The fall guys

Print edition : February 11, 2011

ONE OF THE sites of the serial blasts at Malegaon in Maharashtra's Nashik district in September 2006. Aseemanand's confessions raise several quesions. Crucial among them, why were the nine Muslim men who were arrested and charged denied their constitutional rights? - VIVEK BENDRE

The nine Muslim men arrested and charged with the 2006 Malegaon blasts have now sought bail.

SINCE 2002 there has been talk of Hindu extremist groups orchestrating acts of terror. For various reasons, which include lack of substantial evidence and unwillingness to rock the political boat, few from these groups were actually arrested for these crimes. In 2008, when the chief of the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) Hemant Karkare (who was killed in the terror attacks in Mumbai in November that year) cracked a lead, a band of Hindu fundamentalists were eventually arrested for the Malegaon blasts of September 8, 2006.

In Maharashtra, when any bomb attack happened, the practice of the police, in their haste to prove they were on the job, was to arrest several Muslims on the grounds that they were members of terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and hold them responsible for the incident. The recent confessions of Swami Aseemanand, leader of the Hindu extremist outfit Abhinav Bharat, that Hindu groups were behind the blasts in the powerloom town on the night of Shab-e-Bharat (a Muslim festival) comes as a huge setback to the ATS in the State. Thirty-one people died in the attack.

This would mean that the investigations so far have been practically null and void. In the event, what happens to the nine Muslim men arrested and charged with the crime? They have spent four years in jail. All the nine have since moved a special court set up under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) for bail. In their application they have claimed that it is clear that those responsible for the blasts are persons far removed from the (current) accused.

Their lawyers and relatives have maintained all along that the men were forced to sign false confessional statements. Aseemanand's confessions raise several questions: What was the evidence that led the police to these men? Have they fabricated the case against the accused? How can they slap charges without substantial evidence? And, why were these men denied their constitutional rights?

Aseemanand's confessions validate several media reports, including those carried by Frontline and The Hindu , since 2006 about the existence of Hindu extremist groups indulging in terror attacks. Yet little has been done to trace and arrest their perpetrators. Instead, several Muslims, whom the police keep tabs on mainly in connection with petty crimes or because they are members of religious groups, have been arrested on criminal charges.

Sabeer Ahmed Masiulla alias Shabbir Batterywala, 30, has been named as the main conspirator behind the 2006 Malegaon blasts. According to P.S. Pasricha, the then Director General of Police, Batterywala and an associate Nafeez Ansari travelled to Pakistan via Dubai on a tourist visa in 2003 and received training there in handling explosives. Batterywala then flew from Karachi to Kathmandu, from where he re-entered India and proceeded to Malegaon.

They booked Sabeer as a mastermind. They kept him in prison, tortured him and subjected him to three narco analysis tests, Jamil Masiulla, Sabeer's brother told the media. Since Aseemanand has accepted responsibility for these blasts and said that Muslims are not involved in them, we have a good ground to file a bail application and we have done so, said Sabeer's lawyer.

Sabeer, it turns out, ran a shop in Malegaon. He was a member of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) before it was banned. Police sources say they keep dossiers on these members and when a crime takes place they track their movement, which often leads to an arrest.

Human rights activists argue that this is an easy option for the police when there is a terror attack. Unless an Aseemanand-type situation occurs, they get away with it. Since answers have to be found, this is a simple solution. The politicians are happy, the general populace is reassured and the police feel less burdened. However, an Intelligence Bureau officer says there is often enough evidence to link them to extremist training modules, but not enough perhaps to link them to a specific crime.

The Malegaon blasts occurred soon after the July 11, 2006, serial blasts on suburban trains in Mumbai, in which more than 190 people died. At the time the ATS had begun rounding up several potential suspects. Police sources said the men arrested for the Malegaon blasts were already on their list primarily because they kept track of all SIMI members. That made it easy when the incident occurred, the sources added.

Another accused in Malegaon is Shabbir Batterywala's employee Noor-ul-Hooda, who was arrested as an accomplice and for storing explosives, including RDX, in Malegaon. Apparently, Hooda had been under the scanner for several years as an active SIMI member. Two Unani physicians, Salman Farsi and Farooq Iqbal, were also arrested for the blast. Another was Abrar Ahmad, who initially turned approver and told the police that he participated in conspiracy meetings. However, he retracted this and turned hostile saying he was forced by the ATS to fabricate the conspiracy theory.

Abrar's case actually saw the CBI taking over the investigation. For three years the investigation carried on but no report was filed. Eventually, the CBI admitted there was not enough evidence to charge the accused. The case stagnated and the accused remained in jail.

The investigation that followed the Malegaon blasts casts a dark shadow on police functioning. On September 10, 2006, two days after the blasts, investigators told the media they had made a breakthrough in the case in the form of the identity of the owner of the bicycle on which one of the bombs was planted. They even released sketches of the young man. Three weeks later, the police reported their first arrest, Hooda. On November 6, Batterywala and another alleged accomplice, Raees Ahmad, also a former SIMI member, were arrested. Within the next few months, nine men were charged with orchestrating the blasts.

When questioned why Muslims would target their own community, the police at the time said it was to cause communal disharmony. The LeT, the HuJI and smaller organisations like SIMI may have been responsible for several terror acts, but it is clear that the real conspirators are not the ones the police have caught.

At that time the idea that a Hindu extremist group could have carried out the attack did come up, but it was dismissed with the excuse that it was too sophisticated an operation.

The reason the Hindutva theory came up was because of at least half a dozen incidents that pointed to Hindu groups working as terror operatives. There had been explosions in Parbhani, Jalna, Nanded and Thane, which were linked to the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

A police officer had told Frontline: In the name of protecting Hindutva and the perceived threat to it, these groups are becoming very popular. Their members attract cadre by making dramatic speeches during Hindu festivals. Clearly, their base is expanding and one has to watch out for them.

When Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and her associates, Shivnarayan Singh Kalsangra and Shyam Bhawarlal Sahuwas, and Lt Col Prasad Shrikant Purohit were arrested for the blasts in Malegaon in 2008, it seemed the theory of saffron terror was no longer just a thought but had become a reality.

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