The April verdict on the 2006 Malegaon blasts case, discharging nine men who were charged by the Anti Terrorism Squad of Maharashtra Police, has put a question mark on evidence linking some of them to other “anti-terror” probes across states and including the Mumbai train blasts case the same year.
One key link is the April 2004 issue of a magazine Tehreek-e- Millat, five copies of which were recovered from two sisters Aasiya (20) and Rafia (23) from Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh that month.
In the next two years, court documents show, the same copies — with the names of the sisters written on the covers — were recovered from the homes of accused in different cases in Maharashtra, including the Malegaon blasts and Mumbai train blasts of 2006. So much so, police later started referring to the magazine as “Tehrik Millat Aasiya” and “Tehrik Rafia” in their official records.
Besides, just one month after the Malegaon blasts of September 8, 2006, two of those arrested in the Mumbai train blasts of July 11, 2006, claimed in written submissions to court that they were being “implicated” in both cases. The submissions, on November 9, 2006, of Mohammad Ali Alam Sheikh and Asif Bashir Khan also listed names of some others the ATS allegedly “decided to implicate in the Malegaon blast case” — those names later figured in the ATS chargesheet.
Sheikh and Khan were discharged in the Malegaon case but convicted for their role in the Mumbai train blasts. Rejecting their submissions, the court handed Sheikh a life sentence and Khan the death penalty.
The blasts at a cemetery near a mosque in Malegaon led to 37 deaths while the serial blasts on Mumbai trains resulted in a final death toll of 207 people.
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Investigations in both cases were initially conducted by the Maharashtra ATS, which filed a chargesheet against nine Muslim men on December 21, 2006. Within two months, the Malegaon case was transferred to the CBI, which endorsed the ATS charges.
But with fresh evidence emerging, the case was handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which found that a Hindutva outfit was behind the blast, leading to the nine chargesheeted by ATS being discharged.
In the train blasts case, Mumbai Police Crime Branch arrested five alleged Indian Mujahideen (IM) operatives two years later, contradicting the ATS charges against Sheikh and Khan among others. Police from Andhra and Gujarat, who investigated the case, also arrived at the same findings as the Crime Branch.
In his submission, Sheikh alleged he was “illegally detained” by ATS from August 1-31, 2006. He claimed that he was again “detained on September 7, 2006”.
Sheikh wrote, “I was taken before Raghuvanshi saab, who had come to Kala chowki. I begged him to have mercy on me. Raghuvanshi saab told me that if I didn’t admit and didn’t become an approver I would be implicated in Malegaon blast case. Raghuvanshi saab had already prepared a story on the Malegaon blast and had written the following names on paper — Shabbir Ahmed, Nurul Huda, Rayiz Ahmed, Dr Salman Farsi, Dr Waheed, Wajid”.
Sheikh claimed that he was threatened by Maharashtra ATS officers to admit his guilt, and that when he refused, they “started assaulting me”. K P Raghuvanshi was the Maharashtra ATS chief at the time.
Khan said in his submission that the investigators “took my signatures on blank pieces of paper” and that an inspector “threatened me that if I didn’t confess, he would… implicate my brother and father, and my children would be sent to a remand home. I will be implicated in the Malegaon case”.
However, the magazine copies recovered from Khandwa provide the biggest clue to the blurring lines used by police to connect the accused in a number of cases. Consider these:
* On April 16, 2006, Khandwa police arrested Aasiya and Rafia, daughters of Abdul Hafiz Qureshi, and claimed to have recovered five copies of Tehreek-e- Millat’s April 2004 issue from their house during a search related to an incident of communal violence in the area.
* After the Malegaon blasts five months later, an FIR was registered at Azad Nagar Police Station in Malegaon, and Noor-ul-Huda Shamsudoha, a labourer, arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. During a raid on his home in Jafarnagar, police claimed to have seized “objectionable books” that included a copy of the April 2004 issue of the Tehrik-e-Millat magazine with “Aashiya” written by hand in Hindi on its cover.
* Earlier, after the Mumbai train blasts, the magazine popped up in a Maharashtra ATS chargesheet. Among the 13 people arrested was Suhail Mehmood Shaikh of Pune, who was held on July 25, 2006. The ATS claimed that during a search of his house five days later, they recovered a copy of “April 2004 Tahrik-e-Millat Asia” that had “Aashiya” written in hand on the cover.
* The Maharashtra ATS claimed to have recovered the same magazine, with the same handwritten name in Hindi, during searches at the homes of four other train blasts accused.
* In an affidavit filed before the UAPA Tribunal in 2010, Maharashtra Police claimed that ‘Tehrik Millat Aasiya’ was recovered from the home of Danish Riyaz Shaukat Ali Shaikh, an “active member of SIMI” after his arrest on July 30, 2006.
* According to an affidavit filed by the Maharashtra CID, Kandivili police arrested Mohammed Najib Abdul Rashid Bakali and seized a copy of the April 2004 issue of the magazine with “Aashiya” written on the cover, from his house on August 14, 2006.
* On September 19, 2008, Madhya Pradesh Police said it had nabbed “SIMI activist” Mohammed Ali, 29, of Jabalpur from the Misrod railway station and seized “Tehrik Rafia”, a copy of the same magazine with “Rafia” written on the cover.
Coming back to the 2006 Malegaon blasts case, it wasn’t the explosion itself that led the Maharashtra ATS to the doorsteps of Sheikh and Khan.
In a statement treated as an FIR, a Greater Mumbai Police assistant inspector stated that he “received information on August 1, 2006, through a reliable informant that one Shabir of Malegaon and Nafis of Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai, who are connected with SIMI, were preparing to commit some sabotage acts in the Ganesh Festival”.
Based on this statement, the ATS detained Shabir Masiullah, 38, a battery dealer from Malegaon, and Nafis Ahmad Jameer Ahmad Ansari, 29, a computer operator in Mumbai’s Shivaji Nagar.
After “repeatedly and intensively interrogating” Masiullah and Ansari, police records show, they were accused of having “received arms training” in Pakistan where “they had gone from India… via Dubai in or about May-June 2003”.
Records show the two were arrested on August 11, 2006, and subsequently charged under UAPA. When the blasts took place in Malegaon on September 8, Masiullah and Nafis were in ATS custody. The ATS accused Masiullah of being the “mastermind” behind the blast, claiming that he and his accomplices assembled the explosives in July and stored them in a godown from where he ran his battery business.
The ATS claimed Masiullah and Nafis were helping Riyaz Bhatkal, one of the alleged leaders of IM, Tariq Sattar and Mohammad Ali Alam Sheikh. They “repeatedly met Sattar and Mohammad Ali Alam Shaikh aka Aziz who also induced them to encourage to go to Pakistan”, police told the UAPA Tribunal.
As in the case of Sheikh, the ATS claimed that Khan’s name appeared in Masiullah’s “confession” and booked him in both the 2006 Mumbai train blasts and Malegaon blast cases. According to the ATS, Asif gave the “leftover RDX” from the Mumbai train blasts to Masiullah and others for the Malegaon blast.
With the ATS evidence being rejected, Masiullah was one among the nine discharged in the 2006 Malgaon case. But he couldn’t celebrate: he died in an accident last year.