A Violent End

The collapse of a murder trial weakens the fight against Hindu fundamentalism

Local residents and police officers clear debris from the 2008 Malegaon blast site. The investigation into the blast uncovered a network of Hindu fundamentalists, Sunil Joshi among them, who allegedly planned several bombings. reuters
01 March, 2017

On 29 December 2007, Sunil Joshi, a one-time member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was shot and killed near his home in the district of Dewas, in Madhya Pradesh. Nearly a decade later, in February 2017, eight people who were charged with his killing were acquitted of the crime. Joshi’s murder, it appeared, was destined to remain unsolved.

The significance of the acquittals extended far beyond the case of Joshi’s killing. One of the theories that investigating agencies proposed for the murder was that it was linked to Joshi’s involvement in some of the most heinous acts of mass murder in India’s history: the Malegaon blasts of 2006, and the Samjhauta Express blast, the Ajmer Sharif blast and the Mecca Masjid blast of 2007, which, in all, killed 111 people. One of Joshi’s alleged co-conspirators in these attacks, a Hindutva activist named Pragya Singh Thakur, was among those accused, and then acquitted, of his murder. If Joshi’s killing erased key information about the blasts, the failure of the murder investigation further weakens the possibility that the larger network of conspiracies will be uncovered, and their perpetrators punished.

Among the early theories that investigating agencies explored in the blast cases was that they had been planned by Pakistani conspirators or members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India. But according to Vikash Narain Rai, a police officer who headed the special investigation team of the Haryana police that was assigned to the Samjhauta case, an unexploded suitcase from the train led his team to a shop in Indore, whose staff revealed that it had been bought by Hindu, and not Muslim, men. Pursuing the lead further, Rai said, they came upon the name of Joshi, who headed a group of three people that had planned the bombing. “But by the time we started looking into this aspect,” Rai told the news website The Wire in June 2016, “this guy was murdered.” Joshi thus became a shadow of a shadow: a suspect who had been eliminated before investigators could find him.

The names of the alleged Hindu conspirators only emerged into the public domain in 2008, when the Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad, or ATS, headed by Hemant Karkare, which was investigating a 2008 blast in Malegaon, traced a motorcycle recovered from the site to Thakur. Apart from Joshi and Thakur, the investigations also pointed to the involvement of another Hindutva activist, Swami Aseemanand, as well as an army officer named Shrikant Purohit.

Joshi, who at one point held the post of RSS’s zila pracharak of Madhya Pradesh’s Mhow cantonment, had gained a sinister reputation after he was linked to the 2003 murder of the Congress leader Pyar Singh Ninama and his son Dinesh. The police had since declared him absconding. This unseemly history, according to a 2010 report on the website Rediff, only increased his popularity, as “Joshi began to operate quite openly, mobilising support” for his violent activities. An unnamed Bajrang Dal activist in Mhow told Rediff, “Joshiji was someone who would say one death from our side should be avenged with five from the other side.”

Though several reports suggested that the RSS distanced itself from him for his growing aggression, Deepak Joshi, a BJP MLA from Dewas, told Rediff that he had met Sunil Joshi at an event even while police asserted that he was in hiding. Further, according to several news reports, the diary that was recovered from Joshi’s dead body listed the phone numbers of several RSS functionaries, including the senior leader Indresh Kumar and the spokesperson Ram Madhav—the former as an “emergency number.” (The charge sheet, however, mentions only the names of Aseemanand and other accomplices as appearing in the diary.)

According to the Samjhauta and other charge sheets, which knit together multiple confessions and witness statements, Joshi procured arms, explosives and SIM cards, and organised meetings to plan the attacks. The Samjhauta charge sheet states that he said of the Samjhauta Express, which links India and Pakistan, “Ek taraf woh ham par ek ke baad ek atanki hamla karte ja rahe hain or hum unse samjhauta karne ke liye train chala rahein hain” (On one end they are carrying out one terrorist attack after another on us, and we are running a train to compromise with them). On the question of financing the attacks, the charge sheet states that he told Aseemanand not to worry as “paise dene wale aur bhilog hain” (there are others who can help with the money). When I interviewed Aseemanand in 2013 in prison in Ambala, Haryana, over the course of reporting a profile of him, he told me of Joshi’s role in the conspiracies, “Main wahi hain” (He is the main person).

Aseemanand said that Joshi was a central member of their group of rabid Hindutva activists, keen to violently retaliate against what they saw as the threat posed to India by Muslims. “The biggest issue is Muslims,” he said. “With Christians, we can always stand together and threaten them. To deal with Muslims, we must start preparing right now. They are multiplying fast. If they become a majority, we will be in really bad shape.” He added: “Pragya, Sunil and other people from Indore would often come to discuss ways to curb this with me.” This account matched the findings of multiple agencies, whose charge sheets stated that Thakur attended many of the important meetings with Joshi to plan the attacks.

Aseemanand spoke enthusiastically to me of their plans to target Muslims. “We should avenge the attacks on the temples. You all can do it. So then they started doing it. And my ashram became the centre for this.” He also said of Thakur and Joshi, “It felt good to see them work together.” When I asked him about the nature of their relationship he said, “Koi koi bolte thhe unke baare mein, par maine nahi dekha” (Some people spoke about them, but I didn’t see anything).

After three years of investigation, in December 2010, the Madhya Pradesh police made its first arrest in Joshi’s murder case: a man named Harshad Solanki. Two months later, they filed a charge sheet naming four more people, including Thakur, who was already under judicial custody in connection with the 2008 Malegaon blasts. Around six months after this, the National Investigation Agency, or NIA, which handles “terrorism” cases, took over the investigation on the grounds that it was linked to the Samjhauta blast.

The NIA investigated the murder and named as Joshi’s murderers Rajendar Chaudhary and Lokesh Sharma—close associates of his, and co-conspirators who were under judicial custody for the Samjhauta and other blast cases. Sharma helped the NIA seize the two guns used to shoot Joshi; the weapons’ use in the killing was confirmed by forensic tests. When the NIA reinvestigated the claims in the MP police’s charge sheet, earlier witnesses claimed they had been forced to make statements, and retracted them.

The link to Samjhauta, however, found no mention in the NIA’s account of the crime. According to the NIA’s charge sheet, Sharma and Chaudhary conspired in and executed Joshi’s murder, with Thakur’s knowledge and blessings, because of his “licentious advances made towards Pragya.” The charge sheet sheds no light on why Joshi’s associates felt that murder was the only way to resolve the issue of his advances. With the agency rejecting the idea of a link between the blast cases and Joshi’s murder, the trial, which had been shifted in November 2011 to a special NIA court in Bhopal, was shifted back to a magistrate court in Dewas in September 2014.

There, the NIA’s investigation withered under judicial scrutiny. On 1 February 2017, the magistrate declared that the “evidence is insufficient” and that the charges “cannot be proved without reasonable doubt against the accused.” The judgment mentions that “it is evident that the two organisations, the MP police and the NIA, did not conduct the investigations with the required seriousness due to reasons not known to this court” and that the “conflicting evidence provided by the two government organisations instead has the effect of placing doubt on the case presented by the prosecution and is inadequate to prove the guilt of the accused.” It added: “In light of this there is serious doubt in the mind of the court on the story of this investigation.”

As the murder case fizzled out, the blast cases, too, have collapsed or stalled. The NIA, which enjoys a reputation as an elite agency, took over the cases, only to let the investigations and trials flounder—even more so after the National Democratic Alliance government came to power at the centre. In the NIA court at Panchkula, Haryana, key witnesses in the Samjhauta case turned hostile. The trials in the Ajmer and Mecca Masjid cases, too, have seen witnesses turning hostile, as well as inexorable delays. In the 2008 Malegaon blast case, the NIA has recommended dropping charges against Thakur and five others, claiming to lack sufficient evidence to prosecute them—even though Thakur’s motorcycle was the key clue that led to the ATS uncovering the entire conspiracy. Ominously, in June 2015, the special public prosecutor in the case, Rohini Salian, revealed that the NIA had asked her to “go soft on the accused.” (In the 2006 Malegaon case, the only one where agencies—specifically the ATS and CBI—attempted to follow through with their theory of Muslim conspirators, nine Muslim men were discharged by a sessions court in 2016.)

The fate of the bail pleas in the Bombay High Court of Thakur and Purohit (both accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case) is also indicative of how agencies appear to have lost control of the investigations. These proceedings have run into farcical problems with regard to taped evidence that was once part of the investigative materials. On 3 November 2008, the ATS, which claimed that it had tapped Thakur’s phone for three months, produced transcripts from those conversations before a Nashik court. In one exchange, Thakur asked another suspect, Ramchandra Kalsangra, “Meri gaadi se blast kiya to itne kam log kaise mare? Gaadi bheed mein kyun nahi lagayi?” (If my vehicle was used for the blast, how come so few people died? Why didn’t you park it in a crowd)? To this, Kalsangra replied, “Bheed mein khadi karne nahi diya” (They didn’t let me park it in the crowd).

But, according to several news reports, this potentially damning material could not be accessed by the Bombay High Court, which asked the trial court to share the audio and video recordings of conversations or meetings, describing them as “crucial evidence” against the accused. The court found that one compact disc submitted to it was cracked and that 11 tapes of material were not relevant to the case. According to reports, the ATS told the court that it did not “remember” which tapes it had submitted before the trial court, while the additional solicitor general Anil Singh, appearing for the NIA, denied having key transcripts or videos of meetings.

Despite what these gaffes suggest, the investigations were not botched from the very start. A close reading of the various case materials makes clear that CBI and ATS officers had performed their duties commendably in the initial days of the investigations. Aseemanand himself told me that the CBI officers who arrested him were intelligent and knew everything about the plot even before they interrogated him. “The CBI knew how to behave with me, what to get out of me,” he said. “They had proper information about us.”

But in the intervening years, this strong early work has largely been undone by several agencies, including the NIA. Ahmed Khan, a legal advisor for the agency, told me in 2012 that he had recommended that the agency combine all the blasts involving the same group of suspects into a single case and trial—but that it never did this. As a result, piles of evidence and information are scattered across courts, being examined by different judges in multiple long-drawn procedures. The disintegration of Joshi’s murder trial and the blast conspiracy trials suggests a singular lack of will in serving justice in these vital cases.