The last days of Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) chief Hemant Karkare were probably some of the busiest in his 26-year career in the Indian Police Service (IPS), and apparently tormented as well.
The ATS believed it had cracked the September 29 Malegaon bomb blast case, and about a month ago arrested Hindu extremists in a breakthrough that shocked the nation and added a new twist to the entire discourse on terror and religion.
But as the probe unravelled the alleged plot and the role of some Hindu leaders, the case got caught in the politics of terror and the ATS was at the centre of charges that it was being used as a tool to target the Sangh Parivar amid allegations of illegal detention and torture by some of the 11 arrested for the blast.
The BJP, RSS and VHP leaders, among others from the Hindu nationalist brigade, accused the ATS of being on a witch-hunt, with some even demanding that ATS officers be subjected to a narco-analysis to establish their motives.
No less a leader than the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, L K Advani, had demanded a change in the ATS team and a judicial inquiry into the torture allegations made by Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a key suspect in the Malegaon case.
The Shiv Sena too had come out in support of the suspects and on Wednesday had threatened in its mouthpiece Saamna that it would publish the names of some ATS officers and shame them as it said they had tortured the Malegaon suspects.
That Karkare was affected by this was apparent when we met at his office on Tuesday to get an update on the probe, less than 36 hours before he was killed. The Indian Express has decided to break the confidence of what was an off-the-record conversation in an attempt to highlight the anguish of the investigators over the currents in which the Malegaon probe was getting caught as well as the larger debate over the politics of terror.
“I don’t know why this case has become so political,” was one of Karkare’s first comments. “The pressure is tremendous and I am wondering how to extricate it from all the politics.”
Was the pressure telling on the investigation, what with someone who could be the next prime minister of the country questioning the credibility of the ATS?
“Of course,” was the answer. “We are being very very careful. In fact, when we want to question a suspect and if he or she has any Hindutvawadi connections, we make sure once, twice, thrice, that we have enough reason and evidence to even question. Normally it is not like that. We are able to freely question anyone we suspect.”
“In fact, immediately after the blast I had visited Malegaon along with the Deputy Chief Minister and other officials and witnessed the anger of the locals who shouted some slogans,” Karkare said. “After that I told my men that we have to pursue this case very objectively and not start with assumptions that people of this community or that community could be responsible.”
Originally from Madhya Pradesh, Karkare studied mechanical engineering in Nagpur and worked at the National Productivity Council and Hindustan Lever before making it to the IPS in 1982. Known to be an upright officer who served in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) as well as the Indian mission in Vienna, Austria, as a counselor, Karkare did not hide his love for Mumbai or his discomfort with the predominantly political-bureaucratic culture of Delhi where he was posted.
During a stint in the Chandrapur forests near Nagpur in 1991 to fight Naxalites, he took an interest in driftwood, discovered artistic shapes in them and converted them into wooden sculptures, making about 150 of them over a two-year period. Talking to the media about sensitive cases such as Malegaon could prove to be a double-edged sword, he had said as we parted, adding that he would like us to meet informally once a month so that he could learn the ways of the media.
His last visuals as seen on TV showed him working with his men near the VT station, the target of one of the attacks, although it is perplexing at this point in time why such a senior officer ended up getting exposed to a brazen terrorist attack. Initially, he was shown wearing a shoddy helmet normally seen used by constables during riots. A little later, a policeman lowers a flimsy bulletproof vest over his shoulders, one that was obviously of little protection when those fatal shots were fired at him.
The previous evening, hours after our meeting, TV channels had ‘breaking news’ that he had received a fresh death threat from some unidentified caller, apparently in connection with the Malegaon probe. An Indian Express reporter SMSed him asking him if this was true or if he had anything to say. His reply: just a smiley.
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