Yesterday, two years after it 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 National Investigation Agency (NIA) went back on its stand and opposed discharging the men.
The blasts took place in Malegaon, around 300 km north of Mumbai, in September 2006, 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. Prakash Shetty, the NIA counsel, told the court on Tuesday, “It wasn’t the right stage to evaluate the evidence against the two sets of accused independently and therefore it is my humble submission that they [the Muslims accused] should not be discharged.”
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 this excerpt from “The Believer” that was published in our February 2014 issue, Leena Gita Reghunath reports on Swami Aseemanand’s account of how senior leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) encouraged, instigated and may have aided the perpetrators of a number of such attacks, including but not restricted to the Malegaon blasts.
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, the Hindu firebrand accused of plotting several terrorist attacks on civilian targets across the country between 2006 and 2008, 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 Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (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 Mohan Bhagwat, the current RSS chief, 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.
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.