Nine Years after the Local Train Blasts in Mumbai, There is Little Clarity on Who was Responsible for the Attack

An Indian railway official works at an information desk as the families of those who died in the Mumbai bomb blasts on 11 July 2006 file compensation forms on 17 July 2006. The successive explosions on seven local trains claimed 187 lives immediately and rendered 824 injured. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)
11 July, 2015

Earlier this week, on 7 July 2015, Parag Sawant, a thirty-six-year-old resident of Mumbai who had been comatose for nine years, succumbed to his injuries and passed away in Mumbai’s Hinduja hospital. Sawant became the 189th victim to be claimed by the serial train blasts in Mumbai that shook the city on 11 July 2006, when successive explosions on seven local trains claimed 187 lives immediately and rendered 824 injured.

It will be nine years since the blasts took place and more than nine months since the final arguments in the trial were concluded in August 2014. Yet, there is still no sign of when the judgement will be announced. Reports suggest that special Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) judge, YD Shinde, could possibly deliver the judgement by either the end of July or August this year.

Between July and October 2006, the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) of the Mumbai Police arrested 13 people in connection with the blasts. Most of the accused, were from the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), a banned Islamic organisation that was formed in Uttar Pradesh in 1977. As per the ATS, in 2001, members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba—a terrorist organisation that is based in Pakistan—motivated one of the accused Faisal Shaikh,—to pursue arms and ammunition training in Pakistan. The ATS also alleged that in 2004, Shaikh, who had become an operative at the LeT, then allegedly sent four other people from among the accused persons—Shaikh’s brother Muzammil; Dr Tanvir Ansari; Zameer Shaikh; and Suhail Shaikh—for arms training in Pakistan via Iran.

These four men allegedly pretended to be Shia Muslims who were visiting Iran for a pilgrimage, but instead visited Pakistan from that route. In 2006, the ATS claimed, the accused persons who were being led by Faisal Shaikh, allegedly harboured four Pakistani citizens—Salim, Sohail Shaikh, Abdul Razak, and Abu Umed—who crossed the border and entered India illegally. Two people from this group, Salim and Umed were killed later. This group then allegedly constructed bombs in Mohammed Ali’s house, with Research Development Explosives (RDX), ammonium nitrate, nitrite and petroleum hydrocarbon oil. They then packed them in rexine bags that were placed in the first class compartments of several local trains at Churchgate station in South Mumbai on 11 July, 2006. Most of those accused in the case, and Faisal Shaikh—who had been deported from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, for not possessing travel documents in 2004— in particular, had been under the watch of Indian agencies for years before the blasts.

On 29 September 2006, nearly three months after the train blasts, A N Roy, the police commissioner of Mumbai at that time, made some startling revelations about the case at a packed press conference. During the conference, Roy declared that the bombs that had caused the explosions were planted in pressure cookers and placed across the first-class compartments of different local trains by members of the LeT. The police further claimed to have located the two shops that had sold the pressure cookers, seven of which, according to the police’s account had been packed with RDX and ammonium nitrate before being transported to Churchgate station.

The commissioner termed the investigation “a beautiful piece of highly professional investigation.” However, soon after, reporters present at the conference started joking about how the police had traced the origins of the accused to Pakistan through an ISI mark—an acronym for both the certification mark for industrial products in India, and the inter-state intelligence in Pakistan—on the pressure cookers. The credibility of the police’s claims took a turn for the worse when the charge sheet filed by the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) in November 2006 made no mention of the use of pressure cookers. However, K Raghuvanshi, the chief of the ATS at that time, reportedly said that, “There is no omission. We've mentioned that some household utensils were used to assemble the bomb. The pressure cooker is the household item.”

During the course of this trial, Shinde had to go through tons of material: a charge sheet that ran into approximately 10,000 pages; the witness statements of 189 prosecution witnesses, 50 defence witnesses and one court witness; along with other relevant documents such as the chemical analysis report. Despite the volume of evidence presented by both sides before the court, several questions raised during the investigation continue to remain unanswered.

After their arrest, all of the thirteen people who had been accused, alleged that they had been tortured by the police, and that they were being falsely implicated in the case as their confessions had been extracted under extreme pressure. The police, in turn, claimed that they were following the Al Qaeda manual that allegedly states that those accused of terror should derail any investigation by alleging torture.  They were booked under various sections of the MCOCA, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Indian Penal Code and among other laws. The defence denied the involvement of these men in the case completely.

As the case progressed, it became apparent that the prosecution, led by public prosecutor Raja Thakare, was not sure of whether pressure cookers were used in the blasts or not. As Sharif Shaikh, one of the defence lawyers in the case told me on the phone last month, “In the trial, the prosecution has no clear theory on how the bombs were assembled.” Shahid Azmi, who had initially taken up the cases of most of the accused persons, was killed in February 2010 at his office in Kurla in Mumbai.

In February 2012, as witness number 185 of the blasts trial, when Roy faced cross-examination on this point, he said that the press briefing was based on interrogation of the accused, which had revealed that pressure cookers had been used during the blasts. Roy claimed that the accused had spoken of some “household utensils, including pressure cookers” that were used in the bombs in his confessional statement.  At the press conference, Roy had also mentioned that Quartz timers were used in the bombs. However, he denied making this claim during the trial.

None of the shopkeepers that the Mumbai police had reportedly identified as the suppliers of the pressure cookers were examined. Nevertheless during the trial, on 14 October 2011, Sandesh Revle, a Bomb Disposal Squad officer, drew a diagram in court to explain how a cooker found on the site of the explosions could be used as a “container” for the bomb. Revle also explained that the wires of the detonator “can come out of the hole where the whistle fits” with a triggering mechanism kept outside to receive signal.

“Frankly, in the confessional statements it would have been easy to incorporate pressure cookers. But, the police wrote what was told. We recovered RDX from one accused person (Kamal Ansari) in Bihar, and from one accused (Faisal Shaikh) from his Bandra residence. Ammonium nitrate was recovered from another one of those accused—Asif Khan Bashir Khan—too. The accused persons spoke of some household items (during the confession). An analogy can be drawn based on that fact as household item includes pressure cooker,” Raja Thakare told me when we spoke on the phone last month.

There is no clear account of how the bombs were assembled, even in the 11 confessions that were admissible in court and recorded under the MCOCA. While the confessions of some of the accused went into detail on their journey to Pakistan for the arms training in 2004, there was very little material to prove that they formed a group, constructed bombs and planted them. The part of the confession that focused on the planning for the bombing read like an afterthought. The court also recorded evidence from the travel agents who allegedly facilitated the entry of the accused into Iran. “Even if we go by the prosecution case, going to Pakistan is not a crime,” said Prakash Shetty, one of the other defence lawyers who is representing the accused.

The call data records (CDR) produced before the special MCOCA court have indicated that the phones belonging to the three men who allegedly harboured those who had entered from Pakistan and planted the bombs—Ehtesham Siddiqui, Faisal Shaikh, and Asif Khan Bashir Khan—were not located near the sites of the blasts that day. “This evidence is not conclusive. The phones can be left with others too,” Thakare responded when I asked him about the relevance of this information.

The defence also claimed that the eyewitnesses in the case were fabricating the facts. “The evidence has been completely cooked up. The carriers and planters were travelling in a crowded local train. The eyewitnesses cannot possibly remember the features of people they see on the train. Even the taxi drivers who claim to have ferried the accused with the bombs seem to remember the accused, despite there being nothing unusual about the rides, “said Shetty.

The ATS’ case received a bigger blow when the crime branch of the Mumbai police arrested Sadiq Shaikh—an alleged member of the Indian Mujahideen (IM)—for the 2008 Delhi and Ahmedabad blasts, along with others. Shaikh had allegedly told officials from the crime branch that the IM was responsible for all the blasts in India since 2005, including, the 2006 train blasts in Mumbai, and that he himself, along with four others had planted the bombs in pressure cookers.

Following this arrest, in September 2008, Rakesh Maria, then the crime branch chief and now the police commissioner of the city, had claimed that these five IM operatives who had been arrested had posed as Pakistani nationals and had helped plant the bombs in the trains along with the 13 people who were accused of executing the blasts. Maria’s claim, completely contradicted the ATS’ assertion that two of the Pakistani nationals accused in case were dead. The IM was mentioned as the outfit responsible for the blasts even in the charge sheet filed by the crime branch before the Mumbai court.

In March 2009, the ATS finally responded and arrested Shaikh to question him about the serial blasts case in July 2006. The ATS concluded that the crime branch’s theory regarding his involvement could not be proved. Upon being produced as a witness for the defence, Shaikh was declared hostile when he refused to support the claim that he had orchestrated the blasts. A few years later, in another twist of events, Yasin Bhatkal, the alleged co-founder of the IM, was arrested on the India-Nepal border in Bihar in August 2013. Bhaktal claimed that the attacks on 7 July had been carried out by the IM in retaliation to the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Bhaktal’s disclosure brought the ATS’ arrests of the 13 accused, under scrutiny once again. There does not appear to be any public record of the agency’s attempts to follow up on this confession.

To make the plot murkier, in 2006 the ATS arrested two of those accused in the train blasts— Mohammed Ali and Asif Khan—for the bombings that took place at Malegaon in Maharashtra in September 2006. According to the ATS, these two men were handling the explosives during the July blasts. The ATS also believed that some of the RDX left over from those blasts were used in the Malegaon blasts a few months later in September. When the National Investigation Agency—a federal agency established by the central government to investigate terror cases—took over the case, it dismissed this theory completely and framed charges against a group of Hindu nationalists. In 2011, when the nine Muslims accused in the case, filed for bail on the basis of new arrests, the NIA lawyer, Rohini Salian did not oppose it.

In 2013, investigative journalist and now a member of the Aam Aadmi Party, Ashish Khetan wrote a petition to the Bombay High Court) and sought an inquiry into three cases—the Mumbai local train blasts, the Malegaon blasts and the Pune German bakery cases in 2012. Khetan believed that conflicting evidence in the Malegaon blasts has not been brought before the court that was handling the case of the blasts in July 2006 in Mumbai. The ATS had also shown the source of explosives common between the blasts in July and the Malegaon case in 2006. The NIA investigation, if true, disproves not just the Malegaon 2006 investigation of the ATS but also the 2006 train blasts investigation as well,” said the petition.” Khetan said, before adding, “The question that needs to be asked is that can there be two versions of the same truth for two different courts?” The petition is still pending.

In his petition, Khetan, had made note of a “contradictory” case investigated by the ATS—the 2010 German Bakery bomb blasts case in Pune. During his interrogation, Bhatkal, the operative from the IM, had allegedly said that Mirza Himayat Baig—who had been convicted in the case— had nothing to do with the blasts. Bhatkal claimed responsibility for the attack along with Qatel Siddiqui—an alleged member of the IM, who was found dead at Pune’s Yerweda jail in July 2012. On 19 April 2013, the sessions court at Shivajinagar in Pune awarded Baig the death sentence for his crime. In response, Baig broke down and claimed that he would be the eighteenth victim of the blast that had killed seventeen people

As the wait for the judgement on Mumbai blasts continues, the court will have to navigate its way through a complex maze of contradictory information and drastically varying accounts. It will not be an easy task; nearly a decade after the blasts took place, no one seems to be certain about whether either side has proven its case beyond “reasonable doubt.”

Menaka Rao is a freelance journalist from Mumbai. She writes on law and health.