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The terror trail.

Print edition : Oct 25, 2002 T+T-
Akshardham, a post-mortem.

SUMITRABEN CHAUHAN hardly expected that her visit to a temple would end in the Ahmedabad civil hospital, being treated for shrapnel wounds. She certainly did not imagine that her two infant children would be killed in the Akshardham temple. She is still dazed, trying to come to terms with the September 24 terrorist attack on the Swaminarayan temple. "We heard an explosion. There was smoke and then the shrapnel hit us," she says.

The siege and the subsequent storming of the Akshardham temple complex in Gandhinagar, which claimed 37 lives and left 81 persons injured, shocked, but did not surprise everyone. In some senses, the real surprise is that the tragedy did not happen sooner.

As early as March, intelligence reports had warned of a backlash to the February 28 state-supported communal carnage in Gujarat, in which a thousand people had died and 1.5 lakh people were left homeless. Soon afterwards, the Delhi Police picked up terrorists who they claimed were planning to attack leading politicians of the Hindu Right, including Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Many feared revenge attacks similar to the serial bomb blasts in Mumbai after the 1992-93 riots in that city.

Police reports also warned that places of worship were vulnerable targets. But despite police warnings, the Bharatiya Janata Party refused to cancel its Jagannath Rath yatra in July, an aggressive show of Hindutva muscle. When evidence that Modi had made inflammatory speeches in the course of the yatra came, intelligence officials, who had been dealing with the fallout of the communal violence, were transferred out summarily. Politics, not professional policing, was the Gujarat government's principal concern.

Three weeks after the Akshardham attack, investigators have been able to establish little about who carried out the attack, and why. Indeed, elements within the State Police seem to have gone out of their way to misinform. Officials claimed, for example, that a radio intercept had identified the two killed terrorists as Mohammad Amjad of Lahore and Hafiz Yassir of Attock, Pakistan.

Highly placed intelligence sources, however, told Frontline that the supposed identification was pure fiction. Signals intelligence in the Jammu sector had indeed picked up an intercept after the end of the Akshardham operation, but there was no real indication that the names had anything to do with events in Gujarat. For one, the transmission originated from an Al-Badr unit, an organisation with no known operations outside Jammu and Kashmir. More important, the transmission was routine, and could have related to any of half a dozen fire engagements with terrorists in the sector.

Other key elements of the investigation are also problematic. The Gujarat Police arrested and questioned Raju Thakore, the taxi driver whose vehicle was hired by the terrorists outside the Ahmedabad railway station before the attack. Thakore said the two terrorists haggled him down to a fare of Rs.120 for the trip to Akshardham, from the Rs.250 he had asked for. From the time of the day the taxi trip originated, police officials concluded that they had arrived on a train from Jammu. This assumption, however, soon turned out to be ill-founded. No passengers on outbound trains from Jammu recalled having seen the two men, who would have been carrying weapons and ammunition weighing between 20 and 25 kg. Jammu and Kashmir Director-General of Police Ashok Suri went on record to state that no one had seen the two men boarding an outbound train from Jammu, either. The fact that the terrorists were carrying food labelled in Gujarati suggests that either or both could have been in the State for some time.

It is not hard to see why terrorists might have considered the Akshardham temple a high-value target. The complex, for one, is close to Narendra Modi's residence. It is also near the Gujarat police headquarters. Spread over 23 acres (9.2 hectares) of land, the elaborate Akshardham complex is structured around a temple with a golden statue of Lord Swaminarayan. It also has multimedia shows, an exhibition hall, cafes and a vast landscaped garden. "Several foreign dignitaries have visited Akshardham, including Bill Clinton and Prince Philip. Any attack on it would invite international attention," a police officer said. The Swaminarayan sect is also one of the most prosperous and powerful in Gujarat, with a strong following among the Patel community and Gujarati non-resident Indians. Both Patels and NRIs are in large measure seen to be strong BJP supporters.

Sections of the Patel community aligned to the Sangh Parivar are perceived to have played a significant role in much of the communal violence in the State.

Yet, when terror struck at 4-45 p.m., the State police were caught off guard. By the time they reached Akshardham, at around 5-10 p.m., the terrorists had already opened fire and killed several people. They had also lobbed a grenade in an exhibition hall, killing another 20. Temple employees and volunteers acted promptly, warning others on the intercom system so that gates to the main temple were shut before the assailants reached there. Around 40 people locked themselves inside the main temple. In one exhibition hall, around 70 people sealed all entrances to ensure their safety. Outside, however, there was little coordination among different police units. Some group leaders had mobile phones, but the networks rapidly jammed owing to system overload. Most squads had no radio handsets. This lack of contact may have caused several preventable injuries. "We were instructed to break the cordon and go forward. The terrorists saw us and lobbed a grenade at us. Ten of us were injured and one died," said a wounded constable. "The inspector leading us had a mobile phone, but could not get through to anyone for almost an hour. Finally, we established contact with the group next to us. Then, it took another hour for the rescue team to come." Gujarat Police commandos were later instructed to suspend their operations and wait for the arrival of National Security Guards units from New Delhi.

What specifically happened after the NSG commandos arrived at 10-30 p.m. remains unclear, but their failure to take at least one of the terrorists alive could prove disastrous for the investigation. NSG teams are equipped with specialised non-lethal equipment like stun-grenades precisely to enable the capture rather than the killing of suspects. The use of such weapons forms a key part of the NSG's training.

Interestingly, State Home Minister Gordhan Zadaphia seemed unconcerned with the prospect of taking prisoners. Zadaphia was waiting at the gate of the temple complex when Frontline asked him whether there would be any effort to negotiate with the terrorists. He said: "The question of negotiation doesn't arise here. There are no hostages. People are safely locked inside the halls. We will fight the terrorists till they are finished."

Meanwhile, a jingoistic crowd had been allowed to assemble, further obstructing security operations. In the midst of the chaos, BJP, Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) members were let inside the temple complex. While the operation was under way, Jaideep Patel, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's Ahmedabad president, said that he had been inside the temple complex and had spoken on the intercom to sadhus locked inside. A Bajrang Dal member from Naroda, who was waiting near the gate, boasted to this reporter: "Even at Naroda Patiya, I was present. I was one of those who stood on top of the Masjid. I also went to the Ram temple in Ayodhya. My name has appeared in the papers as one of the people who distributed swords during the riots."

Early on in the rescue operation, BJP MLA Hirabhai Solanki emerged out of the temple with his clothes drenched in blood, brandishing his pistol proudly. He claimed to have shot at the terrorists. At the hospital, RSS volunteers in khaki shorts swarmed around, breathing down the neck of the hospital staff. Reporters interviewing victims had RSS volunteers supervising the conversation, interfering if they disagreed with what the injured victims said and sometimes coaching them to speak otherwise.

This ugly spectacle fed the same climate of hatred that led to the Akshardham tragedy. When Modi can find the time, he might do well to study the intelligence dossiers tucked away in the office of his mentor, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister L.K. Advani.

INDIA'S first major terrorist group of the Islamist Right was born in 1985, as a consequence of the anti-Muslim pogroms unleashed early in that decade. Activists of the Ahl-e-Hadis' ultra-conservative Gorba faction gathered that year in the Mominpura mosque in Mumbai to discuss the need for armed Muslim resistance to the wave of communal violence India had passed through from early that year. Present there were Abdul Karim "Tunda" so nicknamed for his deformed right arm, Jalees Ansari, the son of a poor mill-worker, and Azam Ghauri, a one-time People's War Group (PWG) operative who had discovered religion. The triad would later execute a series of terrorist reprisal attacks: a Tehreek-e-Kasas, even if it did not use the name.

The activities of the Tanzim Islah-ul-Muslimeen, formed in Mominpura, were mildly farcical, mimicking those of the RSS shakhas. Ghauri and Tunda held drills at the YMCA ground in Mominpura, teaching their cadre how to use cane lathis and unarmed combat techniques. The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots that followed finally led the group to armed violence. Led by Ghauri and Tunda, Ansari helped set off a series of 43 explosions in Mumbai and Hyderabad and seven separate explosions on trains on December 6, 1993, the first anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Ansari, but Tunda and Ghauri had disappeared. While Ghauri was subsequently eliminated in a police encounter in Andhra Pradesh, Tunda continues to play an active role in the Lashkar-e-Toiba's (LeT) pan-India operations. Indian intelligence officials believe that he was second only to the LeT's overall commander for terrorist operations outside Jammu and Kashmir, Zaki-ur-Rahman.

Operating from Dhaka, Tunda began running a formidable network of operatives in north India. Through 1996 and 1997, he engineered a series of bomb blasts in New Delhi, Rohtak and Jalandhar, using the services of a new recruit, Amir Hashim, code-named Karan. Others arrived in Kamran's wake, many of them Pakistani nationals. In July 1998, the Delhi Police arrested three members of the Tunda cell, led by Abdul Sattar, a resident of Islamnagar in Pakistan's Faisalabad district. The flow of Pakistani personnel continued steadily. In August 2001, the Jammu and Kashmir Police arrested a 11-member LeT cell, with operatives in that State, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi. Another key agent is Mohammad Ishtiaq, alias Saleem Junaid, the son of a shopkeeper at Kala Gujran, in Jhelum, Pakistan. Alternative networks also began to flourish, often using the services of the underworld.

Gujarat and Mumbai-based mafia groups, for example, set up a functional relationship with the far-Right Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front to run weapons and shelter operatives, an alliance that was evidently at work in the Mumbai serial bombings of 1993. The chickens, they say, come home to roost. Since the late 1990s, dozens of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-backed terrorist modules have been eliminated by Indian intelligence, but new units resurface constantly. While most ordinary Indian Muslims despise terrorist activities, there is little doubt that the Islamist Right has been able to win support as the defender of a besieged community. Many young people in Muslim ghettos are increasingly attracted to the far-Right, which, unlike the traditional political leadership, seems at least capable of some form of resistance to onslaughts by Hindu fundamentalists.

Terrorist acts like the one unleashed at Akshardham are futile and misguided; they are also tragically inevitable. Unless the Gujarat riot victims are able to see at least some hope of securing justice through the law and the democratic process, more such horrors will, without doubt, visit India.