With every new terror attack, the same old script plays itself out: the usual suspects are rounded up, a terror group is named, a mastermind identified, and then the investigation seems to fizzle out, till the next bomb blast, and the same cycle starts all over again, and again. Is something fundamentally wrong with the way we conduct our anti-terror investigations?
NEW DELHI, Nov 25, 2008 6:13 pm: Age-old theories are in tatters, most experts are clueless and India’s war on terror has become complicated beyond recognition. In what clearly calls for an urgent effort to look freshly at the spate of bomb blasts in recent years, evidence is emerging that the investigating agencies may have been getting it all wrong. One clear indicator is that that many of the blasts blamed on Islamic terrorists may have been actually the handiwork of fanatic Hindu groups.
Several sources within the security establishment are beginning to admit that “deep-rooted biases” within the intelligence apparatus had prevented them from picking on “very clear clues” available after some of the major blasts. “We had clues that linked both the Samjhauta Express blast and the Ajmer Sharif bomb blast to Indore. But we premised our investigation around SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) and its activists, never bothering to even look at the fringe Hindu groups,” says a senior intelligence official, who has for some time been warning against the erosion in the secular character of intelligence agencies.
Within days of the February 18, 2007 blasts in the Samjhauta Express (running from Delhi to Lahore), investigators had picked up clear leads pointing towards Indore, he says. “By the first week of March we had established that the bombs that killed 68 people had been packed into suitcases bought in Indore, and its covers were also stitched in Indore,” says one of the intelligence officers involved in the investigations.
“We picked up SIMI activists, questioned many of them. We had reasons to suspect SIMI because Indore is known to be a stronghold of SIMI, ” he said. “But when we didn’t get any leads from those people (of SIMI) we should have broadened the scope of our investigations. We should have looked at other groups,” he admits. Had the investigators done that, many of the subsequent blasts could have been prevented, indicate the ongoing investigations into the group of alleged Hindu fanatics led by Lt Colonel Purohit, Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and others.
Of the about dozen arrested in connection with the Malegaon blasts of this year, half have strong links to Indore, and Hindu extremist group Abhinav Bharat had an office there too. Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a former ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) national level leader and an accused in the Malegaon blasts, is a native of Indore.
Shivnarayan Kalsangra and Shyam Bhavarlal Sahu, who too have been arrested in the case, are also natives of Indore. Sameer Kulkarni, an Abhinav Bharat leader, had shifted his base to Indore in recent times. A few months after the February 2007 blast in Samjhauta Express came the blast in Ajmer Sharif durgah in October 2007.
Yet again, clear indicators emerged of Indore links. The bombs were packed in newspapers from Indore and Ujjain. Some of the newspapers were also traced to Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. “All those trails went cold, or better to say we didn’t investigate them properly,” admits another senior officer who was involved in several blast investigations. “We still don’t know if the group led by Lt Col Purohit and Pragya Singh Thakur was behind the blasts in Samjhauata and Ajmer blasts. But professionally it was up to us to look at all sorts of extremist groupings in Indore, not just SIMI,” admits this officer. There are many more blasts of recent years which many credible investigators are not ready to blame on Islamic terrorists.
Among them are bomb blasts in Delhi’s Jama Masjid, and the earlier Malegaon blast of 2006 in which at least 38 people were killed. In the case of the latter, the local police so badly botched the investigation, arresting several local Muslims, that CBI, which took over the case later, failed to make headway. In Andhra Pradesh, the police rounded up several youngsters from the Muslim community after the Mecca Masjid blast on May 18, 2007. Last week, the state government admitted that these youth had been tortured and there was no evidence against them.
There are more startling facts emerging which show that the Hindu terror network could be more potent than what is now known. Investigators are now looking at some striking resemblances that are emerging between blasts in Mecca Masjid, the Jaipur blasts of May 2008, and a blast in a court in Hubli in May this year. They were all triggered using mobile phones and had striking similarities.
Investigators had blamed all of them on SIMI, and they had their reasons. But with evidence that the Hindu groups can carry out high intensity explosions, and that they have a wide network and funding, many of those who were looking only at terror groups such as HUJI (Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami) and LET (Lashkar-e-Taiba), and at SIMI, are taking a second look at the entire scenario.
For many within the intelligence agencies, what is most frightening are not their failures, but the bigger challenge of competitive politics taking over or thwarting their professional investigations.
Already, there are many questioning the Congress-run state government of Maharashtra for overzealousness in the investigations into the Hindu groups, and the BJP is up in arms defending possible terrorists.
But the important issues of cruel interrogations, utter lack of respect for human rights, use of fake evidence, and motivated investigations, to say nothing of cavalier investigations are also important; these cannot be ignored no matter who is suspect.
The question of institutional biases, built-in or induced, is also critical. So far, the record of the investigating agencies has not been edifying and the tally of convictions is also poor. With the emergence of newer players on the terror scene, will the investigators now start looking at all the cases afresh?
Josy Joseph in DNA firstname.lastname@example.org