Samjhauta blast: From missing CCTV footage, call records to lack of witnesses, NIA botched up all; during UPA tenure

  • Politics blinded the criminal justice system when the Samjhauta prosecutions began

  • Aseemanand’s confession — the most powerful evidence the NIA had — was rejected by the Judge, who said it was not corroborated by other evidence, the key legal test of its credibility

  • Every time India raises Pakistan’s failure to prosecute terror cases, its own failure to prosecute cases involving Hindutva terrorists will be held out before the world

I have sent some three lakh letters, distributed 20,000 maps of Akhand Bharat on 26 January, but these Brahmins and traders have never done anything,” raged the Hindu nationalist leader Baikunth Lal Sharma at a closed-door meeting with a small group of activists on Independence Day in 2008. “I do not talk casteism. It’s just that they don’t have the potential; they don’t have the aptitude for this kind of feeling.”

 Samjhauta blast: From missing CCTV footage, call records to lack of witnesses, NIA botched up all; during UPA tenure

Samjhauta Express train blasts took place on February 19, 2007 in Panipat, killing 70 people. Reuters file

“To awaken people mentally, I believe that you have to set fire in society, at least light a spark,” Sharma concluded.

For over a year before that meeting, India’s police and intelligence services had long believed that a small core of Hindu nationalists had set about doing just that. Enraged by the Indian Mujahideen’s long-running terror-bombing campaign, which claimed hundreds of lives, Hindutva terrorists had begun hitting back at Muslims: at Modasa, Malegaon, Ajmer Sharif, Hyderabad, and the Samjhauta Express.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindutva-leaning government is being blamed for sabotaging the Samjhauta prosecution. In fact, records show, the United Progressive Alliance must take the blame for overlooking shoddy investigation.

From the outset, National Investigation Agency (NIA) investigators — coming to the case more than three years after the 18 February, 2007 Samjhauta terrorist attack — knew they needed hard evidence to back their case. The Haryana Police had, for example, collected closed-circuit television footage from the Delhi junction, hoping to identify the perpetrators. Forty closed-circuit cameras had been installed at Delhi junction, but only nine were working. There was no footage from the Samjhauta’s platform.

“Had the CCTV footage of old Delhi railway station been collected by the investigating agency and put to rigorous examination then some vital leads might have been obtained,” the judge at Panchkula NIA court records.

The NIA’s case diaries, seen by Firstpost, show why this evidence wasn't placed before the judge: none of the perpetrators is on it.

Call data that could have shown links between the perpetrators didn’t exist. In 2011, the NIA asked service-providers for digital records of phone calls made by its suspects, only to be told the data was erased after 12 months. There was evidence that showed phones belonging to four members of the cell were linked but none to tie them to those alleged to have carried out the attack.

NIA investigators also sought to establish that the men —Lokesh Sharma, Rajender Chaudhary, Amit Chauhan and Kamal Chouhan — alleged to have planted the fire-bombs on the Samjhauta travelled to Delhi from Indore on 17 February, and stayed at the station’s dormitory before the attack.

Ticket records that could have borne out the claim though had been destroyed. No witnesses to their travel could be found. And the station dormitory’s records didn’t bear their names.

Even when witnesses could be found, their stories weren’t useful, judge Jagdeep Singh notes. Ram Pratap Singh, a Bhopal resident, claimed to have attended an 4 April, 2008 meeting where Naba Kumar Sarkar, also known as Swami Aseemanand, advocated bomb-for-bomb attacks on Muslims “in the same way the jihadis are attacking Hindus’ religious places”.

But this meeting, coming nine months after the Samjhauta strike, didn't prove intent, the judge noted — and, in the witness box, Singh failed to identify Sarkar.

There was no NIA witness who could show that the “accused ever attended any conspiracy meeting with respect to Samjhauta Express train blast”, Judge Singh said. NIA investigators were also unable to establish where the bomb’s components were obtained from, or who assembled them into a lethal device.

In other cases, promising witnesses led to dead ends. NIA investigators were able to establish, using forensic means, that the suitcases carrying bombs were fitted with cloth covers stitched at

Indore’s Kothari market on February 14, 2007.
The judge faulted the NIA for not holding an identification parade to see if the tailors at the store could identify the person who got the covers stitched. The NIA had in fact shown them photographs of the suspect and drawn a blank, the case diaries show.

Aseemanand’s confession — the most powerful evidence the NIA had in its possession — was rejected by Judge Singh, who said it was not corroborated by other evidence, the key legal test of its credibility. The judge criticised the NIA for failing to pursue claims that Aseemanand had made the same confession to a prison inmate, Sheikh Abdul Khaleem.

However, the case diaries show the NIA questioned prison guards to corroborate Khaleem’s claims, only to find Aseemanand was in solitary confinement throughout.

“The best evidence, which could have clinched the issue, was withheld by the prosecution,” the judge wrote of the NIA’s decision not to produce Khaleem. But Khaleem’s testimony, the case diaries show, was in fact withheld because it weakened the prosecution’s case.

“Frankly, this case should never have been brought to trial,” says a senior NIA official involved in the case.

Lack of evidence had identical outcomes in several other cases, too, with all five suspects prosecuted for the bombing of Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid walking free. The NIA secured convictions against former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activists Sunil Joshi and Devendra Gupta for a terrorist bombing at the Ajmer Sharif shrine, along with Bhaveshbhai Patel—but seven others were acquitted.

In some cases, the pressures on the NIA to secure convictions had bizarre outcomes. In the Samjhauta case, the NIA produced Bharat Rateshwar as a witness, after he confessed to his role in the attack and sought a pardon in return for cooperation with the prosecution.

Later, though, Rateshwar resiled on his confession, and was promptly prosecuted by the NIA for allegedly participating in the Ajmer and Mecca Masjid bombings—only to be acquitted.

The story isn’t, however, quite over: Hindutva activists Ramchandra Kalsangra, Sandeep Dange and Ramesh Venkatrao Mahalkar alleged by the NIA to have organised and executed the bombing, are fugitives. Police operations continue to target the suspects: just in November, Suresh Nair, named along with Kalsangra and Dange as a perpetrator of the Ajmer Sharif shrine, was arrested. Future arrests could lead to new trials.

That the NIA did secure convictions against two terrorists involved in the Ajmer Sharif shrine, makes clear the agency wasn’t looking in fundamentally the wrong place — and that’s something which should concern Indians, irrespective of politics.

From 2003, hardliners disenchanted with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh began drifting away from democratic politics to a new cult of the bomb. In August 2004, 18 people were injured in the bombings of mosques at Purna and Jalna. In the summer of 2006, Naresh Kondwar and Himanshu Phanse of the Bajrang Dal were killed in a bomb-making accident in Nanded.

Then in June 2008, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti operatives were held for the bombing of the Gadkari Rangayatan theatre in Thane. Later, in October, Bajrang Dal-linked Rajiv Mishra and Bhupinder Singh were killed while making a bomb in Kanpur.

Former Maharashtra director-general of police KP Raghuvanshi said in an interview that the Nanded incident could have “frightening repercussions”.

The collapse of the Samjhauta prosecution will have far-reaching consequences — and not just for the families of the 70 children, women and men killed on the train. Each time New Delhi raises

Pakistan’s failure to prosecute terror cases, including 26/11, its own failure to prosecute cases involving Hindutva terrorists will be held out before the world.

Locked in a grim embrace, jihadist terrorism and Hindutva terrorism have fuelled a cycle of hate which has the potential to tear the country apart. Politics blinded the criminal justice system when the Samjhauta prosecutions began. It’s imperative that this not be allowed to happen again.

The article first appeared in Firstpost Print

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Updated Date: May 08, 2019 08:48:35 IST