The bomb that went off outside the Shakil Transport Company’s offices in Malegaon eight years ago left four dead and 79 injured. That bombing was to have seismic consequences for India, though — and the shock waves are far from spent. Investigators from the Maharashtra Police’s Anti-Terrorism Squad were to conclude that it was carried out by a Hindutva terror cell called Abhinav Bharat, setting off an investigation that would reach to the perpetrators of attacks on the Samjhauta Express, the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, and the Ajmer Sharif shrine. The cases had sparked hopes of even-handed justice among Indian Muslims, battered by police investigations sometimes appearing intended to defame the community rather than punish perpetrators. Now, though, a reinvestigation of the case has seen the NIA discharge at least one allegedly key conspirator, Pragya Thakur. In the context of claims that the NIA is being pushed by the Union government to roll back Hindutva-related prosecutions, coming from credible figures like former NIA prosecutor Rohini Salian, the concerns that something other than the rigours of due process may be at play cannot be lightly dismissed.
At the same time, at least part of the criticism directed at the NIA is the consequence of misunderstandings about just what it is the agency has actually done, and why. For example, the agency has been reported to have accused the ATS of having planted the RDX on military intelligence officer-turned-alleged terrorist Shrikant Purohit. The charge-sheet makes no such claim. Instead, it simply recorded testimony uncovered in an earlier internal Indian Army investigation showing that an ATS officer had illegally visited the home of one of Purohit’s associates, Sudhakar Chaturvedi. This visit, the NIA concluded, vitiated forensic evidence that showed traces of RDX were present in Chaturvedi’s home. The charge-sheet, similarly, gives no credit to claims by BJP spokespersons that Pragya Thakur was framed by the ATS. It simply records that there is no evidence, apart from confessional testimony of dubious evidentiary value, that she knowingly lent her motorcycle to be used as a platform for the bomb — making a prosecution hard to sustain.
Yet, the fact remains that many alleged Islamist terrorists are being prosecuted by the ATS and other police forces on similar evidence, or less. Those convicted by a lower court in Mumbai of bombing commuter trains in 2006 have had no benefit of reinvestigation, despite findings by police forces in three other states that the same ATS fabricated evidence against them. Neither has Mirza Himayat Baig, convicted of a role in a bombing in Pune, though perpetrators arrested afterwards have made clear he had no role in the affair. Instead of ill-founded crowing about the exoneration of terror suspects, the government needs to demonstrate a commitment to review suspect investigations—many by the same police unit its own spokespersons are now condemning — and set rights wrong. Anything less will hand a victory to the cult of the bomb.