me in Ambala jail.) What stood out to me were the region’s roads—miles and miles of world-class highways carved into the mountains. They were built by the government of Aseemanand’s most important political patron, Narendra Modi.
Around the time Aseemanand moved to the Dangs, in early 1998, the BJP politician Keshubhai Patel was sworn in as Gujarat’s chief minister. For most of the period since Independence, the state had been a Congress stronghold, although Patel had also headed it for seven months in 1995. In March 1998, when Vajpayee became the prime minister—and the ideological compromises of his government were still in the future—there was a surge of expectation in the RSS cadre that their vision for India was coming into being.
The Christmas riots in the Dangs seemed in some small measure to herald the change they desired. An early indication of Aseemanand’s success was the appearance of Sonia Gandhi, who travelled to Ahwa to condemn what she called the “heart-breaking” violence. Other politicians and celebrities followed suit. The news coverage significantly raised Aseemanand’s public profile—and his esteem within the Sangh. Not long after, the RSS granted him its annual Shri Guruji award, another honour named after Golwalkar.
To quell the uproar in Delhi over Aseemanand’s riots, LK Advani, then the home minister, was forced to intervene. “When my conversion stories made national news, and when Sonia Gandhi flew down to make speeches against me, there was a lot of discussion in the media,” Aseemanand said. “Then Advaniji was the home minister and asked Keshubhai Patel to rein me in. So then he started stopping us from working and even arrested my people.” But Modi was already waiting in the wings, and sharpening his knives. Aseemanand said that Modi approached him at a senior RSS gathering in Ahmedabad, and told him, “I know what Keshubhai is doing to you. Swamiji 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.” (Repeated attempts to contact Modi through his office went unanswered.)
Modi became the chief minister in October 2001. When the anti-Muslim riots that killed over 1,200 Gujaratis began at the end of the following February, Aseemanand orchestrated his own attacks north of the Dangs, in the Panchmahal district, he claimed: “The wiping out of Muslims from this area was also overseen by me.”
Later that year, Modi came to the Dangs to help consolidate Aseemanand’s influence. In October 2002, Aseemanand started construction on Shabari Dham, a sacred precinct dedicated to the tribal woman believed to have helped Ram during his legendary 14-year exile. To raise funds for the precinct’s ashram and temple, whose centrepiece would be a statue of Ram, he organised an eight-day Ramkatha (Ramayana recital) by the celebrated rhapsode Morari Bapu. The performance attracted at least 10,000 people. Modi, in the midst of campaigning to regain his chief ministership—his government had dissolved that July, in the aftermath of the riots—appeared on stage to help kick off the performance.
Part of Modi’s election manifesto that year was the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Bill, which proposed that all religious conversions be approved by a district magistrate. Four months after Aseemanand’s fundraiser, Modi’s trusted aide Amit Shah brought the bill before the state assembly; the bill passed, and was signed into law in April 2003. Soon, Aseemanand, with the help of Morari, Modi, and the leadership of the RSS, began planning a high-profile ghar vapasi in the Dangs.
At the end of his Ramkatha, Morari had proposed a new kumbh mela at Shabari Dham. The festival, which took four years to prepare, would be a demonstration against conversion and a celebration of Hindutva. Aseemanand took it upon himself to organise the mela, together with the RSS.
In the second week of February 2006, tens of thousands of Indians flooded into the forest village of Subir, six kilometres from Aseemanand’s ashram at Shabari Dham, to attend the inaugural Shabari Kumbh Mela. Like the four traditional kumbh melas which it was meant to emulate, the Shabari Kumbh centred on an act of ritual purification; by ceremonially plunging themselves into a local river, adivasis would signal their return to the Hindu fold. Thousands of people from tribal districts across central India were trucked to the event; the response to an RTI application I filed stated that the Gujarat government spent at least Rs 53 lakh to divert water into the river—making it ample enough to accommodate the crowds.
The Shabari Kumbh was also a show of unity within the Hindu Right: over the three-day mela, well-known religious figures (such as Morari Bapu, Asaram Bapu, Jayendra Saraswati and Sadhvi Rithambhara), top leaders from the RSS and the broader Sangh Parivar (including Indresh Kumar, and the hard-line Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders Pravin Togadia and Ashok Singhal), and senior BJP politicians (including the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan) shared the dais. Hundreds of full-time RSS members and thousands of the organisation’s volunteers managed the event. As one pair of researchers put it, the Shabari Kumbh was a “confluence of … sadhus, Sangh and sarkar”.
On the festival’s opening day, Modi told the audience that every attempt to take tribals away from Ram would fail. Behind the stage was a giant mural of the Hindu deity firing an arrow into a ten-headed Ravana. The then RSS chief, KS Sudarshan, took a more belligerent line. “We are up against a kapat yuddha [deceitful war] by fundamentalist Muslims and Christians,” he told a gathering of sadhus, adding that this had to be “combated with everything at our command”. Sudarshan’s deputy, Mohan Bhagwat (who became sarsanghchalak when Sudarshan retired, in March 2009), told the group, “Those opposing us will have their teeth broken.”
ACCORDING TO NEWS REPORTS, anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 people attended the kumbh, although few reconversions were witnessed. Today, there are barely any devotees flocking to the Shabari Dham temple, and the temple cannot afford support staff. The ashram where Aseemanand lived has been demolished. Pradeep Patel, who assists the temple’s chief pujari, told me that the temple has become notorious because of its association with Aseemanand, and this has kept away all the generous Gujarati contributors the temple used to attract. The few Maharashtrians who visit the place barely drop a Rs 10 note in the bhandaar, having spent all their money on travelling to the Dangs. A disappointed Aseemanand told me, “It is my mistake. I couldn’t build it properly.”
There is nevertheless a flurry of activity in the area. The Gujarat government seems to think that temples are what the region needs the most, so that the Dangs can earn its bread and butter through religious tourism. In 2012, the state inaugurated the Rama Trail project, a government initiative to commemorate the journey undertaken by the mythological characters of the Ramayana, and Shabari Dham features prominently in the plan.
The response to an RTI petition I filed revealed that under the Rama Trail project, the Shabari temple received Rs 13 crore from the state government to build a Shiv temple, four fountains, a service road and compound wall, a huge parking lot, and a seating plaza—and to cover the costs of sanitation, flooring, electrification and water supply. In contrast, Modi’s government is yet to submit plans that would allow it to deploy an Rs 11.6-crore grant handed out by the central government, under the Backward Regions Grant Fund scheme, to foster development in the Dangs. The money has been lying unclaimed for the last six years. Local Christian institutions have also been shut out by the state. “From 1998 we have been blacklisted in Gandhinagar,” Sister Lily, at Deep Darshan High School, said. “We have been putting up files for new grants for the school every year, but they don’t give us anything.”
The Unai temple in Navsari, where Aseemanand carried out his mass conversions, also received Rs 3.63 crore under the Rama Trail project. Work on the main building was completed by the time I visited, in June 2013. The new structure was magnificent, imposing. Behind its walls, it hid the humble old temple where Aseemanand brought his tribal bands for reconversion. A priest at the temple told me grimly that the number of visitors to the temple has spiked in recent years, but the hot springs have dried up for the first time.
FOR THE THREE YEARS PRECEDING the Shabari Kumbh, alongside preparing for the festival, Aseemanand had been meeting with several other long-time Sangh workers to discuss a problem far more distressing to them than religious conversions. At the core of this group were Pragya Singh Thakur, the executive member of the ABVP; and Sunil Joshi, the former RSS district leader in Indore.
In early 2003, Aseemanand received a phone call from Jayantibhai Kewat, who was then a BJP general secretary for the Dangs. “Pragya Singh wants to meet you,” Kewat told him. Kewat arranged for them to visit his house in Navsari, Surat, the next month.
Aseemanand remembered bumping into Singh at the house of a VHP worker in Bhopal, in the late 1990s. He was struck by her appearance—short hair, T-shirt, jeans—and her fiery rhetoric. (In a characteristic tirade delivered sometime after 2006, Singh declared, “we will put an end to [terrorists and Congress leaders] and reduce them to ashes.”) In Navsari, Singh told Aseemanand that in a month’s time she would visit him at the VKA’s Waghai ashram.
It was Aseemanand’s ardent championing of Hindutva, his “Hindu ka kaam”, Singh told me, that first drew her to him. “He was a great sanyaasi, doing great work for the country,” she said, when we met last December in Bhopal.
After the Navsari meeting, Singh soon arrived in the Dangs as promised. Three men accompanied her. One was Sunil Joshi.
People who knew Joshi described him as “eccentric and hyperactive”, according to news reports. Singh told me he was like a brother, and that they met through the RSS. Aseemanand recalled that, in later years, when he sheltered Joshi at the Shabari Dham ashram, Joshi would spend all day incanting bhajans and performing poojas while Aseemanand roamed the forest, visiting tribals. Around the time Joshi and Singh first started spending time with Aseemanand, Joshi was wanted for the murder of a Congress tribal leader and the Congressman’s son in Madhya Pradesh, a crime for which the RSS reportedly excommunicated him.
Another member soon joined their group. While working in Canada, an administrative professional named Bharat Rateshwar had also heard about Aseemanand’s work in the Dangs; he decided to give up his life abroad and return to India to help. Rateshwar built a house, in nearby Valsad district, where Aseemanand’s collaborators would stay on their way to his ashram.
Aseemanand and Pragya Singh both told me that they met frequently in the years leading up to the kumbh. Above all, they discussed the growth of the country’s Muslim population, which Aseemanand considered the biggest threat to the nation. “With Christians, we can always stand together and threaten them,” Aseemanand told me. “But Muslims were multiplying fast.” He continued, “Have you seen the videotapes in which the Taliban slaughter people? Yes, I did talk in meetings about that. I said that if Muslims multiply like this they will make India a Pakistan soon, and Hindus here will have to undergo the same torture.” The group explored “ways to curb this”, he said. They were also angered by Islamic terrorist attacks, especially on Hindu places of worship such as Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, where 30 people were killed, in 2002. Aseemanand’s solution to this problem, which he advocated frequently, was to retaliate against innocent Muslims. His refrain was bomb ka badla bomb—a bomb for a bomb.
The group’s conversations continued over the next two years, as Aseemanand prepared the kumbh. Soon, Mohan Bhagwat and Indresh Kumar gave their sanction to the plot, according to the account Aseemanand gave me. While they took centre stage at the kumbh along with other leaders of the Hindu Right, Aseemanand retreated to his ashram. Despite his seniority and popularity within the Sangh, he had agreed with Bhagwat and Kumar that he should publicly distance himself from the RSS. “It was a strategy that we took at the time,” Aseemanand told me. Instead of participating in the kumbh, he was to focus in secret on planning the attacks.
LESS THAN A MONTH AFTER THE SHABARI KUMBH, two bombs exploded in Varanasi, killing 28 people and injuring a hundred more. One of the explosives was placed at the entrance to a Hindu temple. Aseemanand, Singh, Joshi, and Rateshwar immediately convened at Shabari Dham, where they decided to conjure up a reply.
In his confession, Aseemanand said that Joshi and Rateshwar agreed to head to Jharkand to purchase pistols, and SIM cards to be used in detonators. Aseemanand gave them Rs 25,000. He also suggested that they try to recruit other radical sadhus to the conspiracy. (In the end, the Ram bhakts he nominated chose to stick to vitriol.) In Jharkand, Joshi contacted his friend Devender Gupta, the RSS chief of Jamathada district, who helped them secure fake driving licences with which to purchase SIM cards.
In June 2006, the team rallied at Rateshwar’s house. Joshi and Singh arrived with four new members of the conspiracy—Sandeep Dange, Ramchandra Kalsangra, Lokesh Sharma, and a man known only as Amit. Dange, whose nickname was “Teacher”, was the RSS district head in Madhya Pradesh’s Shajapur district; Kalsangra was an RSS organiser from Indore.
According to chargesheets, Joshi formed three task forces to carry out the blasts. One group would motivate and shelter young men whom they would recruit to plant the bombs; one would procure materials for the bombs; and the third would assemble the devices and execute the attacks. Joshi agreed to be the only connecting thread between the various parts of the conspiracy. He then suggested that they target the Samjhauta Express in order to kill the maximum number of Pakistanis. Aseemanand proposed Malegaon, Hyderabad, Ajmer and Aligarh Muslim University.
Several months went by in the Dangs without news. Then, during Diwali celebrations, Joshi came to meet Aseemanand at Shabari Dham. According to Aseemanand’s confession statement, Joshi claimed responsibility for two explosions in Malegaon, on 8 September, that killed 31 people. Dange, along with Kalsangra, had helped Joshi procure bomb-making materials, assemble the explosives, and execute the attacks, according to chargesheets.
On 16 February 2007—a Shivratri day—Joshi and Aseemanand met again, at the Kardmeshwar Mahadev Mandir in Balpur, Gujarat. “There is going to be some good news” in the next few days, Joshi told Aseemanand, according to the confession. Two days later, the Samjhauta Express was bombed. A day or so after that, Joshi, Aseemanand and some members of the larger conspiracy met at Rateshwar’s house, where Joshi took credit for the attack. This time he told Aseemanand that Dange and his aides carried out the blast. Attacks continued over the next eight months; in May, the group bombed Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid and, in October, they bombed the Ajmer dargah.
On 19 February 2007, Singh had sat down to watch breaking news of the Samjhauta blast with her sister and her aide Neera Singh, according to a witness statement given by Neera. When images of the destruction brought Neera to tears, Singh asked her not to cry, because all the dead were Muslims. When Neera pointed out that there were some Hindus among the dead, Singh replied, “Chanay ke saath ghun bhi pista hai” (Worms get ground with the gram). Then Singh treated her sister and Neera to ice cream.
AT THE END OF 2007, things in the conspiracy took a turn for the worse. On 29 December, Sunil Joshi was shot dead on an isolated stretch of road near his mother’s house, in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh. Joshi had four aides—Raj, Mehul, Ghanshyam and Ustad—who lived with him and were almost always in his company. (Raj and Mehul are wanted by police for the Best Bakery arson attack, in which 14 people were burned alive during the Gujarat riots in 2002.) All four mysteriously disappeared after Joshi’s killing.
When he learned of Joshi’s death, Aseemanand, looking for information about the killing, dialled the telephone number of a Military Intelligence officer he had met at a meeting of the militant RSS offshoot Abhinav Bharat, in Nasik—Lt Col Shrikant Purohit.
Purohit is a mysterious figure. For the last three years, he has been behind bars for planning the second Malegaon blast, of 2008. Time and again, he has claimed that he was acting as a double agent under orders from his army superiors. “I have done my job properly, have kept my bosses in the loop—and everything is on paper in the army records,” he told Outlook, in 2012. “Those who need to know know the truth.” Pragya Singh’s lawyer, Ganesh Sovani, told me they are treading carefully with Purohit: “We don’t know what his real intentions are.” According to Aseemanand’s confession statements, Purohit told him that since Joshi was involved in the murder of the tribal Congressman, this must have been an act of revenge.
Five months later, three bombs exploded in Maharashtra and Gujarat—two in Malegaon, and one in Modasa—killing at least seven people and injuring roughly 80. Aseemanand soon received a call from Sandeep Dange, who asked Aseemanand to shelter him at Shabari Dham for a few days. Aseemanand was on his way to Nadiad in Gujarat and didn’t think it wise to leave Dange in the ashram in his absence. Dange asked Aseemanand to pick him up from a bus depot in Vyara, 70 kilometres from Shabari Dham, and drop him in Baroda. In Vyara, Aseemanand met a very worried Dange, along with Ramchandra Kalsangra. They said they were coming from Maharashtra. Aseemanand later recalled to police that throughout the three-hour journey to Baroda they remained completely silent.
Singh was the first of the main conspirators to be captured, in October 2008, in connection with the second Malegaon bombing, after the Mumbai ATS determined that a scooter used in the blast belonged to her. Allegations soon emerged that she had been brutally tortured while in police custody. The news deeply disturbed Aseemanand. In the first week of November, the Mumbai ATS made another major arrest in the case—Purohit. He is alleged to have trained the terror suspects in bomb assembly, and supplied RDX from army stocks. Later that month, the ATS arrested a conspirator named Dayanand Pandey. Then the arrests suddenly came to a halt; Hemant Karkare, the celebrated chief of the Mumbai ATS, who was heading the investigation, was shot dead on 26 November during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
Little changed until April 2010, when the Rajasthan ATS, while investigating the Ajmer bombing, arrested Devendra Gupta, the RSS district head from Jharkhand who had provided fake identification to Joshi and Rateshwar, and two others. The NIA took over the Samjhauta case that July. Meanwhile, the CBI was investigating the Mecca Masjid case, and conducting surveillance on several members of the conspiracy, including Aseemanand.
By now, Aseemanand knew that things were closing in; Phoolchand Bablo told me that in the months before his arrest Aseemanand was very disturbed. “He would be silent, resolutely silent about the news and investigation, and we did not ask him anything,” Bablo said. Aseemanand, who was almost 60 at the time, soon left Shabari Dham and began moving around the country in order to evade arrest. The constant travel weakened him, and his health deteriorated. Eventually, he settled in a village outside Haridwar, where he lived under an assumed name until the CBI tracked him down that November. “They had arrested everyone connected to Sunil,” Aseemanand told me. “I was the last one to be nailed.”
Aseemanand was thrown in a Hyderabad jail and soon confessed. “The CBI already knew the whole story,” Aseemanand told me. One statement Aseemanand made included a surprising account of why he decided to confess. A few days after his detention, he met a Muslim boy named Kaleem, who was also imprisoned in Hyderabad. Kaleem was accused of the Mecca Masjid blasts which Aseemanand had plotted. Kaleem used to wait on Aseemanand, and his kindness aggravated Aseemanand’s conscience. He was confessing, Aseemanand claimed, out of remorse.
When I mentioned this incident in our first interview, Aseemanand gave me a mischievous look. “So how big was the news about Kaleem?” he asked. He said the story was completely fabricated by the police. “Kaleem knew that I was in the same jail, but I couldn’t meet him,” Aseemanand said. “How will I ever say such things to a Muslim boy?”
After his confession, Aseemanand drafted two letters—one to the President of India claiming responsibility for the Samjhauta blasts, and one to the president of Pakistan, which read: “Before the criminal legal system hangs me, I want an opportunity to transform/reform Hafiz Saeed, Mullah Omar and other jihadi terrorist leaders and jihadi terrorist in Pakistan. Either you can send them to me, or you can ask the Indian government to send me to you.”
SUPERINTENDENT OF POLICE Vishal Garg’s office is a modest cubicle in the NIA’s swanky Delhi headquarters. Against one glass wall of the office is a filing cabinet with four drawers labelled “Ajmer Blast”, “Samjhauta Blast”, “Sunil Joshi Murder”, and “Stationery”. A white board behind Garg’s desk tracks future court dates for the Samjhauta and Ajmer cases, in which Garg is the investigating officer. On another wall is a “wanted” poster featuring Sandeep Dange, Ramchandra Kalsangra and a man named Ashok who are still absconding in the Samjhauta case. The reward for information leading to the arrests of Dange and Kalsangra is one million rupees each.
“We often refer to the Aarushi case here,” Garg said when I visited his office last year. “Three days after the crime happened, CBI was given the case and they reached the crime scene. You can imagine what valuable evidences must have been lost.” Garg looked every bit the part of a counterterrorist IPS officer—down to the aviator sunglasses. “We took over the Samjhauta case three years after the crime,” he continued. “You can imagine how difficult the investigation must have been for us.”
Garg continued, “We have not been able to nail the money trail so far, as these are not bank transactions or ones that are documented. You can call it the limitation of the investigation. We know that Aseemanand has handed over cash to Sunil Joshi, but no idea of how much it was.” The source of the explosives used in the blasts is also still under investigation. Pointing to the “wanted” poster, Garg said, “These Rs 10-lakh-award guys are the main brain and main executives of the crime. We need to catch them to get a better picture.”
The NIA is facing a number of obstacles. In July 2012, the Supreme Court restrained the agency from interrogating Pragya Singh in the murder of Sunil Joshi, on the technical grounds that the case’s FIR was lodged before the inception of the agency, in 2009. The court has also blocked the agency from questioning Lt Col Srikant Purohit and another accused. The NIA prosecutor and legal advisor Ahmed Khan has advised the agency to club all the cases together and try them in a single court, but no further steps have been taken in this direction.
The NIA says supplementary charge sheets naming more conspirators will be filed soon, and Garg told me he was working hard. “Last week one of my subordinates met me at the lift and said, ‘Saab, aaj aap bade smart lag rahe ho.’ I told him he could also look sharp if he gave up sleeping.” He broke into a laugh, then told me that he once had a commanding officer who used tell to him that if he slept, he should dream of the good time his suspects must be having.
When I asked Garg why the NIA never questioned Indresh Kumar, he said that it was an internal matter and would not discuss it.
AFTER PRAGYA SINGH WAS ARRESTED, in 2008, Congress leaders such as P Chidambaram and Digvijaya Singh began decrying what they called “saffron terror”. RSS and BJP officials rushed to defend their organisations from the taint—first denouncing and then defending the accused.
“I am shocked and it is shameful that the BJP is disowning her and all their organisations are disowning her,” the senior BJP leader Uma Bharti said following Pragya Singh’s arrest. “When they wanted, they used her.” The BJP spokesperson Ravishankar Prasad countered, “There is no question of owning or disowning her. She left ABVP in 1995–96.” The party was later embarrassed when recent photographs surfaced showing Pragya Singh in the company of the BJP president, Rajnath Singh, and Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Another showed her sharing a dais in Gujarat with Narendra Modi during his post-riots election campaign.
When allegations emerged that Pragya Singh was tortured, the BJP changed tack. LK Advani condemned the “barbaric treatment” meted out to her, and said that it was clear the investigating agency “was acting in a politically motivated and unprofessional manner”. (The political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta later commented, “Nothing diminished L.K. Advani before the last election more than his artless, passionate and entirely a priori defence of Sadhvi Pragya.”)
But the RSS launched its most vehement public protest (and one of the largest in its history) a week and a half before Aseemanand was arrested, in November 2010—on behalf of Indresh Kumar, whose name had begun cropping up in media reports about the investigations. The Sangh’s chiefs marshalled a nationwide protest. According to Organiser, more than a million people participated in over 700 dharnas across the country; virtually the entire leadership of the RSS and the VHP appeared on stage at the rallies. At a demonstration in Lucknow, Mohan Bhagwat stressed the importance of his own participation in Kumar’s defence. “For the first time in the history of the organisation, a sarsanghchalak has not only attended a dharna but also addressed the meetings as a conspiracy was being hatched to tag terrorism with the RSS,” he said. The dais was adorned with a poster featuring the face of Mohandas Gandhi. Bhagwat continued, “Hindu Samaj, saffron colour and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—all these terms are opposite in meaning to the term terror.”
The CBI and ATS investigations produced valuable leads and witness statements that clearly point to Kumar’s role in the bomb blasts. The NIA’s own chargesheets indicate that he was the mentor to several of the leading figures in the conspiracy (especially Sunil Joshi), and the CBI has interrogated him. In late July 2011, it was widely reported that the NIA, too, intended to question Kumar. But he was already taunting the agency in the press: “When NIA has strong evidences against me in terrorists’ act, why isn’t it arresting me?” He went on to claim that he, along with Pragya Singh and Aseemanand, had been falsely implicated. The agency is yet to question him.
The RSS and the BJP have taken every opportunity to call the on-going investigations a witch-hunt instigated by the Congress-led government. If this is true, the half-hearted way in which the cases are being handled make one wonder what influence the government really has over the agencies.
When I interviewed Kumar last year, he complained that journalists only ask questions about the RSS’s politics, and aren’t interested in the organistation’s social initiatives. “Then they just print those questions and murder the story about our work,” he said. “Now the media is slowly realising that they have been wrong in ignoring such a diversified organisation as the Sangh.” When the conversation turned toward his role in the blast, he said, “I warn people to be careful when they write about me.” His tone was aggressive. Later, when I telephoned him to ask about the meeting in which he and Bhagwat allegedly gave their blessing to the terrorist attacks, he went completely silent. Mohan Bhagwat’s office asked me to email them for comment, but at the time this article went to press they had not responded.
ON FRIDAY, 24 JANUARY, a special NIA court in Panchkula, Haryana, framed charges against Aseemanand in the Samjhauta blast case. After three years in Ambala jail and 31 months of legal hearings, his trial can finally move forward. In an NIA court in Jaipur, he has been under trial for the Ajmer case since September 2013. His trial in the Mecca Masjid case is not yet underway; last November, he made his first visit in two years to the Hyderabad court that is hearing the case.
Pragya Singh, who is accused number one in the 2008 Malegaon blast, has approached the Bombay High Court to challenge the NIA’s constitutionality. She also claims to be suffering from cancer, and is currently under treatment at an ayurvedic hospital in Bhopal. She has filed various bail applications that are being contested by the NIA.
At this point, it seems the trials may drag on for several more years. Lawyers from both sides blame each other for delaying court proceedings. Over the year and a half that I travelled back and forth from the Panchkula court, there were few newsworthy developments until the framing of the charges.
In Ambala, Aseemanand is now being held in a special B-class cell with Ram Kumar Chaudhary, the Congress parliamentarian from Himachal Pradesh who is accused of murdering a 24-year-old woman in Haryana in November 2012. They share a cook, who prepares them meals on request, and they are only on lockdown during the night.
In our last interview, in January 2014, he asked if I would like some tea. Before I could answer, a lean teenage boy, incarcerated for petty crimes, thrust a plastic cup filled with sweet chai into my hands. Aseemanand pulled him close and said, “This is my boy. He will be released soon.” He looked into the teenager’s face and added, laughing, “This chaiwala might grow up to become Narendra Modi.”
During our interviews, prison officers often stopped by to ask Aseemanand how he was doing. “They all tell me ‘jo hua accha hua,’” Aseemanand said—whatever happened is good. “They don’t know whether I have done it or not, but they believe that whoever did it, did the right thing.”
When I visited Kamarpukur, Aseemanand’s village in West Bengal, his family members were largely reluctant to speak with me. But as I left, his younger brother Sushant said to me, “Wait for a few months. Once Modiji comes to power I will put a stage in the village centre and shout from the loudspeakers all that Aseemanand has done.”
In one of our meetings, Aseemanand paraphrased the last words of Nathuram Godse: may my bones not be discharged into the sea until the Sindhu river flows through India again. He has assured Phoolchand Bablo that although his trial might take time, he will definitely be released. And he told me that the work of people like him, Pragya Singh and Sunil Joshi will continue: “It will happen. It will happen on time.”
Corrections: 1) The reporter's first meeting with Aseemanand was in December 2011, at a court hearing. The first interview at Ambala Jail took place on 10 January 2012. 2) A chargesheet quote from Pragya Singh Thakur and its translation have been corrected online. 3) The Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003 was not withdrawn in 2008. An amendment to the law, passed by the state assembly in 2006, was withdrawn. 4) An earlier line reporting Aseemanand's account of a meeting contained a transcription error. The line originally read: 'According to Aseemanand, both RSS leaders approved, and Bhagwat told him, “You can work on this with Sunil. We will not be involved, but if you are doing this, you can consider us to be with you.”' This has been modified to: 'According to Aseemanand, both RSS leaders approved, and Bhagwat told him, “You can work on this.” Indresh added, “You can work on this with Sunil. We will not be involved, but if you are doing this, you can consider us to be with you."' 5) At the time of the Shabari Kumbh, Narendra Modi was serving his first full term as Gujarat's chief minister. The Caravan regrets the errors.