Anxious and angry

Print edition : May 11, 2018

Aseemanand, one of the accused in the Mecca Masjid blast case. A file picture. Photo: PTI

May 18, 2007: Outside the Charminar after police firing following the blast in Mecca Masjid. Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

The Mecca Masjid. In the blast case, 39 people were charge-sheeted in four different cases. Photo: K.V.S. Giri

There is a sense of injustice among Muslims over the acquittal of all the accused in the Mecca Masjid blast case.

“OF all the terror cases in India, the Mecca Masjid case is a typical one, as it was once again Muslims who were terrorised. It was in a mosque that the blast took place, the people who died there were Muslims, the people killed in police firing outside were Muslims, the people blamed for the blast were Muslims, the youths picked up and tortured were Muslims, and now the court verdict is also against Muslims. This is not justice, this is a mockery of justice,” Lateef Mohammad Khan, general secretary of the Civil Liberties Monitoring Committee (CLMC), India, told Frontline on the phone from Hyderabad.

Eleven years after a bomb went off in the courtyard of the 400-year-old Mecca Masjid near Charminar in Hyderabad on May 18, 2007, killing nine persons and severely injuring 60, a special court of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) acquitted all the accused, including Aseemanand, the alleged mastermind of the blast. The others acquitted were Devendra Gupta, Lokesh Sharma, Bharath Mohanlal Rateshwar and Rajendra Choudhary. The NIA had originally charged 10 persons with plotting and carrying out the attack using an improvised explosive device (IED). It appeared as if the prosecution had defeated its own case.

The five main accused were let off by the Nampally court, which did not take into consideration Aseemanand’s confession before a Metropolitan Magistrate in Delhi under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and cited lack of evidence. Besides, 66 of the 226 witnesses had turned hostile. Aseemanand’s sensational confession in 2010 had provided hope that the case would come to its logical conclusion. He had admitted that he was upset by the attacks on Hindu temples and had planned, along with others, several attacks, including the one in Hyderabad, to teach Muslims a lesson. He had revealed that there was a wide network of Hindutva terror groups supported by many leaders in the Sangh Parivar.

Aseemanand had also reportedly admitted his role in the plot to a fellow inmate, Shaikh Abdul Kaleem, at the Hyderabad Central Prison. Kaleem was accused in the case of having brought RDX and providing SIM cards to the terrorists who planted the bomb in Mecca Masjid. After hearing Kaleem’s story and apparently touched by his generosity when he shared his food from home, Aseemanand became repentant and confessed to his crime. But the NIA did not conclusively prove that Kaleem was indeed in the same prison as Aseemanand.

In 2011, Aseemanand retracted his statement. In most cases, confessions made under Section 164 of the CrPC are retracted, but it was rare that a court on its own volition would throw out such a statement, said Manisha Sethi, author and activist. “But ever since the change in government, it became evident which way the case would go,” she said, adding that there had always been an institutional bias in the adjudication of terror cases by the judiciary, especially the lower courts. “But earlier the judges would at least process the evidence,” she said.

On the question of national security often an innocent was convicted with very little evidence, but in the present case, an accused was being let off citing lack of evidence, said Manisha Sethi. Coming as it did after suspicions about Justice B.H. Loya’s death came to the fore, the Mecca Masjid verdict was a point of worry, she said. Justice Loya’s death in 2014, while he was hearing the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case in which Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah was the prime accused, is shrouded in mystery. The murder of former Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) pracharak Sunil Joshi of Madhya Pradesh, another accused in the Mecca Masjid case, was not probed even as his family blamed his associates for it. Had that case been unravelled or had he been alive, the case could have gone in a different direction, she felt.

The judge’s resignation

Adding a twist to the tale, NIA special judge Ravinder Reddy resigned hours after delivering the judgment. Though his resignation letter reportedly cited personal reasons, speculation was rife on it being connected to the case. “If he wanted to resign, he should not have delivered the judgment. But the fact that he resigned right after delivering a controversial judgment in a very sensitive matter means that he wanted to plant the seeds of doubt in people’s minds. More than us, he has put a question mark on it. There is talk of him being under tremendous pressure from right-wing organisations. After submitting his resignation to the Chief Justice of the Hyderabad High Court, he has not moved out of his house, which is now under increased security. Rumour-mongering against him has begun, accusing him of bribery. What does all this indicate?” asked Lateef Khan, adding that it should be explored whether given the unprecedented circumstances, the verdict can be suspended by the High Court.

Meanwhile, the High Court rejected Justice Reddy’s resignation and cancelled his application for a 15-day leave in the interim. He rejoined work the next day.

Reports of Public Prosecutor N. Harinath’s close ties with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student organisation affiliated to the RSS, has also raised serious questions about the lopsided nature of the case. For the NIA to hire a former member of the ABVP to defend Muslims against the accused Aseemanand, who belonged to the RSS and was close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reeked of political match-fixing.

The BJP had always dismissed Hindutva terror as a bogey of the Congress and was not inclined to prove one of its members as a mastermind of terror attacks. Under the circumstances, the verdict was widely perceived to have been influenced by the political interests of the ruling BJP, which did everything in its power to thwart the case from the beginning. The course of events also threw disturbing questions on the role and motives of the investigating agencies and their independence.

A pattern

From 2006 to 2008, several terror attacks, suspected to be the handiwork of Hindu extremists, had taken place: Malegaon (30 killed), Samjhauta Express (60 killed), Mecca Masjid (15 killed, including those in police firing), Ajmer Dargah (three killed), and the twin blasts in Malegaon and Modasa (seven killed). The NIA said that the common threads that ran through all these cases were Hindu extremist organisations, strong anti-minority feelings, and anger over terrorist attacks on temples. Former Central Bureau of Invetigation (CBI) chief Ashwani Kumar also found common links in the Ajmer, Mecca Masjid and Malegoan blasts on the basis of the modus operandi and the explosives used.

The prime accused in all these cases, Sandeep Dange and Ramji Kalsangra, remained elusive for the investigating agencies. While the NIA closed the Modasa case in 2015, there was partial conviction in the Ajmer blast case. In September 2008, Maharashtra’s Anti-Terror Squad chief Hemant Karkare (who was later killed during the Mumbai terror attack in November 2011) zeroed in on Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur in the Malegaon blast case. But in 2016, the NIA gave a clean chit to Sadhvi Pragya Singh in the case.

“To date, 21 NIA cases have been disposed of. Only two of those cases have full acquittals, and both are related to Hindutva terror organisations,” said Fawaz Shaheen of the Quill Foundation, a research and advocacy organisation. Naba Kumar Sarkar alias Aseemanand was at the centre of most of the cases. He was granted bail by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in August 2014, soon after the BJP government came to power at the Centre.

On March 8 last year, a special court in Jaipur acquitted Aseemanand and six others in the Ajmer blast case. He was granted bail by a Hyderabad court in March last year. Verdict in the Samjhauta Express blast case, in which he was charge-sheeted along with five others, is pending. “Given that the government might not come back to power in the next elections, they are in a hurry to get their people out of jail and cleared of all charges,” said Lateef Khan.

In 2015, Rohini Salian, the Special Public Prosecutor in the Malegaon blast case, revealed how NIA higher-ups had asked her to “go soft” on the accused. She filed an affidavit initiating contempt proceedings against the NIA for “tending to hamper the judicial process”, resulting in “weakening of the prosecution’s case”. In an interview to a newspaper, she exposed the larger ploy of Hindu terrorists. “We got to know the actual story, they wanted a central Hindu rashtra, they don’t recognise the Constitution of India, had their own constitution written, their own flag—even their Bharat Mata was an armed one,” she said. She had, in many ways, foretold the way the cases against Hindutva terrorists, including the Mecca Masjid one, would go.

The blast

The blast in Mecca Masjid occurred when 10,000 people were offering the juma namaz. Another bomb was later found next to the ablution pool. The incident was similar to the Malegaon blast in Nashik, Maharashtra, the previous September, in which 38 people died at a graveyard on the occasion of Shab-e-Baaraat. Amidst frantic efforts to get the injured to hospital, the police opened fire on the people exiting the overcrowded mosque. Six people were killed and 21 injured.

In the immediate aftermath of the blast, more than 300 people were detained from different parts of the city and 39 of them were charge-sheeted in four different cases. All of them were acquitted after they spent more than a year in custody. They were severely tortured. The report of a committee set up by the National Commission for Minorities and headed by Advocate Ravi Chander to investigate the allegations of torture indicted some police officers, but it was not put out in the public domain. All the police officers later got promoted. The Andhra Pradesh government later admitted that innocent youths had been tortured and apologised while announcing compensation to the victims.

The investigations were botched up from day one. In the immediate aftermath of the event, the Hyderabad Police handled the case. It justified the firing outside the mosque by saying that there was a riot and a mob was about to set fire to a petrol pump. But fact-finding reports proved the allegations false. “The petrol pump and nearby houses and business establishments belonged to Muslims. They were not trying to burn down their own assets,” said Lateef Khan. Then, for no apparent reason, the police filed two first information reports (FIRs): one for the blast and another for the bomb that did not go off. Within five minutes, television channels showed that Shahid Bilal, linked to the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), was responsible for the blast. Bilal was later killed in an alleged fake encounter.

The CBI took over the case, but it was given only one FIR, that of the bomb blast. The second FIR was kept with the Hyderabad Police, which set up a Special Investigation Team and later a Special Investigation Cell, and employed different methods to dilly-dally and dilute the case. As time passed, innocents were targeted and the benefit of time was provided by the police to the criminals to escape and destroy evidence, said Lateef Khan.

When the NIA took over the case, initially it did good work but changed tack with the change of government. Owing to the lackadaisical approach of the NIA, the court had no option but to let off the accused, said Delhi High Court lawyer Shahab Ahmad. “They [NIA] supported the prosecution story, but unfortunately when in any criminal case there is a list of hostile witnesses who somewhere impeach the veracity, the court gives the benefit of the doubt to the accused. As a prosecution if you fail to prove your case beyond reasonable doubt, then any court, as a standard trend, will acquit the accused citing the reason as lack of evidence,” he said.

Legally, the NIA can go in for appeal against the decision, but given the precedents in Hindutva terror cases, the chances of it are unlikely. The victims’ families can also file appeals, but for the moment the community is in shock. “The court verdict has shaken the confidence of the Muslim community. There is a sense of injustice prevailing in the community because the judiciary did not apply its mind in this case and failed to provide justice,” the CLMC said in a statement.