Friday, December 19, 2008

India's Homegrown Swastika Terrorism

I have just read this rather informative article, and the author, Vishal Arora, has kindly given me permission to publish the piece in full:

Swastika Terrorism
The Indian government is ignoring the surge of Hindutva terrorism at its own risk
(The Caravan, a journal of politics and culture, December 16 to 31, 2008)

Vishal Arora

Before break of dawn on April 6, 2006, with one of the most inflamed summers in India around the corner, a loud blast convulsed through the tony Patbandhare Nagar locality of Nanded town in Nashik district, Maharashtra. Stepping into the epicentre of the explosion was a house atop which fluttered a saffron-coloured flag. Here, the police found two bodies lying in a mangled mess in the living room and three youngsters groaning in pain. The deceased were identified as Naresh Rajkuntwar, son of house owner, Laxman Gundayya Rajkuntwar, an activist in the Rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and his friend, Himanshu Venkatrao Panse.

The first information report (FIR) lodged at the area’s Bhagyanagar police station said that Rajkuntwar was a dealer in firecrackers whose leftover stock of pyrotechnic material, kept in his house, had accidentally caught fire. The post-FIR initial investigation into the explosion, however, revealed a different story. In his statement before Nanded’s judicial magistrate (2nd court) on April 9, 2006, the investigating officer, RD Bhurewar, said that “the explosion is not of crackers but it is a bomb explosion”, adding that another live bomb and “suspicious type of maps” had been found in the house. Furthermore, the plea statement (seeking a fortnight’s custodial extension of the accused) added that both the injured and the deceased were “active members” of the Bajrang Dal, the highly combative youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and were possibly making bombs to “take lives” with the intention of creating communal tumult.

The statement also said the police wanted to investigate the source of the men’s knowledge and training, how they procured explosive material, the conspiracy they were hatching, and whether or not they were part of a coherent terrorist group. According to the confessions of the arrestees, Himanshu Venkatrao Panse, one of the deceased, had planned all the terrorist attacks in the desperately poor and communally heterogeneous Marathwada region, including in Jalna (where a bomb had exploded at the Kadria Masjid on August 27, 2004) and Parbhani (where a mosque was bombed on November 21, 2003). The police had also reportedly found Muslim taqiyahs (skullcaps) and fake beards in Rajkuntwar’s house.

With impeccable timing, before the Nanded incident could snowball into the major controversy that it deserved to become, the media’s customary deficit attention was deflected by an alleged police shootout with terrorists in a neighbouring town. Dr Suresh Khairnar, president of the Maharashtra unit of the All India Secular Forum, believes that the encounter was designed to divert the spotlight from the Nanded blast. Referring to the supposed foiling of a terror attack by a Pakistan-based terrorist group’s fedayeen on the RSS headquarters in Nagpur on June 1, 2006, Khairnar says that it was a “fake encounter”. He bases his allegation on glaring discrepancies in the police version of the shootout, in which three alleged terrorists were killed.

The police said that they had spotted a white Ambassador car with red VIP beacon lights moving towards the RSS office at 4.15 am. When a constable sitting in a Tata Sumo MUV questioned them, the youngsters in the Ambassador started shooting and the police struck back. “How could the constable have made the inquiry from a distance, and if he went close to the vehicle, how did he escape the bullets?” asks Khairnar, who was a member of independent fact-finding teams that went to both Nanded and Nagpur after the incidents. “Besides, there was no eyewitness. The bodies of the alleged terrorists had been removed when the press reached the spot at 5 am. Local residents saw the police rehearsing the shootout a few days before the incident.”

The report on the Nagpur incident, released on June 16, 2006 by the fact-finding team, which included activists from the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), found many other incongruities. “The exchange of fire took place for 20 minutes, it was reported. Can anyone explain how the police disabled the terrorists from using the dozen hand grenades and the 360 rounds of bullets? That the terrorists had 12 hand grenades, 360 rounds of bullets, 5.6 kg of highly explosive material which was later stated to be RDX, and they battled for 20 minutes ‘hopelessly’ not using any of them, is a narration that fails to convince common sense… The terrorists were reported to have fired from AK-M automatic guns… the blue Tata Sumo of the police bore bullet marks that are all single shot marks,” the report said.

Not surprisingly, the state governments of Maharashtra and Gujarat announced a ‘reward’ of one million rupees for each Nagpur policeman for ‘valour’ exhibited. Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS), which probed the incident along with the local police, arrested 26 people, including Rajkuntwar, for planning to plant a bomb in a mosque in Aurangabad city, 200 kilometres from Nanded. But the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which took over the case in 2007, inexplicably rescinded criminal conspiracy charges against 11 of the accused, including Rajkuntwar, in February 2008. Dr Ram Puniyani, social activist, former professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, and recipient of the national government’s National Communal Harmony Award for 2007, suspects that the CBI “deliberately diluted” the case.

Ram Madhav, an RSS spokesperson, obviously differs with the civil society groups’ version of the two incidents. “It was the Congress-led government in Maharashtra at the time of both incidents, and investigating agencies never pursued the matters. We have always seen such mere allegations as malicious intensions. There is no question of our involvement in any bomb-making or bomb explosion incident; let the government investigate. We do not support terrorism,” he says, adding that the RSS leaders came to know of the Nagpur encounter through the media.

Three months after the Nanded episode, Maharashtra’s investigating agencies had another ‘encounter’, with unambiguous leads on the possible terrorist agenda of Hindutva extremists. On September 8, 2006, on the occasion of Shab-e-Barat (the Night of Fortune, when Muslims hold all-night celebrations complete with fireworks and fairy lights), four bombs exploded in the Muslim-majority town of Malegaon, a communal powder keg located roughly 280 kilometres northeast of Mumbai. There were three blasts in a mosque-cum-graveyard, Hamidiya Masjid and Bada Kabristan, and another in the crowded Mushawart Chowk. The explosions killed 31 people, most of them Muslim, and injured 312.

Not that the bombings worked to sidetrack the state government’s mind from the Nanded blast. Maharashtra’s Director General of Police (DGP) PS Pasricha told reporters on the day of the Malegaon explosions that it was “too early” yet to link the incident with previous attacks, including the one in Nanded. But it is intriguing that the investigating agencies seemed prepared to sideline two indicators: the fact that the blasts were undoubtedly targeted at Muslims in a town that had suffered incendiary communal riots in 2001, and numerous clues to the involvement of Hindutva groups.

Inquilab, an Urdu language daily published from Mumbai, reported that a 37-year-old tailor, Aqeel Ahmed, from Islampura in Malegaon had removed the body of a man who was wearing a fake beard from a blast site. Ahmad was moving the badly mutilated body, which was missing its legs, into an ambulance when his (fake) beard came off. Later, an Inquilab correspondent visited the mortuary along with Ahmed, but the body had disappeared. After speaking to the medical officer of the Malegaon Municipal Hospital, who said that none of the 30 bodies at Wadia Hospital and the one at Dholia Hospital had its legs amputated by the blasts, the daily suggested that the body with fake beard could be linked to the explosion at Nanded, where fake beards had been found at Laxman Gundayya Rajkuntwar’s house. The daily went on to point its fingers at the investigators for covering up the possible role of Hindutva extremists in Malegaon.

A scrutiny of the investigation into the Malegaon blasts is like tracking a wandering spoor with an agenda. Police and state home ministry officials shot off numerous statements during the first week of the investigations, but without divulging any details. “We have concrete clues and the course of investigation is on the right track” was their chorus; the effusiveness was followed by a three-week lull when knee-jerk revelations were given a rest. Initially, the police had detained for interrogation both Hindus and Muslims, but only the latter were formally arrested. On October 8, 2006, then deputy chief minister R.R. Patil – who rather reluctantly relinquished his seat after the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks – announced that the investigation had reached its final stage. But a fortnight later, DGP Pasricha summarily transferred the case, still in its “final stage”, to the Mumbai ATS. On November 27, Pasricha informed the media that the case had finally been “solved”; he said that two Pakistani nationals were involved in the explosions, which were carried out by the banned – without evidence – Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

The tables soon turned, however. While appearing before a magistrate on December 6, two of the accused, Shaikh Mohammed Ali and Asif Khan alias Junaid, retracted the statements they had made before the deputy commissioner of police earlier that day. They insisted that their disclosure had not been voluntary. In yet another twist on December 8, the Maharashtra state government announced that the case would now be transferred again, this time to the CBI. Before handing over charge to the CBI, on December 21 the ATS hurriedly filed a chargesheet against the nine accused in a special court under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act.

Anis Suhrawardy, a Supreme Court lawyer who moved the apex court on behalf of the Islamic organisation, the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, on November 17 this year seeking the release of those accused in the Malegaon 2006 blasts, says that the police arrested the Muslim youth without any evidence. “The Maharashtra police started arresting people indiscriminately without any events and simply on the basis that they [police] had information from some informers. No details were released at any point of time,” he says, adding that the “young and highly educated” Muslim youth were brutally tortured by the local police. The retraction of statements by two of the accused gives credence to this allegation. “Though some links were clearly showing involvement of some Hindu elements, the police did not go into those aspects,” says Suhrawardy.

The arrests made by the ATS were on dubious grounds. In a letter submitted to the CBI’s inquiry office on September 17, 2007, the Jamiat Ulama-i-Malegaon, a local organisation, pointed out that Shabbir Masiullah, the main accused in the Malegaon 2006 blasts case, had been in police custody since August 3, 2006. Another accused, Noorul Samsudoha, had first been arrested in 2001 for providing a meal to a terrorist but was later cleared of all charges. In the five years prior, the police had summoned Samsudoha 50 times. Two more accused, Dr. Salman Farsi and Dr. Farogh Iqbal Ahmed, had once been arrested for distributing inflammatory leaflets but were acquitted. They, too, were summoned frequently by the police. “How did they hatch a conspiracy right under police’s nose?” the Islamic group asked.

Malegaon’s Superintendent of Police, Nikhil Gupta, chooses to remain uncommunicative about the allegation that the police had arrested Muslim youth without prima facie evidence. His take on the probe is that the police had investigated the matter initially, but the case was later delivered out of their hands to the ATS and then to the CBI. Calling the case “very sensitive,” he says, “I cannot comment a word.”

Amid the Maharashtra government’s apparently deliberate ignorance of not just the possibility but even the growth of Hindutva terrorism, bomb-making thrived. On November 27, 2006, a retired army officer, Madan Mohan Shinde, and his brother, Jagannath Shinde, died while making a bomb in their residence in village Kanjal Gaon in the Mahad district near Mumbai. This was two years before the recent arrest of Lt Col Prasad Purohit for being logistically involved in this year’s bomb blast in Malegaon, which is being projected as the first case where army personnel have been suspected of using their skills for other than military purposes.

In its editorial on January 12, 2007, the Urdu daily Rashtriya Sahara had questioned the Maharashtra government and the ATS’ continuing guardedness and pointed to the impunity with which non-Muslim bomb-makers were functioning in the state. On February 10, less than a month after the paper voiced its bemusement, another explosion took place in a biscuit factory unit, again in Nanded, killing two people. The police declared it a ‘fire’ accident. However, an independent mission by the civil society group, Concerned Citizen Inquiry, which was conducted by activists Teesta Setalvad, Justice BG Kolse-Patil and Arvind Deshmukh, said that it might have been an accident involving explosives. “The Central government should keep a close watch and monitor the increasing low intensity terror generating activities being conducted by political outfits that are misusing Hindu religion,” warned their report on February 22 that year.

Close on the heels of these bomb-making incidents came the explosions on February 18 on the Samjhauta Express train (which connects India and Pakistan) near Panipat in Haryana. Two days later, Setalvad hinted that Hindutva terrorist groups could be behind the bombings. The Daily News & Analysis newspaper reported Setalvad as alleging that investigating agencies were protecting these groups and that acts of terrorism perpetrated by Hindu fundamentalist groups were not being properly examined. “In some cases, investigations were abandoned midway while in some others the investigating agencies just preferred to turn a blind eye to the existing state of affairs. The need of the hour is to instil a sense of neutrality and purpose in our police agencies and the way they are marshalled by their political masters,” the daily quoted her as saying.

Even as the Maharashtra government chose to be oblivious to the Hindutva terrorist organisations, two men died in yet another explosion. This time, it was in a hostel room in the Kalyanpur area of Kanpur city in Uttar Pradesh on August 24, 2008 – the very day that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad the Bajrang Dal launched a spate of attacks of unprecedented ferocity and scale on Christians and their properties in Orissa’s Kandhamal district. The deceased, Rajiv alias Piyush Mishra and Bhupinder Singh, were identified as Bajrang Dal core members. Police found 11 live bombs, enough material to make nine more bombs, seven timer devices, batteries, ammonium nitrate and potassium nitrate.

A little more than a month later, on September 29, six people were killed and 80 injured as bombs exploded again in Malegaon, and also in Modasa town in Gujarat’s Banaskantha district. True to form, the police arrested a Muslim man, Abdul Rehman Salem Chaus, on October 4 for alleged involvement with the blast. Initially, Chaus was held on charges of being involved in the violence that ensued following the blast and for expropriating the firearm belonging to the bodyguard of Additional Superintendent of Police Sanjay Patil. Later, the police ramped up the charges and declared him an accused in the blast.

But it took only a few days for the ATS to “stumble upon” Hindutva terrorist links that finally led to the arrest of several Hindutva supporters such as Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and self-styled godman Dayanand Pande, and serving army officers like Lt Col Prasad Purohit and Major Prabhakar Kulkarni. In retrospect, even the CBI saw a probable link between the 2008 explosions in Malegaon and Modasa and the 2006 Nanded blast. Investigating agencies might soon begin to notice a ligature between these and the 2006 Malegaon blasts.

Why is there such a deleterious delay on part of investigative agencies in Maharashtra and the Central government to probe Hindutva extremist groups? Why were the machinations of Rightwing extremists not foiled in April 2006, which might have helped to pre-empt the numerous other blasts that followed?

Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi, usually never at a loss for words, is tight-lipped about the dilatoriness of the probe on Hindutva terrorism under his party’s leadership both at the Centre and in Maharashtra. “I would not like to comment on this,” is as much as he is prepared to say. In the absence of any self-exculpation from the Congress party, the only sane explanation seems to be this: The option of taking the bull by the horn seemed to be politically more beneficial for the Congress in October 2008, when assembly elections were awaited in the BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, as well as in Delhi, where after two consecutive rollercoaster terms of the Congress, the BJP was hopeful of victory. Above all, the next general elections were around the corner. But there is no post-election clarity: even after the results in early December showed the Congress retaining Delhi, and the BJP losing Rajasthan but keeping its hold on Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Central government’s terrorism-tackling strategy – particularly that of the Hindutva brand – is anyone’s guess.

On the other hand, the political scene in April 2006 – when the first signs of Hindutva terrorism reared its head – was different, as the BJP was not expected to be a strong contender in any of the assembly elections, in Assam, Kerala, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, at the time. And the national elections were still a non-threatening, dim outline three years away.

Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council, believes that it’s not only the Congress that is in denial but the BJP, too. “The BJP is in a state of absolute denial that terrorism really has no religion,” he says. “Terrorism has no religion; its victims come from all regions and religions.”

“I recall Obama’s statement that national security is a bipartisan matter,” he furthers. “In India, it is politicised in terms of electoral posturing.”

That ugly posturing was evident after the recent terrorist mauling of Mumbai, in which about 200 people died and hundreds more were injured. Even as people were riveted to live telecasts on every news channel of the most audacious terrorist attack on India, the cameras suddenly tilted down, changing the text. From focussing on the burning top floor of the Taj Mahal hotel, the cameras dipped to grant primetime to opposition leader Lal Krishna Advani, who, clad in his trademark kurta-pajama, began filibustering from ground zero. Even as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was single-mindedly excoriating the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre for having failed to insulate the country from terrorism, ticker tapes running across television screens highlighted more immediate matters, such as the multispeciality St George Hospital in the bloodied and brutalised Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (earlier, Victoria Terminus) having received 57 unidentified, possibly charred or mutilated, bodies.

Before the suspected Pakistani terrorists stormed India’s financial capital, Advani seemed to be on the defensive end of the stick of India’s war against terrorism, courtesy the investigating agencies probing not ‘Islamic’ terrorism but the possible involvement of Hindutva extremists in the Malegaon and Modasa bombings. Barely a week before the attacks on Mumbai, the octogenarian uber demagogue had lashed out at Maharashtra’s ATS for arresting Hindutva proponents. ATS chief Hemant Karkare, who was shot and killed by terrorists on November 26, the first day of the terrorist attack, was the prime target of Advani’s vitriol. Karkare died disheartened by the fierce vituperation that had come his way for trying to fight terrorism divested of its religious and ideological affiliations or underpinnings.

Following the denunciation of the UPA by Advani, whose website shamelessly tom-tommed his ‘timely’ visit to Mumbai, the Congress party accused the BJP of hauling political mileage from the still-smoking debris of the gruesome attacks. The Congress’ gripe wasn’t amiss – just misplaced: it was trying to highlight a speck of sawdust in its opponent’s eye while trying to hide the plank in its own. And that plank seems to have rendered it blind to the surge of Hindutva terrorism in the country.

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