The Malegaon terror attacks are back in the headlines sparked by the findings of an army court of inquiry instituted to probe the role of Lt Colonel Prasad Purohit, one of the key accused in the case. He was arrested on 5 November, 2008, nearly two months after the blast by the Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad, along with other members of the Hindu right-wing organisation, Abhinav Bharat.
The results of the military inquiry – obtained by Outlook – paint a different picture of Purohit, wherein he emerges not as a terrorist mastermind but as an over-zealous intelligence officer. Each of the 59 witnesses called by the military panel describe a man with a proven track record of infiltrating extremist organizations in the past – including SIMI, Tabliq-e-jamal, and Naxal organisations [Read the Outlook exclusive here]:
This version is at odds with the ATS’s allegation of Purohit being Abhinav Bharat’s leader. In the picture that emerges from the COI testimonies, Sudhakar [Chaturvedi], currently an accused in the case, worked for Abhinav Bharat and kept feeding Purohit inputs on the right-wing group’s movements during the latter’s tenure as an intelligence officer of the Deolali unit in Maharashtra. Gradually, he became a key source and shortcut for Purohit to infiltrate right-wing groups. After Purohit was posted to Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh, he handed over the “source” to his unit, handled for a short while by the now retired Subedar Pawar.
There is also a significant paper trail that reveals Purohit had indeed filed reports based on his insider sources. The key among these is information he sent to senior intelligence officers in mid October on the Malegaon blasts, naming Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and Indresh Kumar. The irony, of course, is that three weeks later, the ATS arrested not just Thakur and Kumar, but also Purohit himself as the prime suspects in the case.
As today's Times of India points out, the findings of the COI put the NIA's case against Purohit in serious jeopardy. Much of the evidence – conversations and close relationships with the key accused – can now be explained as part of his undercover work. There is no direct proof of his participation in the execution of the blasts themselves:
On two key evidential fronts — of that of RDX procurement and financial assistance — agencies are still floundering. While Purohit has been accused of stealing 60 kg RDX from J&K while he was posted there and passing it on to the bomb planters, the trail has not been established. Even the financial assistance routed through Purohit has stopped at Abhinav Bharat and does not lead to the actual conspiracy.
But that does not mean Purohit's association with Abhinav Bharat was entirely innocent. Unlike his previous undercover work with SIMI et al, he has acknowledged an ideological "association" with an extremist organization of which he was a trustee.
In his first-ever interview with Outlook, when asked if he is in trouble because of his own rightwing views, Purohit is evasive: "This is a tricky question, involving both the army services and subjudice matters. I won’t be able to comment on this." But he later adds: "Having a particular ideology does not make me a terrorist or anti-national."
Pressed on his "explosive" conversations with co-accused Dayanand Pandey where he talks about a "Hindu Rashtra," Purohit replies:
Being an intelligence officer or even as a civilian I am allowed to talk to people. Nothing bars me from talking to anyone. You must be having those transcripts. Have you heard or read anywhere in those transcripts people talking or discussing the Malegaon blast for which I have been behind bars for three-and-a-half years? If people don’t understand what infiltration is, it is a sorry state of affairs.
In that one answer, Purohit offers two different explanations: one, he has the right to hold rightwing views, which are irrelevant if there is no proof of his participation in the blasts; two, the rhetoric was part of his infiltration tactics and do not reflect his personal views.
And also this: Would he be able to offer this hair-splitting defense as a Muslim intelligence officer working undercover with a Muslim extremist organization accused of terrorist acts?
Purohit's personal right-wing sympathies may not be evidence of guilt in the Malegaon case, but it does not let him off the hook with the COI, where he is charged of "allegedly being a member of Abhinav Bharat, an organisation not recognised by the armed forces of the Union."
The Outlook piece also raises another unanswered question: "If Lt Col Purohit was doing only what his job demanded, why did the army hand him over to the ATS so quickly?"
Security expert B Raman offers one possible answer in the Eurasian Review. Arguing that Purohit's defense is likely to land the army in big, big trouble, he writes:
The military intelligence is authorised to collect tactical intelligence through human and technical means in areas where the Army has a counter-insurgency role as in Jammu & Kashmir and the North-East. In areas where it has no counter-insurgency role, it is not permissible for the military intelligence to collect intelligence through any means—particularly through the penetration of Indian organisations run by Indian citizens...
It appears to me that the military intelligence has so far avoided coming to the defence of Purohit in the case under investigation previously by the Mumbai Police and now by the NIA due to worries that if it did so, it could amount to its admitting its illegal actions in mounting intelligence operations against Indian citizens by penetrating Indian organisations.
The Malegaon case made headlines for being the first ever case of saffron terrorism. But it may become memorable for raising as many questions about the role of the military as it does of the accused.