The National Investigation Agency has dropped charges against Pragya Singh Thakur and five others accused in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case. Charges under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) were also dropped against 10 other accused, including the the lieutenant colonel Prasad Srikant Purohit. On 25 April, about two years after the NIA told a Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act court in Mumbai that it did not have any evidence to link nine Muslim men to the September 2006 Malegaon bombings, the court discharged the accused from the case. Earlier that month, the NIA had gone back on its stance and opposed the released of the Muslim men.
Two blasts took place in Malegaon, around 300 km north of Mumbai, in September 2006, and again in 2008, killing 37 people and injuring more than 100. There are two different sets of people accused in the case—the nine Muslim men arrested by the state Anti-Terrorism Squad soon after the attacks, and four Hindus arrested by the NIA after it took over the investigation in 2011. In April 2014, the NIA had said there was no evidence supporting the ATS’ report recommending that the nine men be prosecuted. Before that, in 2011, then prosecutor for the NIA, Rohini Salian, acknowledged that based on new information, right-wing extremists were also involved in the 2006 blasts.
In her story “The Believer” that was published in our February 2014 issue, Leena Gita Reghunath reported on how Swami Aseemanand, one of the main accused, along with Pragya Singh Thakur, Sunil Joshi, Bharat Rateshwar, and others, planned a number of other attacks that included but were not restricted to the Malegaon blasts. By Aseemanand’s account, senior leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) endorsed and encouraged the attacks. In this excerpt, Regunath recounts how the conspiracy was planned and executed, beginning at the Shabari Kumbh in 2006, a three-day festival held by the Sangh in the Dang district of Gujarat as a means of converting Christian tribal people to Hinduism.
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.”
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.