In September 2006, a series of bomb blasts ripped through Malegaon, a town in Maharashtra, killing at least 30 people and injuring many more. Barely five months later, in February 2007, explosions in two carriages of the Delhi-Lahore Samjhauta Express left over 60 people dead. In May that year, a bomb blast in the 400-year-old Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, and the ensuing clashes between the mob and police, left more than 15 dead. On October 11, 2007, an explosion near the Ajmer Dargah killed three people and injured over 17. Nearly a year later, in September 2008, three bomb blasts — two in Malegaon and one in Modasa, Gujarat — led to the death of at least seven people.
What was common in all the six incidents was pointed out by the NIA, which has probed the cases since 2011, in its chargesheet filed in the Samjhauta Express blasts case. The agency claimed that attackers in all the incidents were linked by a common ideology: they were all associated with Hindu extremist organisations, had “strong anti-minority feelings”, and were agitated about terrorist attacks on temples.
The prime accused in all the blasts — Sandeep Dange and Ramji Kalsangra — still remain elusive. There was a partial conviction in the Ajmer blast case; in the Mecca Masjid case, all five main accused were acquitted on Monday; and the Modasa blast case was closed by the NIA in 2015.
The change of course
In the 2008 Malegaon blasts case charge-sheet, the NIA did not mention the name of Sadhvi Pragya Thakur. Another key accused, Lt Colonel Shrikant Prasad Purohit, was granted bail last year. The names of Dange and Kalsangra only cropped up when then ATS chief Hemant Karkare tracked a motorcycle, linked to Sadhvi Pragya, that was used in the blast.
The flip-flops in all the cases were first flagged in 2015 by the special public prosecutor in the Malegaon case, Rohini Salian. “After the change in government at the Centre, the NIA asked me to go soft into these terror cases…,” Salian told The Indian Express in October that year.
The NIA did not appeal after Aseemanand was granted bail in both the Samjhauta Express and Mecca Masjid blasts cases. It also did not challenge the acquittal in 2017 of Aseemanand and other accused in the Ajmer Dargah case. In the case of Purohit too, the agency, which had earlier argued in the Supreme Court against his bail, now did not contest his plea.
Instead, the NIA got two witnesses, Dr R P Singh and Yashpal Bhadana, and recorded their statement in connection with the 2008 Malegaon blasts before a magistrate, saying that they were “coerced” by the Maharashtra ATS to make an accusation.
Following the 2008 Malegaon blasts, the Maharashtra ATS arrested Sadhvi Pragya and Purohit in September that year. Pragya’s motorbike was used to plant the explosives in Malegaon, it was alleged. But within a month, ATS chief Karkare, who was heading the probe, was killed in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, throwing the investigation out of gear. Around the same time, the Rajasthan ATS, which was probing the 2007 Ajmer Dargah case, arrested Lokesh Sharma and Devendra Gupta (both allegedly associated with the RSS), for their role in the Mecca Masjid, Ajmer Dargah, Samjhauta Express and Malegaon blast cases. Former RSS pracharak Sunil Joshi, who was murdered in 2007, was the leader of the group, which had carried out the attacks, it was alleged.
In the 2006 Malegaon blasts case, nine people were arrested under the stringent MCOCA by the Maharashtra ATS, which claimed the blasts were carried out by the banned SIMI. The CBI, which took over the probe from the ATS, also concluded that the nine men had carried out the blasts. However, it was Aseemanand’s confession, which he later retracted, that helped the Muslim youths get bail. According to the chargesheet filed by the NIA in the Samjhauta Express blasts case, Dange and Joshi chose the train because most of the travellers were Pakistani Muslims. Joshi had said, “For this, we need a different kind of bomb, we need to assemble a variety of chemicals. For a number of simultaneous blasts on a running train, SIM card bombs won’t do,” the chargesheet alleged.
The trial in the train blast case is currently under way at the Panchkula court in Haryana. Aseemanand, who was an accused in this case as well, was released on bail in 2015.
Joining the dots
Detailed investigations in the six cases revealed the role of rightwing groups in all of them. According to the NIA, the planning to carry out the attacks started as early as in 2001, and some of the alleged attackers met for the first time in Jaipur on October 26, 2005. It was soon after this meeting that Devendra Gupta, Lokesh Sharma and Sunil Joshi arranged mobile phones and SIM cards that were used in the attacks.
As many as 11 SIM cards were purchased from West Bengal and Jharkhand using fake ID cards. Joshi and Dange also taught others how to make bombs, it was alleged.
The bombs used in the Mecca Masjid, Ajmer Dargah and Malegaon blasts had many common features. Barring the Samjhauta blasts, almost all bombs contained metal pipes with grooves in single rows on one side.
Potassium chlorate, which was used in the Samjhauta Express attack, was placed in a suitcase with an arming device similar to the ones used in the Mecca Masjid and Ajmer blasts.
In its chargesheet in the Mecca Masjid blasts case, the NIA said, “Mobile and SIM cards were used in the form of timer, the containers were same, lock system was same, printed circuit boards were same, which suggest that both the bomb blasts were executed by the same groups.”
A forensic analysis of the two unexploded IEDs recovered from the Samjhauta Express listed similarities such as “cut length of flexible wires were into the mobile phones from right lateral side in both the blasts (Mecca and Ajmer). The bomb container in both the case were made of iron pipes of tubular shapes with black paint….”