Opinion is divided on how the terrorists arrived in Ayodhya, how close they came to their target, and how well the government has addressed the security concerns in Ayodhya.VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in Ayodhya and Lucknow
"IT is dreadful to imagine what would have been the fate of the country had the terrorists been able to move another 50 metres closer to the makeshift Ram temple or some of the grenades they threw detonated with precision," Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Lal Krishna Advani commented at a public meeting of the Sangh Parivar in Ayodhya on July 8. The import of his statement was clear: had they managed to inflict some damage to the structure the country would have witnessed a flare-up of communal passions.
At the other end of the socio-political spectrum, Mohammed Hashim Ansari, the original litigant in the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi dispute, echoed similar sentiments. "The country would have gone up in flames," he said.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav told Frontline: "The aim of the terrorists was to create a huge communal divide. But our brave jawans foiled their plans just in time."
While the thinking is unanimous on how well the strike was foiled, opinions are divided over how the terrorists managed to get so close to the structure, how they arrived in Ayodhya, and the manner in which the government addressed the security concerns in Ayodhya. The official version about the attack, put on record by the various security agencies, including the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), the two agencies involved in repulsing the terrorist attack, is as follows: Five men who posed as pilgrims gathered outside the bus station in Faizabad - the district headquarters located 8 kilometres away from the temple town around 8 a.m. on July 5. They started negotiations with jeep drivers to hire a vehicle to take them on a tour of Ayodhya and later wanted to be dropped in Lucknow. The men initially engaged a Tata Sumo for Rs.1,600, but Syed Rehan Ahmed, driver-owner of a Marshall jeep, offered to take them around for Rs.1,300. The men boarded Rehan's vehicle.
According to CRPF and PAC officials, the terrorists must have got into Rehan's vehicle not because he offered a lower fare, but because the jeep had a Faizabad registration number (UP42-T-0618) and flaunted the flag of the ruling Samajwadi Party. The local police and the PAC stationed at the checking points on the Faizabad-Ayodhya road do not stop or check local vehicles, as they usually carry tourists. The party flag on the vehicle, according to a senior security official, must have come as an added advantage to the terrorists. For, official records affirm that the vehicle sailed through all the checkpoints. As the men reached Ayodhya, official records, quoting Rehan, state that they "stopped by a temple and sought blessings". "Then they came back, placed a revolver on my head and pushed me out of the car."
One of the terrorists grabbed the wheel and drove away to reach the rear of the makeshift Ram temple. They blasted the vehicle they had come in and along with it a barricade approximately 200 metres away from the makeshift temple. Thereafter they proceeded towards the structure, lobbing grenades and firing indiscriminately. Weapons in their possession, official records state, included four AK-56 rifles and two Chinese Star pistols apart from a clutch of grenades. According to senior officials, the operation had criss-crossed all three levels of Ayodhya's three-tier security system comprising the L, Green and Red zones. While the militants easily got through the L zone, they were repulsed at the next two zones manned by the PAC and the CRPF. All the militants were killed in the Red Zone, which is managed mainly by the CRPF.
One person was blown up as the terrorists blasted their way in at the first barricade. Security forces initially mistook the person for a human bomb. However, it was later found out that the victim was Ramesh Pandey, a local resident and tourist guide.
Venkatesh Pandey, Ramesh Pandey's nephew, told Frontline that he was able to identify his uncle from the watch, chappals and clothes that remained on his badly mutilated body. A local woman, Shanti Devi, who was also hit in the crossfire, died.
The version of the security forces has not found unanimous acceptance. Former Human Resource Development Minister and BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi said his information was that the militants had moved in two groups. One group blasted the barricade behind the makeshift Ram temple and distracted the attention of the security forces, while another sneaked in from the right side of the temple by cutting through the barricades on that side. His contention is that the security forces and the government are hiding these aspects to play down the scale of the attack.
However, the security agencies say there is no merit in this story. Joshi and his associates in the Sangh Parivar, including Advani and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Ashok Singhal, have held laxity in security as a major factor that enabled the attack. They demanded the resignation of both Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil and Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav.
But this demand could not be pressed by the Sangh Parivar outfits as the BJP's allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) refused to go along with it. After visiting the site of the attack on June 6, NDA convener George Fernandes said that there was no justification in demanding the resignation of Mulayam Singh as the terrorist attack had been foiled without any damage to the makeshift temple. Sections of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had also initially raised some charges against the State government.
Union Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Aggarwal and Union Home Secretary V.K. Duggal stated immediately after the attack that the Central government had warned the State government well in advance about a possible attack in Ayodhya. The State government denied that any such information was provided by the Centre. Interestingly, Duggal had warned about possible attacks on religious centres at a meeting of the Directors-General of State police forces in New Delhi in June, for which the U.P. DGP was not invited. However, the blame game ended within 24 hours after Shivraj Patil visited the site and asserted that there was no security lapse.
The investigation has meandered through many a tentative path. It is jointly and in parts severally conducted by the State police, its Special Task Force (STF), the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
Initial investigation suggested that the terrorists had come from Nepal through the eastern U.P. district of Basti on July 1. For the next three days, they apparently camped at Khichhachua village in Ambedkar Nagar (Akbarpur) district and visited Ayodhya every day. They shifted to a guest house in Akbarpur on the night before the attack and moved out of that place at about 5-30 a.m. in a maxi cab, which was hired for Rs.400. "They were carrying heavy bags and refused to accommodate more passengers in the maxi cab. Around 7 a.m., I dropped them off at Faizabad bus station," Rajkumar, the driver of the maxi cab, reportedly told the police. It was from here that Syed Rehan Ahmed transported the attackers in his jeep.
However, the discovery of a mobile phone instrument used by the terrorists and the tracing of calls made from that phone - using the 15-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity number on the set - raised doubts about the surmise that the terrorists had come from Nepal.
The tracing of the calls also added a Jammu and Kashmir angle to the investigation. The call list, according to investigation records, showed that telephonic contact was made with numbers in Jammu using the instrument. Following this, the Jammu and Kashmir Police was also involved in the probe.
According to a senior police official, some numbers in Lucknow and New Delhi have also been connected using the phone and in this context, a key factor being probed is the extent of the local support network the group has had. But, as many senior officials of the investigating team themselves concede, the success of the investigation depends largely on fixing the identity of the militants and the terrorist outfit or outfits they were associated with.
According to the officials, the investigating team is close to achieving this target and once that is done, the larger objective of the assault will be identified.
Early evidence, according to security officials, had pointed to the involvement of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (see box). However, confirmation of this hypothesis would take some effort from the agencies, especially in the absence of a direct claim from the LeT or other terrorist outfits owning responsibility for the attack.