After Mecca Masjid, Samjhauta blast accused let off: Poor history in delivering justice to victims of 'saffron terror' continues

Each time perpetrators in a high-profile case are acquitted due to lack of evidence, the judge's comments recorded in the ruling give a better insight to the case than the magnanimous body of material produced in the prolonged trials; or how the media trial proceeds.

In the Samjhauta Express blast case, in which all four accused were acquitted by a special court due to lack of evidence, NIA court judge Jagdeep Singh said, "I have to conclude this judgment with deep pain and anguish as a dastardly act of violence remained unpunished for want of credible and admissible evidence. There are gaping holes in the prosecution evidence and an act of terrorism has remained unsolved."

 After Mecca Masjid, Samjhauta blast accused let off: Poor history in delivering justice to victims of saffron terror continues

File image of Mecca Masjid blast accused Swami Aseemanand. PTI

In his order, the judge said: "There are gaping holes in the prosecution evidence and an act of terrorism has remained unsolved. Terrorism has no religion because no religion in the world preaches violence. A court of law is not supposed to proceed on popular or predominant public perception or the political discourse of the day and ultimately it has to appreciate the evidence on record and arrive at final conclusion on the basis of relevant statutory provisions and settled law applicable thereto."

While the judges' words were little consolation for the families of 68 persons, mostly Pakistanis, killed in the incident, it does paint a sorry picture of the department of prosecution that is responsible for upholding the case in court, and the premium investigating agencies themselves, that supposedly recruit India's best brains after a thorough induction process.

The State's investigative agencies not only have a poor track record in closing the probe in a timely manner, but also have a dismal conviction rate. The record turns abysmal when incidents related to communal violence are considered.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows the rate of convictions in riot cases has declined marginally even as the overall conviction rate has climbed. An analysis by Livemint of the NCRB data, shows that the conviction rate of communal riots and civil disturbances has declined steadily over the past three years to reach a 17-year low of 18.1 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, in absolute numbers, such crimes have only risen.

Another look at specific incidents where Muslims were targeted in terrorism incidents, the conviction rate and trial of the case is even more disappointing. The 'saffron terror' discourse — a terminology that the BJP hotly refutes and the finance minister challenged even on Friday — includes seven blast cases between 2004 and 2008 at different sites: Jalna in 2004; Malegaon in 2006 and 2008; the Samjhauta Express, Ajmer Dargah, and Mecca Masjid in 2007. As pointed below, the accused, motives and modus operandi is strikingly similar in all these cases and so is the reason for acquittal. Aseemanand — and others who apparently acted under his tutelage and were inspired by his ideology — was an accused in almost all of the cases at some point. He has been acquitted in most cases.

He is also among one of the only accused who gave a detailed confession over the extremist ideology at play behind these crimes. His confessions famously perpetuated the "bomb ka badla bombtheory suggesting that the crimes were committed to avenge the bombing of Hindu temples. He later retracted these confessions, stating they were made under duress. However in a detailed interview with The CaravanAseemanand denied being tortured, or that his confessions were coerced. Here's a look at the status of these cases:

The Jalna Mosque Bombing 2004: Accused acquitted

The 2004 Jalna Mosque bomb attack comprises two separate crude bomb attacks at local mosques in Jalna, Maharashtra on 27 August, 2004. According to senior police officer, the first blast occurred at Kadriya Masjid in Jalna at 1:45 pm and the second explosion occurred barely 15 minutes later at another mosque on the outskirts of Poorna town in Parbhani district, injuring 18. The fact that the attacks were carried out during Friday prayer indicated the fact that the intent of perpetrators was to cause maximum damage. Besides, since the minority community was under assault and Hindu men belonging to right-wing organisations were the primary accused, the case is mostly counted under the incidents of so-called saffron terror.

All accused, Maroti Keshwarao Wagh, Yogesh Ravindra Deshpande, Gururaj Jayram Tuptewar, Rahul Manohar Pande, Sanjay alias Bharauo Vittal Chowdhari, Himanshu Panse (all residents of Nanded) and Rakesh Dhawade (Pune), were later acquitted due to lack of evidence. Despite the fact that Dhawade and others are also accused in three other bomb blasts in neighbouring districts: At the Mohammadiya Masjid in Parbhani (November 2003), at Meraj-ul-Uloom Madrassa/Masjid in Purna in Parbhani district (August 2004) and an accidental blast in the house of Laxman Gundayya Rajkondwar in Nanded, the accused were never investigated for the blasts being part of a criminal conspiracy involving terrorist acts. A news report from the time also said that after the judgment, jubilant RSS workers were seen distributing sweets on the court premises.

2006 and 2008 Malegaon blast: Trial yet to begin

A series of bomb blasts outside a cemetery near Hamidia Mosque at Malegaon, near Nashik, on 8 September, 2006, killed 37 people and left over 100 persons injured. Not unlike the Jalna incident, the blasts were conducted after Friday prayers at the mosque on the occasion of Shab-e-Baraat to ensure maximum damage.

The initial probe revealed that country-made explosives were planted on bicycles parked near the cemetery and nine accused, suspected to have links with Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), were initially arrested in the case and chargesheeted by the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS). One of them died while the case was pending while all others were acquitted in April 2016.

However, the case took a turn when Swami Assemanand, an accused in the 2007 Mecca Masjid bombing case, allegedly revealed to the probe agency about the role of a Hindu right-wing outfit in the 2006 Malagaon blasts case. Aseemanand was arrested after another serial blasts had rocked Malegaon in 2008 and the Maharashtra ATS led by late Hemant Karkare allegedly found the involvement of a Hindu right-wing outfit.

Thereafter, NIA told the court that it had no evidence against the nine Muslims accused and a fresh investigation started.

Judge VV Patil of the special court in Mumbai, who was hearing the discharge plea of the Muslims accused in case refused to believe the ATS line. "It seems to me highly impossible that the accused who are Muslim would have decided to kill their own people to create disharmony in two communities that, too, on a day that is Shab-e-Baraat," he said. He let off the suspects, saying the ATS arrested these men merely on suspicion. "They became scapegoats at the hands of the ATS," Hindustan Times reported.

Since then multiple chargesheets have been filed by the Maharashtra ATS, CBI and NIA in the two blast cases but a fresh trial is yet to begin. The accused include Pragya Singh Thakur, Lieutenant-Colonel Purohit and Aseemanand.

The 2008 blast case hit a controversial note when the NIA exonerated Pragya Singh Thakur of all charges in its chargesheet. The court, however, rejected the NIA’s views on Thakur and arraigned her as an accused under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. This was months after special public prosecutor Rohini Salian told The Indian Express in an interview that the NIA had put pressure on her to go slow in the case.

Samjhauta Express case: Accused acquitted

All accused persons in the 2007 Samjhauta train bombing case, Swami Aseemanand, Lokesh Sharma, Kamal Chauhan and Rajinder Chaudhary, were acquitted Wednesday by a special NIA court in Panchkula.

"The NIA special court has concluded that the investigating agency has failed to prove the conspiracy charge and ruled that accused deserve a benefit of doubt.”

The Samjhauta Express blast occurred near Panipat in Haryana on 18 February, 2007, when the train was on its way to Attari in Amritsar, the last railway station on the Indian side. The blast ripped apart two coaches of the cross-border train, killing 68, mostly Pakistani nationals.

The Haryana Police registered a case, but the probe was handed over to the NIA in July 2010. After its probe, the NIA filed a chargesheet in the case in June 2011 against eight persons for their alleged roles in the terror attack. Of the eight, four accused — namely Aseemanand, Lokesh Sharma, Kamal Chauhan and Rajinder Chaudhary — appeared before the court. Meanwhile, the mastermind of the attack, Sunil Joshi, was shot dead near his home in Madhya Pradesh's Dewas district in December 2007, while three other accused — Ramchandra Kalsangra, Sandeep Dange and Amit — could never be apprehended and were declared proclaimed offenders.

The NIA charged the accused with murder and criminal conspiracy, besides other relevant provisions of the Explosive Substances Act and the Railways Act.

In its probe, the NIA concluded that the accused were upset with the terror attacks on Hindu temples: Akshardham (Gujarat), Raghunath Mandir (Jammu) and Sankat Mochan Mandir (Varanasi). They  conspired to trigger the blast in the Pakistan-bound train, largely carrying nationals of the neighbouring country, to avenge the spate of terror attacks in various temples of the country, it contended.

However, the judge found the evidence inconclusive, threadbare and riddled with inconsistencies. He said the investigating agency failed to bring even an iota of evidence, including call records etc, which they claimed they had.

Mecca Masjid in 2007: Accused acquitted

On 18 May, 2007, during Friday afternoon prayers, a bomb exploded inside the mosque, killing nine and injuring 58. Eleven years later, a special anti-terror court in Hyderabad acquitted five people, ruling that the prosecution failed to prove charges.

In a similar story like Malegaon, initially, Hyderabad Police detained several Muslim men on suspicion of a jihadi terror group being involved. However, in April 2011, the case was handed over to the NIA, which has filed three chargesheets since, identifying 10 accused, including Aseemanand, Devendra Gupta, Lokesh Sharma, Ratishwar, Dange, Kalsangra, Sunil Joshi, Rajendhar Chowdary, Tejram Parmar and Amith Chowhan.

Gupta, who was among those acquitted, had been convicted in the Ajmer case based on the same evidence. He had allegedly bought the SIM cards used in the IEDs; SIM cards from the same set were used in the two blasts. The NIA did not attempt to appeal the decision or continue the investigation.

Ajmer Dargah blast case: Accused acquitted 

On 11 October, 2007 a bomb ripped Ajmer Sharif Dargah in Rajasthan killing three and injuring 17. The case was initially investigated by Rajasthan ATS until 2011, then transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Since then, the NIA filed three chargesheets identifying 13 accused: Aseemanand, Devendra Gupta, Chandrashekhar Leve, Lokesh Sharma, Mukesh Vasani, Bharat Mohan Lal Ratishwar, Sandeep Dange, Ramchandra aka Ramji Kalsangra, Sunil Joshi, Bhavesh Bhai Patel, Suresh Nair, Harshad Solanki and Mehul aka Mafat Bhai aka Maheshbhai Gohil.

This was the first among these cases in which trial was completed. The trial began in June 2014. On 8 March, 2017, a special court in Jaipur convicted RSS pracharaks Gupta and Patel — the only one among these cases in which the prosecution secured a conviction — and later sentenced them to life imprisonment. The court acquitted Aseemanand as well as Harshad Solanki, Leve, Vasani, Lokesh, Mehul and Ratishwar, giving them the benefit of the doubt. The case saw 26 of 149 witnesses turning hostile, The Indian Express reported.

With inputs from PTI

 

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Updated Date: Mar 29, 2019 18:32:29 IST