Five women, dressed in a burkha gather once every fortnight in a dark, dank room sharing parenting tips — and discussing the nuances of criminal and anti-terror laws.
Here in their little world in this north Maharashtra town of dying powerlooms, they provide each other the hope and support needed to deal with the isolation and stigma of being seen as a terrorist’s wife.
This all-women’s club is made up of the wives of nine suspects arrested for the September 8, 2006 blasts that rocked the textile town of Malegaon.
The three blasts — in a mosque, a graveyard and a bustling market — killed 31 people, injured 321.If the 2006 bombings stigmatised Malegaon as a town seething with Muslim anger and alienation, another bombing in 2008 turned on its head the national discussion over homegrown terrorism.
The 2008 Malegaon bombings which killed six and injured close to a 100 stood out among the hundreds across India this decade; they were the only ones in which all the suspects were Hindus, including an army Lt Colonel, raising fears that terrorism in India was taking a dangerous new turn and that at least some previous investigations were suspect.
The 2008 investigation started by the late chief of Maharashtra’s Anti Terror Squad (ATS) Hemant Karkare, shot dead by Pakistani terrorists in the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, is getting back on track. But the 2006 blasts, which police said were the work of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), appear to be largely erased from national memory.
The euphoria and the vindication that Malegaon's Muslims felt after Karkare's probe coexists with a growing frustration with the stalled 2006 investigation, now being run by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
As Malegaon — the town is 70 per cent Muslim — continues its protests over what its Muslim residents say is the “framing” of local Muslims in the 2006 blast, the wives of the nine suspected bombers get by with their fortnightly counseling sessions.
“Shoot them in a public place if they are guilty but at least let the investigations move ahead,” said Dr Nafeesa Aimi (38) the wife of Dr Salman Farsi, one of the accused. ( See casefactfile ).
Like hundreds of women in this town of 4.09 lakhs, Aimi is a doctor.
Malegaon’s stereotype of a backward, Muslim town (largely second- and third-generation migrants from UP and Bihar) doesn’t work: The literacy rate at 65.77 per cent is marginally higher than the national average of 64.8 per cent and way better than the national Muslim literacy of 59.1 per cent.
Farsi and his co-accused were arrested by Maharashtra’s ATS, which in its chargesheet claims are SIMI members who planned the blasts to incite local Muslims to riot.
The arrests were made on the basis of the confessional statement of an unemployed man called Abrar Ahmed Gulam Ahmed (38) who turned approver in the case.
Abrar in April 2009 retracted his statement, claiming the police forced the confession out of him to frame the suspects.
It’s clear that the ATS chargesheet has loopholes ( See box ).
For instance, Mohammed Zahid, accused of planting a bomb at Mushawarat Chowk, was seen leading prayers 700 km away in a village called Phoolsangvi in Yavatmal district.
Nearly 200 Phoolsangvi villagers have signed an affidavit saying Zahid was there on the day of the blast, September 8.
“Our only demand is that the CBI should undertake an impartial inquiry into the case,” Iqbal Magdumi (62), a retired Maths teacher who is the father of another accused Dr Farogh Magdumi (36) said.
“It has been three years and still the CBI has not filed the chargesheet.”
The filing of a chargesheet is a formal documentation of accusation. It is usually done when the investigating officers are sure of making a water tight case against the accused which would be able to stand the scrutiny of the judiciary.
The Supreme Court in February 2008 stayed the Malegaon blast trial, filed under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), which makes confessions made to police admissible in court.
Indian criminal laws apart from the ones like MCOCA prevent confessions made to police from being admitted as evidence in court.
There’s no verdict yet from the Supreme Court on whether the Malegaon nine can even be tried under MCOCA.
Many Malegaon residents, including families of the bombing victims and families of the accused met Home Minister P. Chidambaram this year in New Delhi, claiming the innocence of the suspects and demanding a “proper investigation” by the CBI.
“Have you ever,” asked Afia Magdumi, wife of Dr Farogh Magdumi, one of the nine suspects, “Seen familes who have suffered due to the blasts speaking in favour of people who are alleged to have committed the crime?”