Why Aseemanand’s acquittal points to meltdown in cases against militant Hindu nationalists
The acquittal of Swami Aseemanand and six others in the 2007 bombing at the Ajmer Sharif mausoleum in Rajasthan comes as no surprise.
More than three dozen witnesses out of 149 turned hostile or, in other words, refused to confirm to the court what they had earlier told the police and officers from the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
Perhaps, a similar fate awaits a spate of court cases involving militant Hindu nationalists, including the bombing of Samjhauta Express that killed about 70 people in 2007. Dozens of witnesses in that case have already turned hostile in court.
In all, the NIA is investigating seven cases in which Hindu right-wing groups are suspects. These cases – involving attacks where Muslims were targeted -- were handed to the federal agency by the previous UPA government. This is also when the NIA made most of the arrests, including that of Swami Aseemanand who faces charges in at least two other bomb attacks.
The other cases were the bombings in Maharashtra’s Muslim-dominated Malegaon town in 2006, blasts at Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid the following year and bomb attacks in Gujarat’s Modasa and Malegaon in 2008. The seventh was the murder of former Hindu activist Sunil Joshi in Madhya Pradesh’s Dewas in 2007.
Joshi’s murder investigation was handed to the NIA as it was suspected that his killing was part of a larger Hindu right wing conspiracy against Muslims.
But over the past three years, the pace of investigation has slackened and witnesses have turned hostile in cases where the accused belonged to organisations close to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
The collapse of cases involving right-wing Hindu groups coincide with the BJP’s rise to power. And such speculation has only been further fed by claims of the NIA’s former special public prosecutor, Rohini Salian, that she was asked to “go soft’’ on the investigations into the 2008 Malegaon blast. She was removed as the special public prosecutor after this.
The NIA has not been able to arrest any absconding accused in these cases since 2014, the year the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power. The arrest of such absconders as Sandeep Dange, Ramchandra Kalsangra and Ashwini Chauhan is necessary to unravel any larger Hindu right-wing conspiracy.
The first indication of change in the course of investigations into these cases came when the Union home ministry under Rajnath Singh refused permission to the NIA to challenge a court order granting bail to two accused - Devender Gupta and Lokesh Sharma in the Mecca Masjid blast case.
In August, 2014, the NIA filed charges in Joshi’s murder against five accused, including Pragya Singh Thakur. But the agency said his murder was not linked to any wider militant Hindutva conspiracy.
The agency said Joshi, considered the ring leader of Hindu extremists blamed for half a dozen blasts in the country, was killed by his own men as he misbehaved with Pragya Singh Thakur.
The NIA termed Joshi’s killings as a simple murder and asked the Madhya Pradesh government to carry the case forward. In February, a court acquitted all the accused in the case.
Around the same time, the Punjab and Haryana high court granted bail to Aseemanand, who is also the prime accused in the Samjhauta train bombing. The next month, the government told Parliament that the NIA had decided not to challenge the bail order in the Supreme Court. Aseemanand is also an accused in the Hyderabad Mecca Masjid blast.
In May 2015, the NIA closed its probe into the Modasa blast, citing lack of evidence.
Last May, the NIA let off Pragya Singh Thakur in the 2008 Malegaon bombings even though she had been formally charged by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad seven years earlier.
The court is yet to approve the NIA’s decision to drop charges against Thakur.