After nine years in prison, Lt Col Shrikant Purohit got conditional bail from the Supreme Court on Monday. Purohit, along with Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, were among the key accused in the 2008 Malegaon bombing case, in which seven people were killed.
Within a month of the arrests of Purohit and Thakur, Hemant Karkare, head of the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), which was investigating the Malegaon attack, was killed by Pakistani terrorists in Mumbai on 26/11, throwing the probe out of gear. The alleged involvement of several rightwing extremists resulted in the case turning intensely political — with the then union Home Secretary R K Singh releasing a list of suspects who were associated with the RSS, the BJP’s parent organisation. Singh is now the BJP MP from Arrah in Bihar.
What was Lt Col Purohit’s alleged role in the 2008 Malegaon blasts?
On September 29, 2008, a bomb concealed in an LML Freedom motorcycle went off opposite the premises of Shakil Goods Transport Company, killing at least seven people and injuring 79 others. Following initial investigation, the Maharashtra ATS arrested Pragya, Purohit and retired Maj. Ramesh Upadhyay. Purohit, perhaps the first serving officer to have been arrested in a case of this kind, claimed at the time that he had infiltrated the Pune-based rightwing group Abhinav Bharat as an intelligence operative, and had kept his seniors in the loop.
Purohit was chargesheeted by the Maharashtra ATS in 2009 and by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in May 2016. In its chargesheet, which absolved Sadhvi Pragya for lack of evidence, the NIA said, “Purohit had proposed theory for a separate constitution for Hindu Rashtra with separate flag (Bhagwa flag) the constitution of Abhinav Bharat, and discussed about the formation of Central Hindu Government (Aryawart) against the Indian government and put forth concept of forming this government in exile in Israel and Thailand.”
The chargesheet also said, “It was also discussed (during a meeting in Faridabad on January 26, 2008) that they will eliminate the persons who oppose their ideologies…” The NIA recorded the statements of seven Military Intelligence officers who said they were not aware of Purohit’s alleged undercover operation to infiltrate Abhinav Bharat, the group that Purohit registered in 2006, giving his profession as farmer.
Investigators recovered messages allegedly sent by Purohit to Upadhyay, his Abhinav Bharat colleague. He was later accused of diverting Army supplies of RDX, some of which was allegedly used in the Malegaon bomb. As per documents obtained by investigators, and the statements of MI officers recorded by the NIA, Purohit operated independently, without clearance from his bosses. MI is not mandated to infiltrate civilian groups in non-conflict zones, and there was no sanction from the government or any of its agencies to infiltrate Abhinav Bharat or similar rightwing groups.
Is there a link between the 2008 Malegaon attack and the Samjhauta Express and Ajmer Dargah bombings of 2007, which too have been blamed on rightwing Hindu extremists?
The Samjhauta bombings killed 68 people, mostly Pakistanis, as the train was on its way to Lahore. Suspecting a larger conspiracy, the UPA government clubbed all blasts cases allegedly involving rightwing extremists, and asked the NIA to investigate in 2011. The agency filed a chargesheet against five alleged rightwing extremists in the train blasts case. Purohit was not among them.
The NIA approached the Supreme Court seeking Purohit’s custodial interrogation, not just in connection with the 2008 Malegaon blast, but also to investigate his possible role in the Samjhauta, Ajmer and Malegaon 2006 attacks. However, after a protracted legal battle, the apex court rejected NIA’s plea for custody.
Two key accused, Sandeep Dange and Ramji Kalsangra, who are suspected to be the key to the jigsaw, couldn’t be arrested. A red corner notice was issued and a reward of Rs 10 lakh was announced for each man.
The Ajmer Dargah blast of October 2007 killed 3 persons and injured 15. A local court earlier this year acquitted Swami Aseemanand and six others, while holding three RSS workers including Sunil Joshi, who was shot dead in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh, in December 2007, guilty. While there are no direct links between Purohit and the Ajmer blast convicts, investigators suspect he knew Kalsangra and Dange, who were close associates of Joshi.
The NIA has said that the long gap between the incidents and the handing over of the cases to it has made it difficult to check fully the evidence collected by the agencies that had carried out the investigations earlier.