Eight men wept in a courtroom in Mumbai when, on April 25, Sessions Judge V. V. Patil pronounced them innocent of terror crimes in Malegaon. His words brought an end to their 10-year long nightmare, during which they were arrested, tortured, incarcerated and charged for crimes they never committed. They spent more than half these years in prison; the remainder spent fighting a protracted court battle to prove their innocence. One of the nine accused men died before his innocence was confirmed. I spoke to Noor-ul-Huda, a power-loom worker who was the first to be arrested. He said these 10 years had destroyed his health, his dignity, his reputation, and his family. “Who can return these years to me?”
On September 6, 2006, two bombs planted on bicycles exploded near a mosque in the communally-charged town of Malegaon, 300 kilometres from Mumbai. The blast went off at a time when crowds had gathered for prayers for the sacred festival Shab-e-Baraat, and left 37 people dead and more than a 100 injured — all Muslim.
Police took little time to declare that the blasts had been engineered by international Islamist terror groups Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, with Indian collaborators from the banned Students Islamic Movement of India. All the accused men, devout Muslims, can never forget several days and nights of brutal torture after their arrest in 2006.
Two years later, again in September, explosives concealed in a motorcycle parked outside a transport company in Malegaon detonated. This time killing 8 people and injuring 80. Once more five Muslim men said to belong to LeT and SIMI were accused. However, investigations led by a police officer of most exceptional courage and fairness, Hemant Karkare, blew the lid off a form of terror that investigating agencies and the popular imagination had failed until then to acknowledge — terror attacks by persons inspired by Hindutva, not Islamist, ideologies.
The initial breakthrough was achieved by tracing the owner of the motorcycle to Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a former ABVP activist. Even more sensational was the alleged role of a serving Army officer Lt Col Shrikant Purohit and retired Major Ramesh Upadhyay in the conspiracy. Others indicted were sadhus and mahants, as well as persons associated with the Sangh affiliates like the Bajrang Dal, belonging to a shadowy organisation Abhinav Bharat, named after the terror-based formation established by V. D. Savarkar in 1904.
These arrests and investigations further uncovered the role of the Abhinav Bharat and other Hindutva organisations in several other terror attacks, including the Malegaon blasts of 2006 and 2008, the explosions in the Samjhauta Express, the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad and Ajmer Sharif Dargah. Bajrang Dal activists were found manufacturing bombs in makeshift factories in Nanded, Kanpur, Bhopal and Goa.
What lay exposed was a deeply worrying communal mindset in India’s police and security establishment. Clear leads pointing to Hindutva terror groups were ignored; instead, trans-border Islamist groups were blamed, and Indian Muslim men arrested under terror laws, tortured and forced to sign “confessions”.
After Karkare died during the Mumbai terror attack in 2008, almost no further evidence against Abhinav Bharat and other Hindutva terror groups was collected by any agency.
These biases were further reinforced by the election of a BJP-led government in the Centre. In a 2015 interview to The Indian Express, Rohini Salian, the special public prosecutor in the Malegaon case said that the officers of NIA were pressurising her to “go slow” regarding the accused persons of radical Hindutva nationalist organisations.
Over time, witnesses turned “hostile,” one by one. And now the NIA claims that Karkare’s investigations were dubious and had “planted” fake evidence and that Sadhvi Pragya is innocent even though she owned the motorcycle.
The case is rapidly crumbling especially since she was the fulcrum of the conspiracy. It appears only a matter of time before the other accused, too, walk free. Contrast this with the determination at the highest levels of the executive and judiciary to hang persons accused of terror crimes if they are Muslim and that too on far thinner evidence.
Apologists suggest that Hindutva terror is only a recent development; a retaliation to Islamist terror. This obscures the fact that it was Hindutva terror and violence that took Mahatma Gandhi’s life, demolished the Babri Masjid leading the bloodiest communal clashes in post-Independent India, and organised many communal massacres of minorities.
Hindutva terror banks on majoritarian prejudice in the criminal justice system as much as the larger public opinion, which assumes that Muslims are guilty even of terror attacks that clearly target their own community.
Institutional biases result in attempts to protect, rather than act fairly against, the Hindutva organisations even when all evidence points to their culpability. Islamist terror is indeed a grave threat to the Indian people. But so is Hindutva terror and communal pogroms. Both must entail impartial investigation and fair trials.