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Above: Swami Aseemanand (file pic)/Photo: ANI

The government is soft-pedalling numerous terror cases by extremist Hindu groups, leading to the acquittal of many of the accused in Samjhauta Express Blast

By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

It was nobody’s baby and unless the investigation agency was determined to expose the conspiracy behind the blast in Samjhauta Express, the case was bound to fail.” This is the shocking revelation of Vikash Narain Rai, a retired Director General of Police, Haryana, who led the initial investigations and cracked the case. However, the CBI Special Court at Panchkula acquitted all the accused earlier this month due to the failure of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to “prove the charge of conspiracy”. Rai said it appeared that neither the NIA nor the government was interested in pursuing the case. There were hardly any stakes within the country as very few Indians were victims.

The blasts took place in two unreserved coaches of the Lahore-bound Samjhauta Express on the night of

February 18 in 2007. Out of 68 casualties, 43 were identified as Pakistani citizens, 10 were Indians and 15 remained “missing”. None of the residents of Panipat or even the region was killed.

Initially, even the then ruling Congress-led government pointed a finger of suspicion at elements from Pakistan. It was only after investigations were taken up by Rai and his team that it became apparent that those who planted the bombs were radical Hindutva activists.

Fortunately, one of the bombs on the train failed to explode. According to Rai, it was this unexploded bomb that provided vital clues to crack the case. It was dismantled by experts and even minor clues were followed up by the team. It was able to establish that the epicentre of the conspiracy, including preparation of the explosives, was Indore in Madhya Pradesh. The team spent a long time in the town and was able to pinpoint the shop from where the suitcases containing the explosives, and other material used for preparing the device, were purchased. The team was zeroing in on the conspirators and had also found a link among similar explosions at some other places.

However, under intense pressure to expedite investigations and draw up linkages with other blasts, the government decided to hand over the investigations to the CBI in 2008. It is believed that the CBI, following the same line of investigation as the Haryana Police, was closing in on the main suspects and their foot soldiers when Sanjay Joshi, a prime suspect, was mysteriously shot dead in July 2010. Investigating agencies were able to trace his close linkage to other blasts where Muslims were the targets. However, with his sudden death, several trails went cold.

Even as the investigations were transferred to the newly formed National Investigative Agency (NIA), the scrutiny of Joshi’s mobile calls and exchange of messages led to the identification of Aseemanand and some others who were constantly in touch with him. They were picked up and put through intense questioning.

Aseemanand, who was known to be closely associated with extremist Hindu ideology, is believed to have confessed his involvement in the various blasts. He even gave a statement before a magistrate under Section 164, CrPC, that he was involved. He also parted with information which was highly sensitive and involved powerful leaders. Subsequently, he resiled from his statement given under oath, and admissible as evidence, and said it was taken from him under duress. The four acquitted were Aseemanand, whose original name is Naba Kumar Sarkar, Lokesh Sharma, Kamal Chauhan and Rajinder Chaudhary. Aseemanand has already been acquitted in Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid blast case and the Ajmer Dargah blast case. Emerging from the courtroom, an elated Aseemanand raised pro-Hindutva slogans and claimed that he was being wrongly accused in the blast cases. As per the verdict, the chain of evidence could not be proven.

Gory deeds

Mecca Masjid blast

On May 18, 2007, nine devotees were killed and 58 injured in a blast in Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad. The case was handed over to the CBI and then to the NIA in 2011. The accused included Aseemanand, Sanjay Joshi, Lokesh Sharma, Devendra Gupta and others. All were acquitted by a Special Court on April 16, 2018.

Ajmer Dargah case

On October 11, 2007, a bomb ripped through the Ajmer Sharif Dargah, killing three and injuring 17. The case was initially investigated by the Rajasthan Police and handed over to the NIA in 2011. Among the accused were Aseemanand, Sanjay Joshi, Lokesh Sharma, Bhavesh Bhai Patel and some others belonging to organisations linked to the Sangh Parivar. A Special Court acquitted Aseemanand as well as some others, giving them benefit of the doubt, but convicted RSS pracharaks Bhavesh Bai Patel and Devender Gupta.

Malegaon Cases

In 2006 and 2008, there were two incidents of bomb blasts in Malegaon. However, the trial is yet to begin in both cases. Multiple charge sheets have been filed by the Maharashtra Police, the CBI and NIA. Besides Aseemanand, the accused in the Malegaon blast cases include Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and Lt Col Purohit. While the Maharashtra Police and the CBI had charge sheeted nine Muslim men, the NIA had named Sunil Joshi and some others of the group for the 2006 blast. In the 2008 blast case, the NIA exonerated Sadhvi Pragya. The Court, however, rejected the NIA stand and arraigned her as an accused under the Unlawful Activities Act.

NIA counsel Rajan Malhotra said it was a long-drawn trial with many of the witnesses turning hostile, leading to acquittals. However, it is evident that the Agency did not make sincere efforts or press charges against Aseemanand. The NIA had charged the accused with murder and criminal conspiracy, besides other relevant provisions of the Explosive Substances Act and the Railways Act. The charge sheet had stated that the accused were upset with the terror attacks on Hindu temples—Akshardham (Gujarat), Raghunath Mandir (Jammu) and Sankat Mochan Mandir (Varanasi). It said that the accused had conspired to trigger the blast on the Pakistan-bound train, largely carrying Pakistani nationals, to avenge the spate of terror attacks in various temples in the country. As per the NIA probe, the accused were given training in Madhya Pradesh and Faridabad, in Haryana, for making bombs and firing pistols.

The NIA charge sheet said Sunil Joshi was the mastermind of the blast plot with active help from the other accused, including Aseemanand. The explosives were stuffed in suitcases, which were planted in the train by Lokesh, Rajinder, Kamal and Amit, it said. However, the charge sheet could not prove that the accused had travelled from Indore to Delhi or that they had stayed in a dormitory at Old Delhi Railway Station. The NIA has taken the plea that they had travelled under false names and, therefore, the evidence could not be procured.

Aseemanand’s lawyer, JP Sharma, imputed political motives to the prosecution of his client. He said that the confessional statement was forcibly taken from him and used in various cases. He said that no eye witnesses had identified Aseemanand or any of the other three accused, nor was he part of any conspiracy meetings.

Incidentally, in almost all similar cases such as the Ajmer Dargah blast, the Mecca Masjid blast and the Malegaon blasts allegedly involving radical Hindu activists (see box), there was the same group of accused with Aseemanand as the ideological head and Joshi as the main conspirator. The BJP and other Hindutva organisations have strongly denied involvement of any Hindu outfit and blamed Muslim terrorists for these blasts. Besides the death of Joshi, there have been other strange twists and turns in all such cases.

Hours after acquitting all the accused in the Mecca Masjid blast case in August last year, the special NIA court judge of Hyderabad, K Ravinder Reddy, submitted his resignation to the Metropolitan Sessions Judge, citing personal reasons which had “nothing to do with the Mecca Masjid blast judgment”. The blast had ripped through the over 400-year-old mosque during Friday prayers on May 18, 2007, killing nine and wounding 58. The NIA couldn’t prove allegations against any of the accused and all were acquitted.

Back in June 2015, senior Mumbai prosecutor Rohini Salian had accused the government of asking her to “go soft” on Hindu extremists accused of a major terrorist bombing in Malegaon in 2008. She said that ever since the “new government came to power in the Centre, there has been pressure” on her to go soft on the group of extremist Hindus accused of the blast.

All such related cases had become political and in the absence of interest or proper pursuit of investigations by the NIA, courts had to acquit the accused. Even as the trial in the Samjhauta Express blast case was on, it became clear that the NIA was soft-pedalling.

Meanwhile, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has indicated that the government is unlikely to appeal against the Special Court order and that it was “buried” for the government. He told a news channel that the NIA was “a very credible investigating agency and as it had probed the matter and filed a charge sheet and a judgment has come, we should rely on that”.

Rai said that while the NIA has been weakening the case, it had not changed the line of initial investigations. This proves that it did not have anything contrary to the findings of the preliminary investigations about the group behind the blast.

As of now, no one has been held responsible for the deaths and injuries in the Samjhauta Express blasts.

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