On 24 April 2017, the Bombay High Court granted bail to Pragya Singh Thakur, a former national executive member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case. On 29 September 2008, two bombs concealed in a motorcycle had exploded in the Muslim-dominated town of Malegaon in Maharashtra. Four persons were killed in the blast and 79 others injured. The investigation into the blasts was initially conducted by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), which filed its chargesheet in January 2009. In it, the ATS named 14 persons, including Thakur. She was arrested in October 2008. The ATS alleged that Thakur was one of the masterminds behind the blast. It stated that she owned the bike associated with the blast, and had given it to a co-accused Ramchandra Kalsangra, who planted the bomb and placed it at the blast site. The evidence the ATS presented against Thakur included statements from witnesses and co-accused, which placed her at meetings planning the blasts before its execution.
In April 2011, the home ministry transferred the case to the National Investigation Agency. Five years later, in 2016, the NIA filed a supplementary chargesheet in which it called the ATS investigation “dubious” and dropped Thakur and five others from the list of accused persons, claiming that “sufficient evidence have not been found” against them. The NIA chargesheet stated the ATS had tortured a witness who made a statement indicting Thakur. Another witness, RP Singh, who had earlier told the ATS that he overheard Thakur showing her readiness to provide men to arrange the blast, retracted his statement. On these grounds, and arguing the bike used in the blast was not in her possession, the NIA issued a clean chit to Thakur. One month after the NIA’s supplementary chargesheet was filed, an NIA court rejected a bail application filed by Thakur, in June 2016, stating that prima facie charges were still made out against her. Thakur filed an appeal against the order dismissing bail before the Bombay High Court. While granting her bail, the court said: “It cannot be said that there are reasonable grounds for believing that accusation made against her are prima facie true.”
The Malegaon blasts were not the only terror attacks in which Thakur has been named. In the cover story for the February 2014 issue of The Caravan, “The Believer,” Leena Gita Reghunath reported on the rise of Swami Aseemanand in the Sangh. Aseemanand was also named, though not charged, in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case. In the following excerpt from the story, Reghunath recounts Aseemanand’s interactions with Pragya Singh Thakur and their role in planning and executing the bombing of the Samjhauta Express train in February 2007.
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 Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram’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 Jharkhand 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 Jharkhand, 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.
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.